The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale by Robert Louis Stevenson

Brotherly love?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the lost Stuart crown, the Durie family of Durrisdeer must decide where their loyalties lie. If they make the wrong choice, they could lose everything, but pick the winning side and their future is secure. The old Laird has two sons. Jamie, the eldest, known as the Master of Ballantrae, is attractive and popular but evil, while Henry, the younger, is dull but good. The family decides one son should join Charlie’s rebellion while the other should declare loyalty to the Hanoverian King George II, a kind of hedging of bets in which many noble families would indulge (so says Stevenson, and I have no reason to doubt him). By rights, as the younger, Henry should have joined the rising, but the Master thinks this is the more exciting option so claims it for himself. When the rising fails, word reaches Durrisdeer that Jamie died in battle. Henry gains the estate but is vilified by the townspeople for, as rumour has it, betraying his more popular brother, while his father and Alison, the woman he is to marry, make no secret that they loved Jamie best and mourn his loss extravagantly. So things are bad for Henry… but they’re going to get worse when news arrives that Jamie didn’t die after all…

The Master and McKellar’s first meeting

I freely admit I thought this was going to be a story about the Jacobite rebellion, but it isn’t. The enmity between the brothers had begun before long before the rising, and although it is used to set up the conditions for further strife between them, in fact it’s a minor strand in the book. This is actually a story of two opposing characters and their lifelong struggle against each other. It’s told by Ephraim Mackellar, steward to the estate of Durrisdeer and loyal supporter of Henry, who was present for many of the main events and has gathered the rest of the story from witnesses and participants. It will involve duels, smugglers and plots, love and hate, loyalty and betrayal; it will take us aboard a pirate ship and all the way across the Atlantic to the little town of New York in the far away American colonies. And it will end with a terrifying journey through the wilds of (Native American) Indian country on a quest for treasure!

It would be possible to read this, perhaps, as some kind of allegory for the Scotland of the time, divided in loyalty between the deposed Stuarts and the reigning Hanoverians, but I don’t think that can be taken too far since neither brother seems actively to care who wins, nor to be loyal to anything or anybody very much, so long as they come out of it with their lands and position intact. The things that divide them are personal, not political. There’s also a kind of variant on the Jekyll and Hyde theme going on – the two brothers opposite in everything, one tediously decent, the other excitingly bad.

Errol Flynn swashbuckling as the Master…

However as we get to know the brothers over the long years covered by the story, we see that the contrasts between them are not as glaring as they first appear. The same flaws and weaknesses run through all members of this doomed family (not a spoiler – we’re told they’re doomed from the very beginning) – they just show themselves in different ways. Poor Mackellar – while his loyalty to Henry never fails him, as time goes on he becomes a solitary and unregarded voice of reason in the middle of their feud, and grows to see that, to coin a phrase, there are faults on both sides.

In the midst of our evil season sprang up a hurricane of wind; so that all supposed she must go down. […] At first I was terrified beyond motion, and almost beyond thought, my mind appearing to be frozen. Presently there stole in on me a ray of comfort. If the Nonesuch foundered, she would carry down with her into the deeps of that unsounded sea the creature whom we all so feared and hated; there would be no more Master of Ballantrae, the fish would sport among his ribs; his schemes all brought to nothing, his harmless enemies at peace. At first, I have said, it was but a ray of comfort; but it had soon grown to be broad sunshine. The thought of the man’s death, of his deletion from this world, which he embittered for so many, took possession of my mind. I hugged it, I found it sweet in my belly. I conceived the ship’s last plunge, the sea bursting upon all sides into the cabin, the brief mortal conflict there, all by myself, in that closed place; I numbered the horrors, I had almost said with satisfaction; I felt I could bear all and more, if the Nonesuch carried down with her, overtook by the same ruin, the enemy of my poor master’s house.

Stevenson always writes adventure brilliantly and there are some great action scenes in the book, many of them with more than an edge of creepiness and horror. But there’s much more to this one than simply that. The characterisation is the important thing, of the brothers certainly as the central figures in this drama, but equally of the other players – the old Laird, Alison and not least, Mackellar himself. Stevenson does an excellent job of showing how the various experiences they undergo change each of them – some becoming stronger, better people, others giving way to weakness and cruelty. I admit none of them are particularly likeable, (though despite myself I developed a soft spot for poor, pompous, self-righteous Mackellar – he had a lot to contend with, poor man), but they’re so well drawn that I was fully invested in their fates anyway.

