Tuesday Terror! Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson

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…

Tuesday Terror 2

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.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson

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…

Thrawn Janet by William Strang 1899

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:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

67 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. You know, I think Mr. Author needs ripped! Badly. I must admit, though, the archaic Scottish does sound intriguing. (But doesn’t it read like a different language?)

    Now Twisted Janet is an interest. I mean, that’s highly creative. A great review, FEF! But I bet you struggled reading it more than you’re letting on!

  2. FictionFan – Oh, I know just what you mean about stories that are best told aloud. This one certainly sounds like one of them. And what a rich sense of atmosphere too! I’ll admit I had to read a few things you shared twice to be sure I understood, but I can see how the whole story would be wroth reading.

  3. Your cats KNOW you’re nuts! Great review. It’s one of my great regrets about Stevenson that he didn’t write more in Scots – I suppose English widened his market .Living where I do, I hear Scots spoken every day, using very many of the words which we now call dialect, and further North, in the Mearns country their are plenty of folk who still speak almost as broadly among themselves. I’ve always liked this story, and your review did it justice.

    • It’s a shame there’s not more written in Scots all round, but since we’re not allowed to speak or read it in school…I think as well as the market thing, writers were persuaded that writing in Scots made them look uneducated in the post-Union world. Well, even in our day how often were we told to ‘speak properly’ if we slipped into slang or dialect?

  4. ‘Tis a sorry affair when a lass is no allowed ta speak her native dialect. I picked up a bit of the lilt (in my head) when I was reading George MacDonald’s novels. A body canna know a people without understandin’ their language.

    I love Stevenson’s works. He draws me in from children’s poems right on through. I’ve not read this one, however, and methinks I must rectify that.

    Thank you for a lovely review!

    • Me too! I enjoyed this because it’s my own dialect but when it’s a ‘foreign’ dialect I tend to get very tired of it very quickly. I’m enjoying the whole terror thing more than I expected though…especially the classics. 🙂

  5. I love the fact a lot of children’s books are now available in Scots; hopefully this is just the start of people being encouraged to use their native tongue more. My Dad – who’s from further north – uses words like “thrawn” (to mean stubborn), “boorach” (untidy/messy), and “sklooter” (messing around or playing with water) every day.

    • Are they? I didn’t know that, but I”m glad to hear it – the language will die out completely soon if we don’t work to keep it alive. I still use thrawn myself but I haven’t heard the other ones. Every different region seems to have its own variations….

      • My Dad’s from Beauly – but he also uses “Doric” words like “loon” for boy. Yes our local Waterstones (v local – round the corner!) has Tintin and other kids’ books in Scots AND Gaelic; doubtless there are others but I specifically noticed them as they’re right beside the door. Managed to get a free copy of Thrawn Janet, which I read this afternoon, and two other Stevenson stories, one which is also in Scots – great stuff; thanks for the tip! 🙂

        • Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 I’d be glad if a few more adult books were written in Scots too, but one author did write a historical fiction about Robert the Bruce using a lot of dialect, and got absolutely slated by all his non-Scottish fans. So he went back to fairly standard English in the next one…disappointing.

  6. I’m not a fan of short stories, preferring lengthy tomes, but I’ve always loved this story. The Scots dialect is amazingly descriptive and the story does make chills run down one’s spine. I challenge anyone to read it alone, late at night and not be scared!

    • It really is well done, isn’t it? I love the Scots dialect though I can see why it might be hard for non-Scots (or young Scots) to understand. I find reading it aloud helps, or listening to one of the reading of it on youtube. Definitely a scary one!

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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