Tuesday Terror! The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson

No rest for the wicked…


The fretful porpentine has stirred from his summer sleep and is back to haunt our winter nightmares. Aye, the nichts are fair drawin’ in, and the cauld wind is blawin’ through the deid leaves wi’ a sound like auld bones rattlin’…

And where better to begin our journey into darkness than in a graveyard with a master of horror…


The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson


Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by Sargent
Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by Sargent

The tale begins in the parlour of an inn, where sits Fettes, an ‘old drunken Scotchman’, getting steadily drunk on rum as he does every night. The locals call him ‘Doctor’ because he seems to have some medical knowledge, but his past is shrouded in mystery. Until one night another doctor turns up at the inn to treat a patient and Fettes recognises his name. They meet, and Dr Wolfe Macfarlane is clearly horrified to have encountered this old acquaintance. He tries to get rid of Fettes by offering him money…

‘Money!’ cried Fettes; ‘money from you! The money that I had from you is lying where I cast it in the rain.’

Macfarlane tries to brush past Fettes and get away from the inn but…

…even as he was passing Fettes clutched him by the arm and these words came in a whisper, and yet painfully distinct, ‘Have you seen it again?’

The great rich London doctor cried out aloud with a sharp, throttling cry; he dashed his questioner across the open space, and, with his hands over his head, fled out of the door…

The story then goes back to an earlier time when both these men were anatomy students in Edinburgh at the time of the Resurrection Men – the body-snatchers. Fettes is responsible for receiving the bodies for dissection by the anatomy classes and paying the men who brought them. For a time he dulls his conscience by choosing to believe that they are getting the bodies from graves, and sometimes he and Macfarlane go grave-robbing themselves when bodies are in short supply. But gradually he can no longer fool himself – some of the bodies are of people murdered for the money their corpses will bring.

movie poster the body snatcher

And then one night Macfarlane brings a corpse of a man they both know… and Fettes, knowing that Macfarlane had cause to want the man dead, has to choose whether to obey his conscience or his avarice…

It was Macfarlane himself who made the first advance. He came up quietly behind and laid his hand gently but firmly on the other’s shoulder. ‘Richardson,’ said he, ‘may have the head.’

But murder victims do not always rest easy in their graves, and consciences cannot always be kept quiet. And on a dark night, when the two men set out to rob a newly dug grave, they will meet with a horror that will haunt them for the rest of their lives…

Boris Karloff in the 1945 film...
Boris Karloff in the 1945 film…

Even though the reader pretty much knows all the way through where this story is heading, Stevenson manages to create a truly chilling atmosphere of fear and tension. He doesn’t overdo the descriptions – just enough to set the scene and then leaves the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. Written in 1884, it’s set 60 years earlier at the time of the Burke and Hare murders and apparently much of the story is taken from fact. The build-up to the climax is truly spine-tingling – the darkness, the graveyard, the silence – and then the journey back to Edinburgh with the freshly dug corpse between them on the seat…oooh! The fretful porpentine was wide awake by the time we finished this one…

Still their unnatural burden bumped from side to side; and now the head would be laid, as if in confidence, upon their shoulders, and now the drenching sack-cloth would flap icily about their faces…

It's a fretful porpentine!!!
It’s a fretful porpentine!!!

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

* * * * * * *

PS For anyone who wasn’t around for this series last year the ‘fretful porpentine’ reference is from Hamlet’s ghostly father’s speech…

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

35 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. OOOh, chilling! I love this tale, it is properly unnerving and quite believable in many respects. I love this write up of it. By the way, I’m glad you clarified the situation of the fretful porpentine – I initially read it as porcupine and then became confused. But now it is clear to me 🙂 (unlike several things in a certain book I am currently reading… 😉 )


    • He’s such a great writer – I love the way he builds the tension. Yes, it occurred to me that people might not have read/remembered the original fretful porpentine post and might just think I’d gone mad. Of course, they might still think that… (*chuckles* It gets better and better as it goes on, doesn’t it? 😉 )


      • I think it is a super image – a fretful porpentine!

        (Oh my, at one point I went back and read the previous page thinking – really? Did I just read that?! It started off quite well, really. Is it deliberate that Catchpool is the worst policeman ever? I like how no one in the village wants to talk to him so he just accepts that and goes on his way. He can’t have solved many crimes… One drunken character was an ex-Master of a Cambridge College so that briefly redeemed things for a short while haha!)