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by Sargent

Each of the settings is done brilliantly, from the life of a middle-ranking Laird of this period to the growing settlements in the New World. The pirate episode is especially good, as is the later voyage to America – Stevenson always seems to excel once he gets his characters out on the ocean wave. There are dark deeds a-plenty and not a little gore, but there’s also occasional humour to give a bit of light amidst the bleakness. There’s a lot of foreshadowing of doom, and a couple of times Mackellar tells us in advance what’s going to happen, but nevertheless the story held my interest throughout and the ending still managed to surprise and shock me. Though the adventure side means it could easily be enjoyed by older children, it seems to me this has rather more adult themes than Treasure Island or Kidnapped, in the sense that the good and evil debate is muddier and more complex, and rooted in the development of the characters rather than in the events – again, the comparison to Jekyll and Hyde would be closer. Oh, and there’s very little Scottish dialect in it, so perfectly accessible to non-Scots readers. Another excellent one from Stevenson’s hugely talented pen, fully deserving of its status as a classic, and highly recommended!

Book 16 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Treasure Island: An Audible Original Drama

Yo! Ho! Ho!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

An Audible Original full cast dramatisation starring Oliver Teale, Daniel Mays, Catherine Tate and Philip Glenister. Dramatised by Marty Ross from the original by Robert Louis Stevenson.

When I re-read Treasure Island a few years ago, I fell in love with it all over again. It’s undoubtedly one of the best adventure stories ever written, full of characters who’ve become such a part of our national psyche they almost feel historical rather than fictional – Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Ben Gunn, Jim Hawkins (arr, Jim, lad!), et al. Even younger people who may not have read the book will recognise these characters even if they don’t recognise the names, since they’ve been used and adapted in nearly every pirate book or movie ever since – the wooden-legged pirate with a parrot on his shoulder (Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight! Squa-a-a-wk!), the young boy caught up in piratical adventures on the high seas, the sailor marooned – maroooned, I tell ‘ee! – on a desert island, the villainous baddie bringing messages of doom, the treasure map where X marks the spot…

So needless to say, when I was offered the chance to listen to Audible’s new dramatisation, I grabbed it with both hands, dug out a bottle of rum, and set sail for lands unknown, me hearties! And that was even before I read the cast list and realised they’d gone all out to get some of the absolute best. Gotta say, every single member of the cast, stars and supporting, throw themselves into this with glee – you can literally hear how much fun they’re having bringing these fabulously over-the-top characters to life.

My memory for plot details is totally rubbish, but as far as I could tell the adaptation sticks very faithfully to the original. There’s a little more humour in it than I remembered so perhaps a few scenes have been altered for that purpose. At first, when the action is in the Admiral Benbow Inn where young Jim-lad lives with his mother (played excellently by Catherine Tate), I thought they had maybe lightened it up a bit to make it suitable for younger children. But indeed not! Some parts of it are very dark indeed, and the cast don’t skimp on bringing out the scary bits. And somehow hearing it rather than reading it made those parts even more effective – genuinely thrilling! Black Dog in particular scared the bejabers out of me, and I think I fall safely into the category of older child.

Although it’s a dramatisation, it’s not abridged. It has a running time of 6 hours and 26 minutes which is almost identical to the timing on straight narrations. Jim Hawkins (Gerran Howell) acts his role in the action sequences, but also provides a narration for the linking bits. Rather unfairly, he doesn’t get listed as one of the stars, but he gives an excellent performance too. Oliver Teale is utterly brilliant as Long John Silver, and Daniel Mays’ Ben Gunn is so much fun – marooned! Maroooooned, I tell ‘ee!! Philip Glenister is perfect as Doctor Livesey. The only thing that annoyed me is that Audible never provides a written cast list for these productions, and the cast list on the recording is always at the end, so I find I’m constantly trying to work out who’s playing whom, especially when they’re all having so much fun with accents. In this case, even when they did list the cast, they didn’t specify which role each actor had played. I think several of them play more than one role, but there are also loads of other actors playing some of the smaller roles. I’m almost certain it’s Daniel Mays giving a tour-de-force performance as Capt’n Flint the parrot, who starts out as part of the humour and gets progressively scarier as the thing goes on.

