Tales of Terror

The Body Snatcher and Olalla are two short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson included in my copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a Penguin Classic. Both stories were written for the Christmas “crawler” tradition in 1884 and 1885. Christmas was a season traditionally associated with supernatural and creepy tales. In the introduction to the book, the editor, Robert Mighall explains that a “crawler” was a ‘sensational tale of a supernatural incident designed to produce a pleasurable thrill in its readers.’

The Body Snatcher is very much a traditional Christmas ghost story, beginning with four men gathered in an inn on a dark winter’s night telling tales round the fireside of grisly deeds. On this particular night Fettes, the local drunk, is roused from his stupor  as if “arisen from the dead” when he hears the name ‘Dr Macfalane’. What follows is the tale of their relationship in the past when they were both medical students. The title of this story of course gives the game away and it is based on the activities of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh in the 1820s, body snatchers who turned out to be murderers selling bodies that had never been buried. I didn’t find this story to be very chilling or thrilling, although I didn’t predict the slight twist at the end. The interest for me is in the two personalities of Fettes and Macfarlane and how the turn of events affected their lives. Macfaarlane had gone on to be a successful and wealthy doctor, untroubled by his conscience, and

richly dressed in the finest of broadcloth and whitest of linen, with a great gold watch chain and studs and spectacles of the same precious metal; he wore a broad folded tie , white and speckled with lilac, and he carried on his arm a comfortable driving coat of fur.

Whereas Fettes overcome by his conscience had lived in idleness, pursuing

“crapulous, disreputable vices”. Permanently in a “state of melancholy, alcoholic saturation”, a “parlour sot, bald, dirty, pimpled and robed in his old camlet cloak”.

Olalla is a longer story and to my mind is the better of the two. When does a short story cease to be considered short, I wonder? It is definitely written as a Gothic tale, set in an ancient Spanish castle surrounded by deep woodland, about a young man recovering from his war wounds and to “renew his blood”, who finds himself living with a strange family. The castle is as much a character in this story as the people, fallen into disrepair as much as the family has degenerated from its noble ancestors who fell prey to evil.

The young man, naturally, falls in love with Olalla, the beautiful daughter, with a strange mad mother and a simpleton brother.  She fears she has inherited the evil of her ancestors and the hint of vampirism in her mother. There is almost a fairytale feel to this story with references to Sleeping Beauty locked by magic within the castle, and also a chill factor which Bram Stoker later developed in Dracula.

This completes my reading for the RIP Challenge, although I have several more books that I would like to read such as The Turn of the Screw. Thanks to Carl for hosting the Challenge.

4 thoughts on “Tales of Terror”

  1. I am tempted to read these after what you say, Margaret. RLS was a local boy, born a few doors down the road from our house. As a student here in Edinburgh I had lectures in what had been the Burke and Hare anatomy lecture theatre. Both the writer and his characters still have a great presence in the city.

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  2. Lisa, oh yes – think of The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens with Scrooge and the ghost of Jacob Marley.

    Cornflower – how interesting – is the house open to the public?

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