Tuesday Terror! The Mark of the Beast by Rudyard Kipling

The Curse of the Big Sister…


For most of my life, regular commenter BigSister (who by one of life’s amazing coincidences just happens to be my big sister) has been trying to convince me of the merits of Rudyard Kipling. So when she recommended one of his horror stories, I knew it was going to be a scary experience – either the story would be “sheer, shuddering horror” as she promised, or I’d have to publicly disagree with her…the thought of which is totally terrifying. So one way or another, The Mark of the Beast seemed a most suitable entrant for…


It was a very wet night, and I remember that we sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with our feet in the Polo Championship Cup, and our heads among the stars, and swore that we were all dear friends. Then some of us went away and annexed Burma, and some tried to open up the Soudan and were opened up by Fuzzies in that cruel scrub outside Huakim, and some found stars and medals, and some were married, which was bad, and some did other things which were worse…

delphi kiplingIt’s Kipling, so the setting is colonial India, where the vastly superior white man rules over an unquiet land of superstitious and unruly natives with their strange customs and even stranger gods. After a drunken party at their club, our narrator and his friend Strickland are escorting Fleete, a particularly drunken guest, home when he breaks away from them and stubs out his cigar on the head of an idol in the temple. The shocked natives stand by as a strange leper shambles out of the temple and weirdly hugs Fleete. By the next morning, Fleete has a red mark on his breast where the leper’s head touched him and, as the day wears on, the mark turns to black and Fleete develops a ravenous appetite for undercooked meat. Then Fleete begins to change…

There were five horses in the stables, and I shall never forget the scene as we tried to look them over. They seemed to have gone mad. They reared and screamed and nearly tore up their pickets; they sweated and shivered and lathered and were distraught with fear.

This is a well-written story in Kipling’s normal style – that is, half facetious and half serious. He portrays the natives as so different from the white men as to be almost a different species rather than just a different race – and in this case a species with supernatural powers granted to them, presumably, by their gods. To be fair, he takes a lot of sideways swipes at the white men too, but I always find Kipling’s attitude to race leaves me feeling distinctly uncomfortable, more so than some other writers of the colonial era, and this story was no different in that respect.* The horror element works quite well, though I must say the bit I found most horrifying was not what the leper did to Fleete, but what Strickland and the narrator subsequently did to the leper (sorry, that would be a major spoiler – you’d need to read it), though he did make it clear that they at least suffered a few moral qualms over it…and one could see why they did it… (bet you’re nearly intrigued enough to read it now!)

Photo: globetrottergirls.com
Photo: globetrottergirls.com

People write and talk lightly of blood running cold and hair standing up and things of that kind. Both sensations are too horrible to be trifled with. My heart stopped as though a knife had been driven through it, and Strickland turned as white as the tablecloth. The howl was repeated, and was answered by another howl far across the fields…

I’m afraid though that I didn’t find it particularly scary – it’s quite a short story and it all happened too quickly for there to be time for any build-up of suspense. I think I find things scarier if they are set in a more familiar environment – the rattling at my neighbour’s window is considerably more frightening than the monster in another world. So, in conclusion, a good story with some humour and a lot of darkness, but didn’t bring me out in goosebumps. On the upside, this proves I must be braver than BigSister!

*(I’m really, really sorry, BigSister. I will always be grateful to you for the Narnia books, the Lord of the Rings, Agatha Christie and the thousand other books and authors you have introduced me to over the years. But not Kipling!)

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

39 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Mark of the Beast by Rudyard Kipling

  1. FictionFan – I’m glad you found the story good, even if the hair on the back of your neck has remained safely in place. I have to say that I find it very hard to swallow Kipling’s attitudes towards members of different races and towards women. It’s just a bit much for me. That said though, I will grant his skill at writing.


    • I’ve always felt that way about Kipling, though I happily read Rider Haggard. Somehow although both had the colonial attitude, Rider Haggard seems to speak about other races with a level of respect that Kipling misses. But yes, he wrote well and I’m sure I’d have enjoyed his stories if I’d been reading them at the time…


  2. So……………are we now to assume that :

    the rattling at my neighbour’s window is considerably more frightening than the monster in another world.

    this means it will be BigSister having sent the literary police to give you a good drubbing who are responsible for the rattling, those LPs are pretty good on the wordies, but, luckily for you, numerically challenged, so they have misread your house number for your poor neighbour………….

    Hm. Maybe I’m more easily scared. I also find my sensibilities get rather grated by Kipling, so its hard to surrender when class, race, sex are so, well, offensive, but, yes, the writing craft WOULD have me a little sweaty and nervous, all those rearing screaming horses and howls……..


    • Ha! The LPs are in trouble then…they haven’t seen the size of next door’s dog! Serves them right!

      He does write well, and the bit about the horses was effective, but overall I didn’t find he built up a scary atmosphere. Maybe because I found Fleete so unpleasant I didn’t much care what happened to him


  3. OK, I’ll let you off any more Kipling. I suppose the fundamental difference between us is that I read Kipling first in primary school, and that our attitudes towards everything, not just race, were so different from what they were even a decade later when you might (but weren’t!) reading him , not to mention from now, that I still feel about him as I did then.
    generation gap!


