Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Christmas reading

I’ve been reading Stevenson’s short stories lately – many for the first time – and I can’t help wondering why it has taken me so long to get to them. After all, not only has Stevenson meant much to me over the years, I find his works, when I do read them, most congenial to my temperament. As I never tire of mentioning here, Treasure Island and Kidnapped were huge childhood favourites, and I revisit them whenever I want to bask in nostalgia for my childhood years (which, in my case, is often). And there’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, of course: Nabokov’s inclusion of this work in his critical collection Lectures on Literature, alongside such acknowledged masterpieces as Madame Bovary or Metamorphosis, still raises some peoples’ eyebrows, but not mine: Jekyll and Hyde is as great a masterpiece as any Nabokov places it alongside. And those charming children’s poems in the collection A Child’s Garden of Verses I have known since my primary school years, when, in my Scottish primary school, we were required to commit many of them to memory. (And, contrary to modern wisdom on these matters, this did not put us off: we loved these poems, and I, for one, still do.) But, really, for a long time, that was about as far as it went. Even Weir of Hermiston, his late, unfinished masterpiece, I came to know only quite recently.

However, better late than never, I suppose. I have recently been catching up on some of his short stories. A couple I did know from before: “The Body Snatcher”, for instance. Although often included in anthologies of ghost stories (which is how I got to know it in the first place), it is only in the final pages that the supernatural makes its mark: till then, it had been a splendid thriller, evoking the dark gloomy lanes and wynds of old Edinburgh in the days when grave-robbers used regularly to dig up freshly made graves to sell the fresh corpses to medical research. (There was a fine film based on this story, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, and featuring at its centre a superbly sinister performance by Boris Karloff: well worth catching up on, if you don’t know it already.) And “Thrawn Janet” I also knew – amongst the most terrifying of all ghost stories, but less frequently anthologised, possibly because it is written in what to many is an indecipherable Scots dialect.

Earlier this year, I read, and was much impressed by, the stories published early in Stevenson’s career under the title New Arabian Nights. Looking back on what I had written, I found myself much impressed by the clarity and expressive eloquence of Stevenson’s prose; and I also noted, I see, a delight in devising intriguing situations, but a certain impatience when it came to developing them. However, Stevenson presents us with so rich a panoply of scenes that delight and fascinate, and presents them with such panache, that we find ourselves happy simply to be swept along by it all, and find ourselves not minding too much the demotion to mere background details of the narrative resolutions. Stevenson does not repeat that kind of thing in his later stories – not the ones I have read so far, that is – but he did retain that wonderful gift of setting up intriguing situations. And as a writer of adventure stories, he really was second to none: so great is his skill in creating and sustaining narrative tension that I have even found myself wishing my commuter journeys were longer.

There’s the wonderfully creepy “Olalla”, for instance. It’s not a tale of the supernatural, but it should be: it certainly has the atmosphere of one. Its themes are surprisingly Poe-like – familial decline, hereditary madness, Gothic gloom – all familiar elements in, say, “The Fall of the House of Usher”. But where Poe, to my mind at least, starts at so high a pitch of feverishness that at the climax there is nowhere further to go, Stevenson’s prose is clear and measured throughout, so that when the climax comes, it is genuinely shocking. “Olalla” is fairly long for a short story, and its pacing is immaculate. I have tried to rile some of my Poe-loving fiends by telling them that this was the kind of story Poe would have written had he been as good a writer as Stevenson, but I’ll refrain from saying that here: in the first place, I really would not wish to unleash a torrent of indignant protests in the comments section; and in the second place, it is, to be honest, an inaccurate and frankly unfair assertion. That Stevenson is more to my taste than Poe does not make Poe a lesser writer; but the fact nonetheless remains that Stevenson is, indeed, very much more to my taste.

And there’s “Markheim”, which seems to be Stevenson’s response to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (And no doubt those as allergic to Dostoyevsky as I am to Poe will tell me how far superior Stevenson’s treatment is of the theme.)

And there are three stories making up the late collection Island Nights Entertainment. As with New Arabian Nights, Stevenson is clearly evoking A Thousand and One Nights in the title, but even had he not done so, it would have been difficult keeping A Thousand and One Nights out of even the briefest of discussions of these tales. Although set in the South Sea Islands (where Stevenson spent the last few years of his life) rather than in the Middle East, they are saturated with a sense of magic and wonder that permeate A Thousand and One Nights. The first of the three stories, “The Bottle Imp”, borrows the idea of the genie of the lamp (with the lamp replaced by a magic bottle). This genie, or “imp”, as Stevenson calls him, will grant its owner any wish; but the owner must sell the bottle on at a lower price than he had paid for it; for if he dies with the bottle still in his possession, his soul will go to Hell.

