Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Rating: 3 Stars

First published in 1885, Stevenson’s novella failed to attract much attention for a month or two, before it suddenly surged to popularity and became a best-seller of its time. Reading it, I was wondering if it really qualified as horror, since it wasn’t, well, very horrific. But technically speaking, it is rated as horror, since it has all the necessary literary elements that are the hallmarks of this genre. 

The story is told from the viewpoint of Mr. Utterson, a lawyer who is a close friend of Dr. Henry Jekyll. The good-hearted Utterson is troubled by Jekyll’s association with the unsavory Edward Hyde. He fears that his friend is somehow being compromised by the latter, but how? Is Hyde Jekyll’s blackmailer, or his illegitimate son? Actually, Utterson’s character doesn’t voice these possibilities, but we can hear him thinking them. The lawyer is filled with even more foreboding for Jekyll’s safety, when the doctor makes out his will in favor of the much younger Hyde. A murder is committed, and deaths ensue before Utterson’s questions are finally resolved. 

‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is unlikely to raise even the smallest icy prickle in the spine of a veteran fan of Horror fiction. Poor Stevenson, it’s not his fault we need merely turn on the evening news to have our sensibilities inundated with stories that fill us with fear and loathing. Today’s horror writers are compelled to elaborate ever further on gore-soaked and flesh-crawling details to elicit anything more than a tepid response from a desensitized reading public. 

Stevenson, to his credit, is a wonderful story-teller. Though this book was written a couple of years before Jack the Ripper began his spree of  terror, Stevenson brings before our mind’s eye the fogs roiling around the dimly lit streets of nineteenth century London – a place where menace, in the stunted form of Hyde, lurks around every corner, and the suspense rises to a shrill crescendo. This book predates medical diagnoses of psychopathic personality disorder, and holds a unique place in Literature in its study of human nature torn between good and evil. It was a prototype for the many horror/thriller books that followed in its wake.

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