        • 😀

          (I know – for about the first third I was still going along with it. It wasn’t Christie, but I thought it still might be good. And then – and yes, I think it was aorund the visit to the village – it just became really quite bad! Catchpool is totally unbelievable as well as annoying. And things like him calling the elderly woman by her first name were just so wrong! How anyone who’s read any books from that era could think a policeman would call any woman of that social class by her first name beats me! And then if I remember correctly, Poirot does it too… *shudders*)


          • (It was from the village bit that has done it for me, and it doesn’t sound like it will get any better! But I have to read it all now, just so I can share my thoughts about it. It’s almost as if Catchpool isn’t really a policeman – if that turned out to be the case I would think his behaviour would be quite cleverly written… hey ho. I look forward to sitting down with it again tonight 🙂 )


  2. FictionFan – Oh, I’ve always liked Stevenson’s writing. I’ll admit, I’ve not (yet) read this one, but I’m not surprised that it’s got such a terrific chilling atmosphere. He was quite gifted at building suspense, too. And it’s good to see that porpentine back!


    • He’s a great writer – every time I read one of his stories I make a mental note to read more of his novels…when time permits! The fretful porpentine is happy to be out and about again… 😉


  3. If the fretful porpentine catches a cold ought the last line, as written my the porpentine’s mummy, read ‘like quilts upon the fretful porpentine,’

    Okay, a poor joke, a weak joke, but mine own


    • He’s glad to be out and about again! Didn’t you like Treasure Island then? I didn’t much when I was a kid, but loved it when I re-read it a couple of years back. Will be reading Andrew Motion’s second follow-up to it very soon…


      • No I haven’t tried since reading it as a child and was desperately underwhelmed. I’d received a beautiful copy as a Christmas present and it mocked me from my bookshelf for years… maybe I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d been a bit older?


        • I’ve got a feeling it’s one of these books adults think kids should enjoy, but really the writing style is much more suited to adults probably, or at least older teenagers. Certainly that’s what I found, anyway.


    • Haha! I accidentally did read it in the wee sma’ hours, and rather regretted it! Especially when the cats jumped about the place after lights out…

      Yes, I’ve added Kidnapped to the groaning TBR – I think I read it when I was a kid but don’t remember it. Must make more time for the classics in general…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved this review! And I’m quite glad to see Mr. Porcupine back. But you know, I didn’t remember that all about the fretful porpentine. I mean, I didn’t remember where it came from. *gulp* When you get as old as I am…you’ll understand.

    So…I’ve actually seen this movie! But I don’t remember the details. And I didn’t know RLS wrote it!


    • Aw, thanks C-W-W! *big smile* But…do you mean you haven’t memorised all my posts?! Oh, dear – you’ll just have to read them all again then… *wicked chuckle*

      I don’t think I’ve seen it but I’d quite like to. Bet it’s either really scary or hysterically funny – a winner, either way! Have you read any RLS? Treasure Island?


  5. Great review. I’m glad to see the porpentine back, especially with such a class opening act I love Stevenson – I’ve read everything he has written, including the letters and diaries – I don’t know how you can have escaped. Generation gap! 🙂


    • Thanks, BUS – the porpentine is happy to be back in action! I think I read a couple of his books when I was too young and it put me off him. It was only when I re-read Treasure Island a couple of years ago that I really began to appreciate him.


  6. So excited to read your review (and meet the fretful porpentine)! I am actually just about to read this story. It’s part of a collection that I picked up at a used book sale so I could reread The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but now I am just as eager for The Body Snatcher!


    • The fretful porpentine is honoured to meet you too! 😉 I’ve been meaning to re-read Jekyll and Hyde ever since I started to do these horror reviews – must do it this winter. I hope you enjoy this one too – but don’t read late at night when the wind is howling and the tree branches are creaking outside the window…


  7. Great entry! Love the graphics as well. One of my all-time favorites is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I really did find it scary — and it’s so old!


    • Thank you, LR! 🙂 I love Dracula too. The old ones really were more scary – modern ones tend to concentrate too much on gore, which I tend to find makes me laugh after a while, it goes so over the top. I think I’ll be concentrating more on classic horror this year…


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