More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885)

Stevenson followed the New Arabian Nights (1882) with More New Arabian Nights (1885), a set of intricately (and preposterously) interlinked stories, beginning with a man walking blandly home through London and then taking us to the American mid-West, to Paris, Glasgow and beyond with tales of murder, extortion, starvation and survival, grand deceit, escapes from the police, disguises and terrorism. I struggled with New Arabian Nights and have to confess I abandoned reading this book.

Conan Doyle and Stevenson The Story of the Destroying Angel is set among trekking Mormons in the 1860s and 70s. The religion is portrayed as a sinister cult, with its members liable to extortion and even murder at the hands of its terrifying leaders whose revenge extends even overseas. This is exactly the same setting Conan Doyle uses for the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study In Scarlet, which he wrote the year after MNANs was published, 1886.

London-centric For all that Stevenson is thought of as a historical novelist or a Scottish novelist, the core setting of all these stories is London, and they are based on a kind of core assumption that London – the largest city in the world with over 4 million inhabitants – the capital of the greatest empire the world has ever seen – offers endless opportunities for adventure and excitement. The word ‘London’ occurs 24 times, its roar and fogs as omnipresent as in Sherlock Holmes.

Structure Three men down on their luck bump into each other near Leicester Square. One of them takes the others to the comfy cigar shop run by the down-on-his-luck hero of the New Arabian Nights, Prince Florizel. Over a puff they vow to each go out of their way to have an adventure; they leave the shop and – surprise – each then has an adventure. Not so subtly these adventures turn out all to be interlinked.

  • “Prologue of the Cigar Divan”. Three down at heel gentlemen meet and take a cigar and discuss having adventures.
  • “Challoner’s adventure: The Squire of Dames”. Challoner is walking through a quiet London street in Putney when he hears a bang and smoke escaping from a house quickly followed by two men and woman running out. He follows the woman and tries at tedious length to get her to tell her story…
  • “Story of the Destroying Angel”. The woman tells a long cock-and-bull story about how her father trekking West in America comes across a party of Mormons escaping persecution; rescuing them he becomes a respected member of the settlement they found. But Mormon tyranny eventually leads him to be persecuted and then assassinated. The young lady flees Utah to England, Liverpool and London helped by the loyal doctor who has always been a friend of the family. He promises his son will rendezvous with her in London. Instead she is amazed when the doctor himself arrives and announces he is working on an Elixir of Eternal Youth: once he has completed it and drunk it he will be as young as a son and a worthy suitor for her. He calls her to witness him adding the finishing touches to the potion but instead of becoming the Elixir it explodes in a cloud of smoke. This is the explosion she claims Challoner saw as he walked past the house in Putney…
  • “The Squire of Dames (Concluded)” She says Challoner must immediately catch a train to Glasgow and meet the only man who can rescue her. With misgivings he goes, knocks on the door to find a terrified man who reads the letter he is bearing, runs round the house then exits with a slam of the door. Challoner finds the letter he’d been carrying which describes him, Challoner, as a foolish oaf whose sole purpose is to warn the inhabitant of the house that the police are on their track. At that moment the police knock on the door! and, terrified, Challoner flees into the garden where he finds a ladder, leans it against the wall, climbs up and over to find himself received by conspirators who whisk him off to a safe house. He is caught up in some kind of dastardly conspiracy!
  • “Somerset’s adventure: The Superfluous Mansion” the narrative cuts to another of the loafers who had met in the cigar shop, Somerset who, walking home, encounters an old lady who takes him to her house. There she tells him the following story:
  • “Narrative of the Spirited Old Lady” As a young lady she rebelled against her parents and arranged to elope with a family friend, so she fled to London but the friend bottled out and never appeared. Thus flung on the world she took rooms but quickly found herself in debt. She tries to sneak out of her rented rooms with a heavy case and luckily finds a dashing young man to help her. They take a cab to a house where he reveals himself as an immensely rich aristocrat who proposes to her on the spot. They are happily married for years and have a daughter who, however, gets involved with political causes and runs away. the husband passes on. The old lady inherits her husband’s wealth and the house where they are now talking…
  • “The Superfluous Mansion (Continued)” She tells him a further long account of how she was once loitering near her house, which she had rented out to strangers, when she noticed some odd behaviour. A man approaching, then going away from, then again approaching her house. She sneaks in the back way and discovers an assassin with a bomb in the pantry (and locks him in) and then a young man in colloquy with Prince Florizel (for it is he!). the young man realises his plot (whatever it is) has been found out and promptly swallows poison but the old lady is swift and administers an emetic (lots of vinegar). there is a muffled explosion from below where the other young man, realising his plot has been foiled, shoots himself!…
  • “Zero’s Tale of the Explosive Bomb”
  • “The Superfluous Mansion (Continued)”
  • “Desborough’s Adventure: The Brown Box”
  • “Story of the Fair Cuban”
  • “The Brown Box (Concluded)”
  • “The Superfluous Mansion (Concluded)”
  • “Epilogue of the Cigar Divan”

Silliness There’s probably lots to say about how Stevenson’s use of interlinking narratives, of contrasting point of view and so on claim him as an early Modernist or post-Modernist. But from the reader’s point of view this elaborate structuring has a fatal flaw: I don’t care about the stories. They are so obviously made up, padded out, and badly written, they are such wretched examples of Victorian melodrama at its worst, that I gave up being interested in any of the characters or what happened to them, and eventually abandoned reading the book altogether.

Stage melodrama The word ‘terror’ occurs 23 times, often with no justification. It is used to assert the thing, not to create it through narrative. And to create stagey moments of arch melodrama:

‘Thank you a thousand times!  But at this hour, in this appalling silence, and among all these staring windows, I am lost in terrors—oh, lost in them!’ she cried, her face blanching at the words.  ‘I beg you to lend me your arm,’ she added with the loveliest, suppliant inflection.  ‘I dare not go alone; my nerve is gone—I had a shock, oh, what a shock!  I beg of you to be my escort.’


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: