Rudyard Kipling: The Best Short Stories

It’s always puzzled me that if you look for Kipling’s great masterwork, there isn’t one. The Light That Failed is an unsuccessful novel about an artist who goes blind; Stalky and Co is an unpleasant collection of stories about beastly chaps at prep school; Captains Courageous is a boys’ adventure yarn; the Jungle and Just So books are for children.

Only Kim survives the wreckage of his reputation as a long and successful narrative. So whence Kipling’s fame?

Because for a decade or more he was a mood, an atmosphere, created by a prolific stream of texts (over 250 short stories, hundreds of poems commenting on all aspects of the age) singing the praises of Hard Work, Duty and Discipline, describing the Empire’s wars and woes head-on, giving voice to the common squaddie and stoker, making himself the Voice of a Generation.

Because no other writer had anything like his ambition or scope, Kipling became the pushy, cocky voice of the British Empire, ramshackle, crudely jingoistic, unthinkingly racist, unremittingly patriotic – though he often embarrassed the patricians and politicians who ran the thing with his criticism and sarcasm and general vulgarity.

But his fiction – his art – is far larger than his cartoon reputation. Having read the 13 stories in this collection, what emerges is not at all the racist Jingo I was expecting, but a mouthy aficionado bursting to let you know that he understands all about the newfangled radio and electric lights and motor cars, about steamers and soldiers’ slang and conditions in the East End, scrambling his stories down in quick workmanlike prose, beneath whose bluster lies a strange, eerie, haunted imagination.

I hadn’t expected there to be so many ghost stories and weird premonitions. I hadn’t expected his prose to be so prone to odd phrasing and unexpected angles.

The stories are often short, slight, not very well-written – and yet have an eerie gripping power.

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

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