The witch and the devil…
Although Robert Louis Stevenson is possibly best known for his adventure stories, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, he also wrote some great horror, not least the classic The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. So his short story Thrawn Janet is the perfect candidate for this week’s…
Old Reverend Murdoch Soulis is minister of Balweary in the Vale of Dule. Outwardly severe and composed, his eye is ‘wild, scared and uncertain’ and he seems to see the terrors that may lie ahead in eternity. Once a year, on the 17th August, he preaches a sermon on ‘the devil as a roaring lion’ that terrifies all who hear it, frightening the children into fits. Both Reverend Soulis and the manse where he lives alone and untended are surrounded by an atmosphere of terror…and sometimes one of the older folk in the village can be persuaded to tell the old story that made them so…the tale of 17th August 1712…the tale of Thrawn Janet.
It was before the days o’ the moderates – weary fa’ them; but ill things are like guid – they baith come bit by bit, a pickle at a time; and there were folk even then that said the Lord had left the college professors to there ain devices, an’ the lads that went to study wi’ them wad hae done mair and better sittin’ in a peat-bog, like their forbears of the persecution, wi’ a Bible under their oxter and a speerit o’ prayer in their heart.
The beginning of this story is written in fairly standard English, but once the old villager takes over the narration it changes to a broad Scots dialect, much of which is now so archaic even I had some difficulties with the occasional word or phrase, so I feel a bit self-indulgent in picking it for this week’s horror slot. But this really is a classic horror story, based solidly in the witchcraft superstitions that lasted well into the eighteenth century in Scotland. Although the dialect makes the story a bit difficult to read, it’s worth the effort – it’s amazingly well written and really demands to be read aloud to get the full effect of the speech patterns and rhythms.
He lay an’ he tummled; the gude, caller bed that he got into brunt his very banes; whiles he slept, and whiles he waukened; whiles he heard the time o’ nicht, and whiles a tyke yowlin’ up the muir, as if somebody was deid; whiles he thocht he heard bogles claverin’ in his lug, an’ whiles he saw spunkies in the room. He behoved, he judged, to be sick; an’ sick he was – little he jaloosed the sickness.
When the new, young and naïve minister decides to ask Janet McClour to be his housekeeper, the women of the village are horrified since they believe she is a witch. But to refute their superstition, as he sees it, Soulis demands that Janet publicly renounce the devil and his works. Since the option is to be put to death, Janet does so…but next day she is struck with a mysterious affliction that twists her neck to one side as if she had been hanged – hence the name Thrawn (Twisted) Janet. The minister believes this is a result of the palsy, but the villagers suspect the devil’s work…
Syne she turned round, an’ shawed her face; Mr Soulis had the same cauld grue as twice that day afore, an’ it was borne in upon him what folk said, that Janet was deid lang syne, an’ this was a bogle in her clay-cauld flesh. He drew back a pickle and he scanned her narrowly. She was tramp-trampin’ in the cla’es, croonin’ to hersel’; and eh! Gude guide us, but it was a fearsome face.
Stevenson builds the atmosphere masterfully, showing how the minister, with all his book-learning, gradually begins to suspect that he is wrong and the villagers are right about the evil that seems to surround Janet. The climax is nicely terrifying, with some really horrifying images, though completely gore-free. This is about good and evil in the traditional sense – God and the devil battling for the soul of mankind. Definitely one to chill the spine! (But unless you’re an archaic Scot, you might want to get a version with a glossary…)
You can find a very good reading of the story on youtube courtesy of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies – click here to listen.
Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