  4. I have never really taken to Kipling either, I had an uncle who read me the Just So stories whenever I visited, I only remember the one about the elephant getting his nose though. So you are braver than the Big Sister? Great post and another one I don’t have to add to the TBR 😉


    • I don’t even remember what Kipling I’ve read in the past – I don’t think I ever finished anything. Sometimes a writer’s style just doesn’t work for one reader even though other people love him.

      Much braver! Though don’t tell her I said so… 😉


    • The Jungle Book is Kipling, isn’t it? Just you and BUS sticking up for him then…(I reckon that’s just ‘cos the Professor is scared of her.)

      OK, Fleete turned into a fluffy green toy, so the narrator and Strickland cruelly forced the leper to eat Ruber’s cookng until he screamed for mercy and lifted the curse.


          • You need to read them–now! How dare you, FEF. I’m beginning to think BUS hasn’t done her job properly… (That’s true…but JB is more important…) You’re so mean to her…and she’s obviously so sweet too.

            I bet it’s not!


            • I know – I’m sorry! I’ll try to do better – but I’m glad BUS is getting the blame and not me… (No, sorry – not even the combined efforts of the Prof and BUS can persuade me to read the Jungle Books I’m afraid!) Just like me…



            • Never seen the Jungle Book??? I’m shocked!! Orang-utans singing jazz? I’d have thought it’d be perfect for the Professor…

              ‘Tis!!! (I promise I’ll stop the spreasheet when it reaches 99…)


            • Oh…I’ve seen the cartoon! I thought you meant the movie! I actually still like watching. Louie Prima…nice. It is perfect for me! Except at the end. The bear would have easily dispatched a maimed tiger!

              ‘Tis not!!! (It will be too late! Is not 99 like 100?)


            • Yes, I can see the Professor as Mowgli…I’d forgotten about the end, but Baloo survives doesn’t he? (Even if he doesn’t, say yes, otherwise I’ll cry.) I liked the vultures.

              ‘Tis!!!! (I’ve forgotten what we’re arguing about.) (No, no – 99 is still double figures so you’ll be fine – 3 books a week, you’ll get through that in no time!)


            • I am not Mowgli! Dadblamery… Yes, he does! Otherwise the professor would have probably cried when I was a wee lad. The vultures…yes, the Beetles.

              ‘Tis not!!!! ( 😆 I did, too. Just surrender.) (But I’d die!)


            • Oh…but Mowgli’s cute and adorable! I admit his dress sense leaves something to be desired though… Thank goodness! Disney films are great, but I’m pretty sure I cried at most of them.

              ‘Tis!!!!! (No way! Whatever it was, I must have been right!) (No, you’d just feel like dying…but you’d get used to it eventually. And if you did happen to unfortunately die, wouldn’t you be glad you’d read all those books first?)


            • Really? Not at all, madam! (He had nothing else to dress in, though.)

              ‘Tiseth noteth!!!!! (But…you must surrender. It would be the right thing to do. Plus, I was righter!) (No! What a dadblame waste of time!)


            • (He could have ordered some clothes online.)

              ‘Tis!!!!!! (I will never surrender! But perhaps we could have a truce…I’ll admit you might have been righter, if you admit I might have been right…) ( 😆 Poor C-W-W! How’s Bleak House going? 😉 )


            • Or skinned the panther guy. That would have fetched the situation.

              You should surrender, since I’m like Hector.

              (It’s going! 🙂 As soon as I finish a Twain book I’ll be able to spend more time with it.)


  5. Other than the Jungle Books, I’ve never really been able to get into Kipling. (Although I’ve always loved Rikki Tikki Tavi… maybe just because of his name? And because as a child, I literally had NO IDEA what a mongoose was??)

    Also, I just realized that your comment area encourages me to express my opinion of chocolate. I love chocolate… milk chocolate if it’s on its own, and dark chocolate combined with nuts. Also, I love white chocolate ice cream which is AMAZING.


    • I loved the film of the Jungle Book, but don’t remember evr actually reading it. ‘m not sure I’d recognise a mongoose even today… 😉

      Yay! Another milk chocolate person! Almost everyone who’s commented is a dark chocolate fan. I even prefer milk choc on nuts – though I’m very partial to dark chocolate liqueurs. Mmm…never had white chocolate ice cream – a new ambition!


  6. Hi, great to see this mysterious tale being examined, although perhaps everyone in the comments are looking at it from too “western” a perspective.

    First, a point about people being uncomfortable reading Kipling: His characters (Indian as well as Western) express bigoted views about others (whether of different races, castes or classes) because that’s what real people did back then, and still do today. That is why he makes us uncomfortable – he reminds us that everyone is bigoted in some way (yes, even me and you!). His own views are not necessarily the same as his characters.

    As for this story, it is worth trying to look at it from an Indian perspective. Kipling learned Indian stories and mythology as a small child – he understood Hindi/Urdu better than he understood English. From this perspective, the Mark of the Beast is not just a horror story, but a holy mystery: Putting it into the context of the mythology of Hanuman the Monkey God changes the reality of what is happening – the narrator and Strickland are caught up in something they do not understand. Fleete is actually a supplicant who is being helped by Hanuman and his servant deity, the Silver Man. Strickland and the narrator are just acting out parts decreed for them by the God. See the excellent 1996 essay by P Battles where he explains this.


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