Saturday, 23 May 2009

41. Robert Louis Stevenson - 'The Body Snatcher' (1884)

'To bodies that had been laid in the earth in joyful expectation of a far different awakening, there came that hasty, lamp-lit, terror-haunted resurrection of the spade and mattock; the coffin was forced, the cerements torn, and the melancholy relics, clad in sackcloth, after being rattled for hours on moonless byways, were at length exposed to uttermost indignities before a class of gaping boys.'
(Robert Louis Stevenson, 'The Body Snatcher', The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror, Penguin Classics, 2002, p.87)

Full Text:

'The Body Snatcher' was published a year after the immortal Treasure Island, a much-loved novel from childhood - aided also by an abridged tape version, featuring some urchin reading effectively as Jim Hawkins, backed by Bedrich Smetana's majestic Vltava (The Moldau).

This short-story was a precursor in some ways to his novella 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1886), obviously one of the key works of horror and 'scientific romance', providing an enduring influence for literature, not mention criticism, pertaining to the Weird, the uncanny. There is a duality in Fettes and how he spends his days and nights: 'For his day of work he indemnified himself by nights of roaring blackguardly enjoyment; and, when that balance had been struck, the organ that he called his conscience declared itself content.' (p.79)

As ever, Stevenson's style is bold and emphatic, revelling in macabre, exaggerated details; it is a blood and thunder storytelling with a florid vocabulary that grips you by the lapels with its urgency and gusto: 'sot', 'cerements' 'antecedents', 'interlopers', 'blackguardly', 'mattock'. As with his other seminal works, RLS establishes character with broad, burning strokes: Fettes is 'an old drunken Scotchman' with a mysertious past: 'We called him the Doctor; for he was supposed to have some special knowledge of medicine'. (p.73) The 'we' is ambiguous; the (potentially unreliable) first-person narrator is never named and can only be assumed to be an alehouse regular. The George inn in Debenham (code for Edinburgh, presumably?) is Fettes's abode, and it is from this sodden spot that the 'sot' relays his story, told to the narrator. Once this is entered into, there is no return to the present-day scene; RLS simply gets on with the story and ends it on a dramatic note characteristic of horror and romance.

The story is closely based upon the Burke and Hare case, with Edinburgh Doctor Robert Knox clearly the Dr K---- of the narrative, senior figure at the medical school and ambiguous facilitator of Macfarlane and Fettes's dark doings. It is implied that initially Fettes has to deal with Burke and Hare themselves, providing cadavers for medical research - 'he would open the door to these men, since infamous throughout the land'. (p.78) This prefaces his pact with the urbane, seemingly 'civilised' Macfarlane, which leads them to the graveyard and hands-on bodysnatching.

There is a sense of things progressing far beyond the everyday and humdrum, distorting into nightmare; like the 'human Juggernaut', Mr Hyde, treading a child down (p.13), Wolfe Macfarlane considers himself beyond good and evil: 'Hell, God, devil, right, wrong, sin, crime and all that old gallery of curiosities - they may frighten boys, but men of the world, like you and me, despise them.' (p.88) This compelling expression of amorality perhaps expresses a concern at what was to come; the Century of the Self to come, Christian morality shattered. Indeed, the pair's climactic snatching is to take place in Glencorse, a 'rustic neighbourhood' representing placid, unchanging, traditional values; a godly old lady's corpse is to be uprooted from the earth, 'carried, dead and naked, to that far-away city that she had always honoured with her Sunday's best'. (p.87)
There is an ambiguity in the writing - it is unclear how RLS regards the sort of Victorian taboos and etiquette later assaulted by Grant Allen in his Hill-Top Novel, The British Barbarians (1895).

In 1884, or indeed 1881, when he composed 'The Body Snatcher' at Kinnaird Cottage, Pitlochry, RLS simply identifies traditions as under grave attack - whether bodily or societal. Science and the Self are part of a revolution that is not condemned, but reported. Stevenson's concern is to tell a vivid, page-turning tale, rather than primarily to attack, or take sides between, Science and Religion.

This is an extreme, uncanny melodrama divested of any didacticism; one is carried along by the narrative, gallows humour and the often staggering achievement of RLS's characterisation and drawing of extraordinary incidents and images: for example, the wildly bizarre finale, which I shall not spoil in its particulars other than to say that it marks a return to Edinburgh, finally named, and given its due place.


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