So naturally, over time, the price of this bottle spirals lower and lower, and becomes ever more difficult to get rid of: for, eventually, a state will inevitably be reached where its price is the lowest denomination available in any monetary system, and selling it at a lower price will become impossible. It’s an intriguing set-up. The resolution this time is not shirked, nor demoted to a mere incidental detail, but nonetheless, it’s the situation one remembers more than how it all works out at the end.

Then there’s “The Isle of Voices”, which, if one had to pitch it, could be described as “Arabian Nights meets Joseph Conrad”. (Although, of course, this predates, if only by a few years, the works of Conrad.) There is much here for the students of post-colonial studies to sink their teeth into. The premise is, once again, magical in nature – a sorcerer obtains his wealth by spiriting himself, invisible, to another island, where, by burning certain leaves, he can transform shells to coins, and transport them back home.  But human greed knows no limits: by the end, there’s a sickening bloodbath, in which the native inhabitants of this island are slaughtered for the sake of further gain. It isn’t, perhaps, easy for this story to fit into any simple pattern: the sorcerer, in the first place, is not white, but is native Hawaiian; and the people so horribly massacred by the end, far from being innocent victims, are themselves cannibals. But the themes of exploitation, greed, and imperialist violence are all there.

The longest and most substantial story of the three is “The Beach of Falesa”, and, once again, we seem to be very much in Conradian territory. The narrator is a white trader in the South Seas, and, while he is hardly free from racism himself, finds himself genuinely loving the native girl he has so cynically been hitched up with in “marriage”. Prominent in this story is the theme of sexual exploitation of native girls: the girls and women are treated as so much property, to be enjoyed as objects, then ill-treated, and abandoned as and when her “husband” tires of her. At one point, the narrator speaks casually, as if in passing, of one of the traders “thrashing” his “wife”, as if it were the most natural and unremarkable thing in the world. And while the narrator, in this case, does indeed find himself loving the girl who has, effectively, been allotted to him, by the end of the story he worries about returning to Britain with his mixed-race children: he knows there is no place for them there.

But powerful though all this is, it is still, essentially, an adventure story. (As, indeed, are many of Conrad’s works.) The narrator, Wiltshire, finds himself pitted against a fellow trader, Case, who has his own very dubious set-up, and who doesn’t tolerate competition: Wiltshire realises that he must either kill Case, or be killed by him. The story takes a long time to build: Stevenson’s pacing is deliberate, but when the tension starts to grip, it doesn’t let up. And the passage where Wiltshire delves deeper and deeper into Case’s mysterious domain has about it a sense of almost hallucinatory terror: it’s hard not to feel that one is being drawn into some sort of Conradian Heart of Darkness.

I haven’t read them all Stevenson’s stories yet: there are still a few more to go, but it’s always good to have something to look forward to. I haven’t been disappointed by any of the ones I have read so far. But over the Christmas holidays, I think I’ll turn to Stevenson’s fellow Scotsman – born about a generation after Stevenson, and just a mile or so away from Stevenson’s birthplace in Central Edinburgh – Arthur Conan Doyle. Not the Sherlock Holmes stories: there’s far more to Conan Doyle than those Sherlock Holmes stories, which I keep re-reading them all the time anyway. No – this Christmas, I am planning to read through the Brigadier Gerard stories. All of them. It has been far too long since I last read them, and I am pretty sure I have not read them all.

It is incredible to think that storytellers of such brilliance were born in such close proximity to each other: I certainly cannot think of anyone – not even Dumas – who surpassed these two in terms of plotting. And I suppose that to Stevenson and Conan Doyle, one could add a third Scots writer – George Macdonald Fraser, whose Flashman novels are surely up there with the best when it comes to holding the reader’s attention purely with the plot.

Well, not purely, perhaps, with the plot: even the best of plots require immense writing skills if they are to hold the reader’s attention so fixedly. Over the last century or so, plot seems to have slipped down the list of priorities in what is loosely termed “literary fiction”, and maybe, one day, it would be interesting to analyse the skills required to hold the reader’s attention in this manner, and have them turning the pages purely to find out what happens next.

But for the moment, I am having far too much fun enjoying them to be worried about all that. Christmas holidays are approaching: it’s time to choose one’s Christmas reading – nothing too heavy, nothing to unduly tax one’s alcohol-sodden mind – but nothing to insult the reader’s intelligence either. Those wonderfully witty and exciting Brigadier Gerard stories seem to fit the bill perfectly!

11 responses to this post.

  1. When you have the chance, try Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide, too. It has an even stronger Conrad-before-Conrad flavor.


  2. Posted by Janet on December 19, 2017 at 1:30 am

    Oh! There’s a ton of analysis of what makes a page-turner. Aspiring writers have a number of popular formulas to choose from, based mostly on pulp fiction and cinema. Beats and arcs and whatnots. A lot of tortuous backwards engineering, too, to explain how Moby Dick fits the Lester Dent model. As for literary fiction, a lot of the younger, emerging authors are trying very hard to marry the craft they learned in their MFA programs with the undeniably compelling elements of works by authors they’ve been indoctrinated to pooh-pooh as mere plotters. Some are more successful than others. Marlon James, for example, is extraordinary. I don’t know why it should have to be one or the other. The books that keep me going past bedtime keep me interested with plot and mesmerized with style. A really great stylist packs a lot of extras above and between the lines without weighing down the narrative. Dumas was fantastic at that. Jekyll and Hyde is fabulous. My go-to curl up by the fire with a steaming eggnog and a stink-eyed cat books are Patrick O’Brien’s sea stories.


    • I think, having read your post, I had better lay off the analysis: it seems to have been done to death already, and, to be quite frank, literary analysis is not really my strong point! I really do no more than record my reactions as a reader, and if I analyse anything at all, it’s my own reactions rather than the work itself. And, as ever, different masters achieve their effects in different ways, so trying to find underlying rules that unify them all is a bit of a mug’s game, really!

      I have been recommended Patrick O’Brian on many occasions. i have so far only read the first of the Aubrey-Maturin series, and while I did enjoy it, I got the feeling that (not surprisingly) he was really only getting into his stride with this first one.

      “The books that keep me going past bedtime keep me interested with plot and mesmerized with style.”

      Absolutely! This is the problem I had when I revisited Agatha Christie recently: the plotting was marvellous, but the style I found so bland that I am not really tempted to read more. Even with the best plotters, I feel, moeis needed to hold the reader’s attention. This reader’s attention, at least!


  3. Posted by alan on December 24, 2017 at 11:40 pm

    I can’t say I ‘like’ Poe either but if he was so crap then why did others borrow (and in Conan Doyle’s case steal) from him? Was his only virtue originality?


    • I don’t think anyone is disputing Poe’s originality. But personally, I have never been very keen on his style of writing. Neither do I think it entirely fair to accuse Conan Doyle of “stealing”. Sure, he took elements of Dupin in creating Sherlock Holmes, but the borrowings are so very obvious, he clearly didn’t make any effort to hide them. Dupin is mentioned in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Holmes is dismissive of Dupin’s abilities. But then, Holmes is an egomaniac; and, since the debt to Dupin is so very blatant, his dismissal of Dupin is actually funny, as, no doubt, it was intended to be.


  4. Thank you very much for these two posts on Stevenson. I read a good deal of Stevenson and Conan Doyle in my early teens – in translation, from these two collections. I still remember pretty much all of the eight volumes of Conan Doyle, including The Firm of Girdlestone, The White Company, Rodney Stone, the Gerard and Challenger cycles and The Terror of Blue John Gap. With Stevenson, my memory is playing games on me: all the titles are familiar but sometimes the title is all I can remember. Perhaps it’s time for a re-reading.


    • I have long been a Sherlock Holmes fan, but have generally neglected his other work. This is most unfair, and I am keen to catch up on the various Conan Doyle titles you mention. Stevenson I have really come round to loving in recent years, although, of course, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Jekyll & Hyde have long been favourites.


      • I’ve finally got down to reading (or re-reading) “Olalla.” It defies expectations: it is a Gothic story in appearance but without otherworldly terror; it tempts the reader into expecting vampires but fails to produce any; it incorporates Poe’s themes of aristocratic degeneration and insanity but demotes them to secondary importance. The ending dialogue is striking. The two understand each other perfectly, it seems, even though Olalla speaks of original sin and the narrator sinks into stoicism: “…sad and noble truths; that pleasure is not an end, but an accident; that pain is the choice of the magnanimous; that it is best to suffer all things and do well.”

        The burning question that remains is how Stevenson intended “Olalla” to be pronounced. Any thoughts on this?

      • Hello Alex,
        I’m afraid I have no idea how the name is pronounced in Spain (it’s an authentic Spanish name, I believe), but I pronounce it usually as an amphibrach.
        The story is certainly enigmatic, but I love the very gloomy, doom-laden atmosphere Stevenson creates. And while there is no supernatural vampire in the story, there is terror enough in what we may say is a human version of vampirism. We need hardly evoke the supernatural, Stevenson seems to be saying, when there is so much terror in our natural states!
        Best wishes,

  5. “…I pronounce it usually as an amphibrach.” That’s how it’s pronounced in Spanish: roughly, “Oh, liar!” The -ll- in the middle sounds similar to “y” in most Spanish dialects today but back around 1812, it may have been close to the Portuguese “lh.” But the question is, what did Stevenson want? And a less direct one: was he familiar with Poe’s “Eulalie”?


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