Strange Tales by Rudyard Kipling (2006)

One of several repackagings of Kipling short stories by the bargain reprint house, Wordsworth Editions, this one is a selection of horror or ghost stories, with a brisk introduction by David Stuart Davies, and containing:

The Mark of the Beast (1890) In India, some chaps get drunk on New Year’s Eve and one of them, Fleete, blind drunk, rushes into a temple they’re passing and stubs out his cigar on the forehead of a statue of Hanuman the Monkey God. A leprous priest of the god appears from nowhere and grapples with the drunk, biting him on the breast. Almost immediately Fleete falls ill with a fever. The following day he asks for raw chops as the mark on his chest grows. The narrator and his friend, the policeman Strickland, become concerned. They keep Fleete at Strickland’s house and within days he is howling like a wolf and grovelling in the dirt. At this stage I was speculating that they’d either find a cure for the way Fleete appears to be becoming a werewolf, or that Fleete turns completely wolf and has to be hunted down and shot with a silver bullet!

Neither. Instead, Strickland and the narrator hear the leper priest (in a horrible detail, the leper is incapable of speaking – he has only a ‘slab’ for a face – and can only make a horrible mewing noise) prowling round outside the house. So they nip out and grab him, bring him inside and then – in a sequence that is actually far worse than the werewolf/possession description – they torture the leper priest by tying him to a bedstead and applying red-hot gun barrels heated in a fire.

Eventually, unable to bear the torture any longer, the priest is released, staggers over the feverish Fleete and simply touches him on the chest and the curse is lifted – simple as that. Strickland and the narrator release the priest, who goes off without a sound, not even mewing. Within a few hours Fleete has had a bath and is restored to jolly good humour, imagining he’s been on a long drunk. Only Strickland and the narrator know – not only what was happening to Fleete but, what they both know is worse, that they have behaved immorally enough to be dismissed from the Service.

This is a harsh initiation into the sadism and cruelty which lurks beneath the surface and sometimes is just on the surface, of so much of Kipling’s early writing.

The Return of Imray (1891) Another story collected in Plain Tales From the Hills, told by the same narrator and also featuring Strickland from the Police, as above. A man called Imray disappears and, after a while, Strickland rents his bungalow. The narrator comes to stay. It rains and Kipling describes India in the casually knowledgeable way he did in scores of stories and poems, making the place his imaginative fiefdom for generations of readers.

The heat of the summer had broken up and turned to the warm damp of the rains. There was no motion in the heated air, but the rain fell like ramrods on the earth, and flung up a blue mist when it splashed back. The bamboos, and the custard-apples, the poinsettias, and the mango-trees in the garden stood still while the warm water lashed through them, and the frogs began to sing among the aloe hedges.

But Strickland’s dog, Tietjens, refuses to enter the bedroom, preferring to be outside in the rain. Our chaps ponder this odd behaviour. Then they notice some snakes’ tails dangling through the gap between the fabric ceiling and the rafters in the bedroom. Strickland pulls that part of the ceiling away to reach the snakes and discovers – the mummified of Imray carefully hidden among the rafters! It emerges that Imray’s servant, who Strickland has inherited – Bahadur Khan – murdered and hid his master because Imray patted his son on the head and soon after his son sickened and died.

There is a harshness in the story itself – but even in details it is repellent. Here, as in so many other places, Kipling goes out of his way to be offensive to women.

If a mere wife had wished to sleep out of doors in that pelting rain it would not have mattered; but Tietjens was a dog, and therefore the better animal.

Maybe he thought this was funny, maybe he was trying to fit in with the boys, maybe he thought this was ‘manly’ talk. But this kind of throwaway insult damages his stories not because it’s offensive (though it is offensive) as that it’s just crude, and it tends to bring out the crudeness of the rest of the narrative with it.

The Phantom Rickshaw (1889) First person narrative (most of them are) told by Theobald Jack Pansay who had a ship-board romance with Agnes Keith-Wessington, wife of another officer in the service, but then breaks it off in order to concentrate on his fiancee, Kitty. Agnes, however, refuses to accept the end of the affair and plagues Pansay, following him everywhere, turning up at the most embarrassing junctures in her yellow-panelled rickshaw.

Pansay’s (emotional) brutality makes her pine away and die of a broken heart, not that he cares much. But as he squires pretty Kitty around Simla – the rest town for British officers in northern India – to his horror, the rickshaw and dead Agnes appear again and again, parked across the road, blocking his path when they’re out riding, and everywhere Pansay hears the ghost’s pitiful voice declaring it’s all some ‘hideous mistake’.

When he overcomes his horror enough to try talking to the ‘ghost’, his friends think he’s talking into empty air and is drunk or going mad. Kitty breaks off the engagement with a man who’s become the laughing stock of the town. Pansay’s life falls to pieces and the final section of the text is journal entries in which the narrator describes himself waiting resignedly for his own inevitable death.

Pity me, at least on the score of my ‘delusion’, for I know you will never believe what I have written here. Yet as surely as ever a man was done to death by the Powers of Darkness I am that man.
In justice, too, pity her. For as surely as ever woman was killed by man, I killed Mrs. Wessington. And the last portion of my punishment is ever now upon me.

The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes (1885) Another first-person narrative, this time told by a young officer in India who takes his horse, Pornic, for an impetuous ride and trips, stumbles and falls down a steep sandy slope into a bizarre village of the undead.

