Never has popular osmosis so ruined a story with such a good twist. Agathat Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express may come second, but that ending has not become a set phrase in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.
I have gone over the novel on an audiobook expertly narrated by Michael Kitchen, and it is quite a discovery. The first half plays out like a mystery in which a lawyer, fearing he will not like the answer, seeks to find out who is this damnable Edward Hyde and why his good friend Doctor Jekyll seems intent on protecting him. It is suggested that the Doctor is being blackmailed for some long-ago sin.
When Hyde gets the police on his tail, he disappears and Jekyll gives his assurance he will not be seen again. But months later he re-emerges and Jekyll and his closest friends are drawn into a sordid a tragic conclusion. About the last third of the novel consists of two long letters, one by Jekyll’s colleague as he discovers the terrible truth, the other by Jekyll himself explaining all that happened.
The mystery is well handled. The reveals are well paced and the answer is hinted at without anything giving it away. It may feel unfair to the reader that only at the end is it revealed that there is a counter-factual element involved, but from the start it is clear that there is something abnormal about Hyde. Jekyll talks of the potion as “mystical”, “transcendental medicine” and “scientific heresy”, probably an acknowledgement by the author that it has no basis in science.
The horror, from a modern perspective, doesn’t work so well. Partly it’s because a large component of it is class prejudice: the idea that an upstanding citizen with a university education leads a double life as a ruffian in the rough, unclean streets. And whilst Hyde is described as “the first man who was pure evil”, he doesn’t do very much compared to what we expect nowadays from horror films (or indeed police procedurals). He kills a beloved councillor on no provocation, hurts a child and that’s it. Everything else is vaguely alluded to as debauchery that should not be talked about. We are left to imagine what Hyde might have done with his debased appetites and lack of moral restraints. This might be down to what Stevenson could have published in 1885. (Even factual accounts of rapes and murders were censored to avoid mention of sexual topics that are no problem today.)
But what is most noticeable going back on it nowadays is how different the novel is to later adaptations, imitations and inspired works. Just about all of them have Hyde either physically similar to Jekyll or (more often) bigger and more imposing, if not a downright inhuman monster. In the original he is shorter, almost a dwarf, compared to the quite tall Doctor. This goes with the Victorian ideal of classical beauty and physiognomy, in that Hyde is ugly in every way and Jekyll is the image of a gentleman. The idea was still around at the time that outside appearance reflects one’s character; here at least it makes sense, given the potion’s nature.
The biggest surprise though is that there isn’t a “split personality” in the sense that is often used in modern fiction (which again has little to do with the still-unproven concept in psychology). Jekyll is fully aware of what he does as Hyde, takes the potion knowing what it does, and as Hyde still has his full powers of reason. The only change, aside from the physical transformation, is that his evil side takes over and his better nature is suppressed. He takes it as a form of release from both his own constraints and those of his society, having the perfect disguise and alibi for what he does. Yet in each form he finds himself hating the other and by the end Hyde is vandalising Jekyll’s possessions. It is, very clearly, an allegory not only for respected men with nasty secrets (supposedly Stevenson was inspired by the case of Deacon Brodie), but also for not facing up to a side of yourself that you keep active but hidden.
The tragedy is that over time the transformation becomes easier and going back requires ever bigger doses of the potion, with a real danger of a deadly overdose. As he realises this, he stops taking it for two months, but when he relapses it results in a murder. (Does it come from bottled frustration towards his own social circle? You can read it that way, but there is nothing directly suggesting it.) He swears it off for good, but some time afterwards finds that in the withdrawal he has become Hyde without it. Driven by fear but still possessing his faculties, he sets about making more of the potion, but is unable to recreate the effect. He locks himself up, self-administers a rehab process that lets him recover for a while but in the end kills himself as Hyde.
In some important ways the story is more sophisticated than its later follow-ups. The actions of Jekyll are perfectly believable and the end feels like a natural conclusion. But it is also immersed in a Victorian mindset that, to a modern reader, can feel like it is as much part of the problem as any fault of the Doctor’s. The story is not religious, but follows the ascetic morality of the time and the expectation that the educated middle classes are more virtuous than common workers, but that they should also set an example to them. The whole tragedy would not have happened if Jekyll had a safe avenue for his pursuits and did not feel so self-hating about them. We may see his escalating doses as a form of addiction and desensitisation to a drug, but was probably intended to evoke the habituation of sin.
What is the moral of the tale? None is clearly stated. It can be read as a warning that giving in to sin in any way leads to a slippery slope; but also as saying that an honest man can allow himself some hedonism but should take responsibility for it, and trying to hide it for the sake of appearance will only lead to trouble.
The other two horror stories by Stevenson on this audiobook are much less known. One is Olalla, which has a premise that is all the more terrifying today: a normal human falls in love with a beautiful, enigmatic stranger who turns out to be a vampire. There follow long conversations along the lines of “We should marry, I know you feel it too!” “It can never work, my family is dangerous and if you stay you will die!”
But Stevenson plays this for melancholic tragedy rather than shallow wish-fulfilment, and stays true to the premise. The vampire wins out in the end and our protagonist, though never convinced, is made to return to Britain after many longing glances to the castle. Olalla is hoping that this generation of the family will be the last and the affliction will die with them.
The vampires themselves are intriguing. They live in an old castle, their condition is inherited, and the locals think it comes from their ancestor making a deal with the devil. But otherwise it matches the vision most common today: they don’t turn into bats (in the original Dracula, from the same time, they could turn into any animal; vampire bats were named after the legend), they are not harmed by sunlight (which was introduced by the 1922 Nosferatu) though the eponymous Olalla does shun it and has very pale skin, and they are not in any way bad people, but whenever they see blood they are seized by an ferocious hunger and bite with needle-sharp canines (though they seem able to sustain themselves on normal food). And the castle is not of the Hammer-Horror variety; it is a Moor fortress taken over by an aristocratic family during the Riconquista, imposing but not sinister, in the bright and hot Spanish highlands. Our protagonist at first has a pleasant time convalescing in it among a mother and son he takes as the models of honest rustic simpletons.
Far more than with Jekyll and Hyde, in this story Stevenson feels very much ahead of the time, despite the very Victorian elements of the slow, melancholic atmosphere, the tragic love and the long, purple-prose dialogue. (Then again, that last might be familiar.)
The other story, The Body Snatcher, follows a medical student in Edinburgh who finds himself involved in the trade of bodies for dissection for the school. (London, Spain, Edinburgh… Stevenson’s horror stories move have more diversity of locations than those of Lovecraft.) He deals with shady, unscrupulous men who deliver bodies that he presumes are freshly dug up from the graveyards; he accepts it as the price of having trained doctors. But one night he realises they are murdering innocents in the poorer quarters of town. By this time he cannot denounce them without bringing up his own complicity. So he throws in his lot with the murderers.
It ends with the supernatural coming in, as a body has apparently come back to haunt them. This feels to me as spoiling a fine story of very human horror. It would have also have worked to keep it ambiguous, with the suggestion that their guilty minds are imagining it. A pity.
What these stories have in common that makes them effective as horror and tragedy is that Stevenson, for all that he was a product of his time, is not judgemental about his characters. He puts them in believable dilemmas and gives them all too human flaws, and does not try to convince the reader of any easy moral lessons. This is not true of some other authors of the time (or later ones, like C S Lewis).
I have to also commend Michael Keaton for his narration of these stories. It is not easy to dramatise single-handedly an entire unabridged novel, and he reads the different voices very well and evokes the atmosphere of the pieces without overacting.