Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve tried to read this before, but then lost my copy, which made it harder. After a class on Frankenstein (which is also in my pile), and then more recently reading Drood, I was in the mood for some gothic horror but had precious little time to get my fix. At 65 pages this was more or less perfect for me. There are other stories in the volume that I’ll get to another time. Here is the blurb:

Published as a ‘shilling shocker’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark psychological fantasy gave birth to the idea of the split personality. The story of respectable Dr. Jekyll’s strange association with the ‘damnable young man’ Edward Hyde; the hunt through fogbound London for a killer’ and the final revelation of Hyde’s true identity is a chilling exploration of humanity’s basest capacity for evil.

The blurb goes on to talk about the other stories in the volume, but I didn’t read those, so let’s not care. Sorted.

It was strange to read a story that I felt I already knew. It’s in the group of classics like Dracula and Frankenstein that I feel I know before I’ve even glanced sideways at a copy. There’s certainly been adaptations and references right, left and centre for me to have picked up most of what the story is about. I was expecting something more visceral and explicit, but it’s actually more scientific and reasonable than I imagined. There’s a man next to me wheezing. That is visceral. The book is very reserved and Hyde is far less monstrous than any of the depictions I’ve seen (with the exception of the amazing BBC mini series Jekyll.) It’s understandable though, ‘a strong feeling of deformity though I couldn’t describe the point,’ is not a helpful description for an artist to work off of. Wheezing Man just cunningly tried to pour booze into an empty Lucozade bottle but failed and spilled it all over the floor. I might otherwise have been fooled, except whatever it is smells like death and looks nothing like Lucozade.

The science of the book is suitably vague. I was surprised when Scarlett Thomas actually described the tincture in The End of Mr Y.  I always like to think that if I somehow found out how to make Jekyll’s concoction then it’d work and my evil half would be allowed free reign. I hate the idea of making Mr. Y’s tincture and being disappointed. I like the idea of something that seems like it could be real without me having any way to disappoint myself, I suppose.

However, the reason Jekyll gives for his experiment’s success is sort of disappointing. If somebody was going to wreck themselves and their life like that, I’d like to think it was through a stroke of tragic genius rather than say, an accident. It makes it sad in a pathetic way rather than a satisfyingly tragic one. For a man to have his work discredited by peers for fanciful science is one thing, but for it to have been a success only by accident is so much harder to bear. The end is so heartbreaking on its own, but it’d have been bittersweet if he’d made and recorded a major scientific discovery. It’s a great ending, I love it, but I’d liked to have respected Jekyll more than I pitied him.

Confessional stories, Lolita springs to mind, have to leave you feeling fuzzy about the confessor. The last page of Lolita is sad and tragic but I hate Humbert a teeny bit less for all he’s done because of the way he leaves it. It’s heart breaking to see such a nice man as Jekyll have his story end with a pathetic fizzle. Maybe I get too attached, but those are my thoughts. It's also frustrating me that I can't seem to say more without epic spoilers.

As for it being a ‘shilling shocker’, there were glorious hints of this throughout. I’m nearly convinced that the only reason for the iconic names of Jekyll and Hyde is for the following line to be able to occur:

If he shall be Mr. Hyde, I shall be Mr. Seek.

I love it. Obviously the name is genius for more than that reason. It’s the hidden side of a well respected gent, he’s a murderer that evades capture, he moves in the shadows, he is small and indescribable…there are dozens of reasons for the name being an awesome one is what I’m saying, but that line is so gloriously blockbuster that it just screams ‘I COST A SHILLING YOU KNOW,” or something similar. It’s an awesome cliche of a line with about a shillings worth of intrigue (That’s 5p in new fangled language).

It’s hard to say if I liked it, because my expectations skewed my reading enormously and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I expected monsters and got something more subtle but just as eerie. Rather than a mad scientist I got an experimental doctor. It wasn’t a let down, just different to what the telly said. So, now I’m conflicted. I have many thoughts about the story, most of them positive. The telling threw me completely off. I suppose it’s unfair that I’ve seen so many other ways for the villain to be realised and the conflict to be resolved. The original could only seem deflated in comparison to the collective work of hundreds of minds.

There are no cover reviews. Possibly because it's really old and reviewing it seems pointless. Who knows.

HRM. I am going to give it three Mell-heads. The others are in two-minds (See what I did? Didja?)