There’s some appropriately sea-shanty style incidental music and the sound effects are great – waves crashing, ships creaking, cutlasses clashing, big guns booming (jumped a foot in the air when that happened – and I was sitting down at the time. Tuppence was not pleased!). And I warn you now, not only will you find yourself joining in whenever they burst into a full-cast rendition of Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest, but you’ll still be singing it two weeks later – or maybe that’s just me…

Can you tell I loved this? I enjoyed every single minute of it and instead of parcelling it out into half-hour instalments as I usually do with audiobooks, I ended up listening to the bulk of it in two massive chunks over one weekend. It will be one I listen to often again – perfect for dark winter nights or long car journeys or just whenever I’m accosted by the need to hear Ben Gunn tell me again that he’s marooned – marooooooooned, I tell ‘ee! Dark and scary with shafts of humour, tons of action, thrilling adventures, great script, fabulous acting – Yo! Ho! HO!

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hydeThe eternal battle of Good v Evil…

A man and a child accidentally bump into each other at a street corner – a normal everyday incident. But when the child falls down, the man deliberately tramples over her, ignoring her screams of pain. When he is stopped by passers-by, he shows no remorse. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr Hyde, a man who has no obvious deformity but gives off an air so repellent that strangers passing him in the street shudder without knowing why. But this man has some kind of hold over the eminently respectable and well-known scientist, Dr Jekyll, who not only pays compensation for Hyde’s actions, but also gives him the run of his own house, and has made out his will in Hyde’s favour, leaving him everything should Jekyll die… or disappear. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer is at a loss to understand, but feels it his duty to discover more about the mysterious Mr Hyde…

Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him.

Because the story has become so phenomenally well-known, the reader is way ahead of Mr Utterson, the lawyer. In the novella, it’s not till near the end that it’s revealed that Mr Hyde is the result of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. But it’s so well written that knowing the story doesn’t hamper enjoyment in any way. Stevenson builds up the tension and horror beautifully, with one of the best uses of London fog I’ve come across, both as providing a cloak for wickedness and vice, and as a metaphor for the darkness within each human soul. Darkness features throughout, with fog rolling into houses, and Mr Utterson having to face the terrifying climax with only the feeble flicker of a candle to light his way.

The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm... no obvious deformity?
The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm… no obvious deformity?

A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.

Dr Jekyll refuses to tell Mr Utterson anything about his strange friend, but assures him that he could get rid of Hyde any time he chose. Mr Utterson has to accept that and let the matter rest. But one day, months later, a woman looking out of a window sees a horrifically brutal murder take place. The description she gives of the murderer could only be of Hyde. Mr Utterson races to Hyde’s address in sleazy Soho, but too late! He has vanished! Dr Jekyll seems nervy and upset, but after a while begins to get back into his old routines. Then some weeks later, Mr Utterson receives a visit from Dr Jekyll’s servant – it appears that Mr Hyde is back…

The Spencer Tracy version from 1941
The Spencer Tracy version from 1941. Ah, much better!

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two… If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path… no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

There is more than an element of morality tale about the story. Dr Jekyll has always liked to indulge his vices – mostly left, incidentally, to the reader’s imagination, which works so much better than lengthy graphic descriptions would have done. But now that he has become a well-known figure, he has to think about his reputation. So he decides the solution is to split his personality between good and evil. But the experiment doesn’t work the way he hopes – the Hyde side is indeed purely evil, but the Jekyll side doesn’t change – he still retains all his vices and weaknesses even when in that guise, and gradually the Hyde side begins to take control. The suggestion is that, if one gives in to one’s evil side, it will always become dominant, so we must guard against it at all times. It’s not nearly as preachy as I’ve probably just made it sound, though. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling, chilling tale of horror!

Great stuff! I hereby forgive Stevenson for boring me in Kidnapped! And now to watch the film…

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Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

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

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

kidnappedMy heart’s in the Highlands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Davie Balfour is left orphaned on the death of his father, he is given a letter that his father left for him and told to take it to one Ebenezer Balfour, Esquire, of Shaws. Dutifully he obeys, only to find that miserly old Ebenezer is his uncle, who is not best pleased at having his nephew foisted upon him, for fear he may discover the family secret. So Ebenezer tricks David into going aboard the brig Covenanter, where he is promptly knocked senseless and carried off to be sold into slavery in the Carolinas. But with the help of a new-found friend, Alan Breck Stewart, David escapes and finds himself wandering the Highlands of Scotland – a dangerous place just a few years after the failed Jacobite rebellion, where clan is set against clan, and supporters of the Pretender are being hunted or victimised by those who support the King. And when David is accidentally caught up in a murder, he finds he too is being hunted. His only hope is to make it safely back to the Lowlands, while Alan Breck must try to escape back to France, where his chief is in exile.

kidnapped tower

Written in 1886, the story is set over a century earlier, in 1752. In reality, it’s mainly an adventure story, but I always find old historical novels interesting because of the double hit – seeing how people of an earlier generation interpreted an even earlier historical period. Stevenson gives us a very unromanticised version of the clans as uncouth hard-drinking, hard fighting men scratching out a subsistence living from the barren wastelands of the Highlands – a good deal more accurate, I’d imagine, than some of the later more idealised versions of the Jacobite story. It surprised me a little though since I thought that, by the time he was writing this book, the romanticisation of the landscape and culture, begun by Sir Walter Scott and encouraged by Queen Victoria’s love affair with the Highlands, was well underway. Stevenson’s depiction conveys none of the wild grandeur we now associate with the mountains and glens and even our heroes are pretty unheroic.

kidnapped shipwreck

However, without over-emphasising it, he does show some sympathy for the hardships the Highlanders were forced to suffer at the hands of a government determined to destroy the clan system to prevent further rebellion. He talks of the banning of the kilt and points up the difficulties this caused to those too poor to acquire other kinds of clothing; he describes the hiding of arms to get round the ban on Highlanders carrying weapons; he shows the severe privations caused to the poor by being expected to support their own chieftains in exile while also paying taxes to the government; and he hints at the depopulation of the landscape through forced mass emigration to the New World – the beginnings of the euphemistically named Highland Clearances. But his hero is a loyal supporter of King George and a true son of the Covenanters, complete with priggish antipathy towards anything that might be considered fun.

kidnapped 4

All of this is entertaining to anyone with an interest in Scottish history, but I feel Stevenson assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the aftermath of the Rebellion that most non-Scottish readers and probably even many modern Scottish readers may not have. And I suspect the result of that may mean that the story feels slow in places as he digresses a little from the action to set the book in its historical and social context. I felt the pacing was uneven overall. There are some great action scenes – the battle aboard the ship, the shipwreck, the flight from the murder scene – but there are also quite lengthy lulls, usually when poor David is taken ill, which happens with great regularity. Again, probably realistic given the circumstances, but not the stuff of which great heroic adventures are normally made. And I found his personality grating – the older David who is narrating the story frequently remarks himself on how self-obsessed and immature his younger self’s behaviour was, and I could only agree. There is some Scots dialect in the dialogue but not enough and not broad enough, I think, to cause problems for non-Scottish readers.

kidnapped 3

The beginning of the book was the best part for me, when David was at sea, and it picked up again towards the end, when they had made it back to civilisation and set out to prove David’s identity. But I found the central section dragged, when David and Alan are wandering interminably around the Highlands, and half the time is spent on David bemoaning the physical hardship he is undergoing or describing his ill-health. And the ending is so abrupt that I actually wondered if a final chapter might be missing from my Kindle edition, but apparently not. Definitely worth reading, but if I was recommending just one novel about the Jacobite rebellion it would still be DK Broster’s The Flight of the Heron – it may be overly romanticised, but it’s also much more fun. And with a far, far better hero in my beloved Ewen Cameron, the Darcy of the Highlands…

Ian McCulloch as Ewen Cameron in the 1960s TV adaptation of The Flight of the Heron.
Ian McCulloch as Ewen Cameron in the 1960s TV adaptation of The Flight of the Heron.
Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer
Book 5 of my 20 Books of Summer

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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…

TUESDAY TERROR!

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:         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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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.

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:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