BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, corrupt morality and body horror. Oh the happy times!

Sometimes I wonder, when reading back old, well-known books, if I’m missing out on the experience of these books, as of course I know the ending. I’m not sold on the idea that “spoilers” are just that – something that always spoils your enjoyment – but certainly there are works of fiction built around a reveal, or a twist, and lean heavily on it for their impact on the reader. Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde leans heavily on it’s central conceit and I can’t help but wonder if the first time reader, unaware that the ailing and desperate Jekyll, and monstrous Hyde are one and the same, would be massively shocked by it’s big reveal about two-thirds in, or whether the foreshadowing is too heavy.

Regardless of knowing the outcome however, Jekyll & Hyde is a well crafted story that makes the most of it’s relatively short length. Told from the perspective of a typical “nice guy” – a character of whom it is said that he keeps friends with even unpleasant or “fallen” types because he is just that tolerant – who after a chance encounter comes to believe that his old friend Jekyll has come under the sway of a malevolent character named Hyde. After much investigation, and some to-ing and fro-ing as Jekyll becomes withdrawn and seemingly better again as Hyde appears and disappears from the London streets, eventually the horrible truth is revealed, and the final third is Jekyll’s posthumous testimony to the fate he has inflicted upon himself.

Part of the power of the story undoubtedly comes from the idea of inner evil unleashed. Jekyll states has always struggled against his “baser urges” and that the Hyde persona is an outlet for them, initially under control and later a creeping personality in it’s own right, compelling his actions and even dictating how long he stays in Hyde’s deformed shape. These urges are somewhat nebulously defined in the story – Victorian society being what it was, we are really talking about prostitutes and opium, I would guess – but there is a resonance that would fit in any age where certain behaviours were barred for “respectable” men. And besides that, the addiction/compulsion narrative is strong regardless of whether it’s drugs, sex, or anything else.

I really enjoyed it, all told. It’s a cracking, well paced read that remains accessible over a century on from it’s publishing. Knowing the “twist” certainly limits its impact – it’s a mystery story as much as a horror one – but it’s still pretty effective with a bunch of well drawn victorian everyman characters. It’s also nice to see the first case on the list (yes, i know we are only three books in!) of internalised horror over external, “other” based horror, something personally I find a little more chilling.

Next time: Our first encounter with Bloodsuckers, with Bram Stoker’s (totally non-sparkly, non-emo) Dracula.

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below of via twitter @thegrampus.

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