Out of the holes they have excavated into the side of the sandy slope shuffle the nightmareish inhabitants. They were all Hindus, who were thought to be dead, whose bodies were lovingly prepared by their relatives to be burned and cremated, but then (as sometimes happens) stirred with life and revived. Since their religion had ceremoniously moved them on beyond this world they were not allowed to return to normal life but consigned to this open air prison for the living dead, unable to escape up the high, almost vertical, sand sides of the enclave.

Jukes sees that the settlement is open to the river on one side but when he tries to wade out into it, rifle shots are fired from a boat which guards that exit. Even at night, when the boat goes away, the sandy spits in the river turn out to be treacherous quicksand, impossible to escape.

This is all bizarre enough, but the story turns on the relationship between Jukes and a ‘native’ who shows him the ropes, Gunga Dass. Dass is by turns abjectly servile, until his knowledge of the village of the undead reverses the tables and he lords it over Jukes – until the latter restores the good order of the Empire by giving him a good kicking.

He threw himself down on the ground and clasped my ankles. But I had my doubts about Gunga Dass’s benevolence, and kicked him off as he lay protesting… Brahmin or no Brahmin, by my soul and my father’s soul, in you go!” I said, and, seizing him by the shoulders, I crammed his head into the mouth of the burrow, kicked the rest of him in,  and, sitting down, covered my face with my hands.

Jukes discovers that another white man had fallen into the settlement and had been working out a route across the quicksand, a little every night, when Dass treacherously shot him dead with his own revolver. Jukes establishes that the white man had made a map of sorts, and is preparing to try it out that night, after the gun boat leaves, when Dass – knowing his plan – hits him over the head, knocking him unconscious. When Jukes comes to, he groggily hears his loyal servant, Dunnoo, his dog-boy, calling over the lip of the sand. Dunnoo had trailed Juke’s horse’s tracks to the Village of the Dead and now throws down a rope, allowing Juke to escape in a flash. Did Dass escape using the map? The narrator and reader never find out.

The strangeness of the subject should dominate but is tainted or even superseded by the casual brutality of the narrator and his assumption that it is fine for a white man to kick an Indian into obedience.

‘They’ (1904) The unnamed narrator is driving his car round Sussex when he comes across a mysteriously beautiful and quiet country house, where he spies children playing amid the landscaped gardens, before meeting the owner, an elegant beautiful woman who is quite blind. It takes several visits and repeated hints from the remote butler, before the penny drops, and the narrator realises the elusive children are ghosts – a realisation passed to him when one of the children kisses his palm in a way he realises, with a jolt, only his dead daughter did. A major feature of Kipling’s fiction is its tendency to be clipped and elliptical. Thus nowhere in the story does it say it was the kiss of the narrator’s child; I only learned this crucial fact from the Kipling Society website’s excellent notes on the story.

Atmosphere and description. Here is the narrator in his car:

As I reached the crest of the Downs I felt the soft air change, saw it glaze under the sun; and, looking down at the sea, in that instant beheld the blue of the Channel turn through polished silver and dulled steel to dingy pewter. A laden collier hugging the coast steered outward for deeper water and, across copper-coloured haze, I saw sails rise one by one on the anchored fishing-fleet. In a deep dene behind me an eddy of sudden wind drummed through sheltered oaks, and spun aloft the first day sample of autumn leaves. When I reached the beach road the sea-fog fumed over the brickfields, and the tide was telling all the groins of the gale beyond Ushant. In less than an hour summer England vanished in chill grey. We were again the shut island of the North, all the ships of the world bellowing at our perilous gates; and between their outcries ran the piping of bewildered gulls. My cap dripped moisture, the folds of the rug held it in pools or sluiced it away in runnels, and the salt-rime stuck to my lips.

In The Same Boat (1911) London in the Edwardian era. Conroy is addicted to najdolene pills to manage a recurring nightmare of being aboard ship and hearing men scream in the engine room and stark terror as a man screams in his face this ship is going down and all is lost. His suave specialist Dr Gilbert introduces him to a fellow patient, the statuesque beautiful Miss Henschil whose similar terror is a vision of men with faces covered in mildew pursuing her across a beach. Over a series of train excursions from London they discuss their symptoms and, by talking, manage to control them, slowly giving up the pills. The denouement comes when Miss Henschil’s nurse, dumpy freckly Miss Blabey, reveals that she spoke with Miss H’s mother who revealed that the faceless men incident actually happened – she visited a leper colony in India when pregnant with Miss H, and the leprous men followed her. This revelation makes the shadow pass from her mind, she is suddenly whole and restored. And when Conroy visits his mother in Hereford, she also confirms that his night terror – which he’d never told her about – was an actual incident which happened to her when she was pregnant and on board a ship returning from India in 1885, when two stokers were scalded by steam and a man thought he’d play a cruel joke on her by telling her the ship was going down. She quickly realised it was a ‘joke’ and forgot about it – but in both cases the fright was obviously so intense that, somehow, it penetrated the souls of the little foetuses in their mothers’ wombs.

Interesting as the premise for a horror story; and interesting insight into drug addiction in the Edwardian era.

The Dog Hervey (1914) Set in cosy, rural Sussex among middle-class families with big houses and servants, typified by Mrs Godfrey and her daughter Milly. The narrator’s friend, Attley, owns a dog who’s given birth to puppies, and so he invites his circle round to choose ones to adopt. A manky one with a squint is chosen by a ‘dark, sallow-skinned, slack-mouthed girl’, Miss Sichliffe. After a few weeks Attley turns up with the dog, saying it’s come down sick and Miss Sichcliffe doesn’t know how to look after it, so can the narrator look after it please? He does – but finds the dog eerie and uncanny. Now named Hervey, this clumsy squinting dog spends all its time looking at him, unnervingly.

A few weeks later, the narrator gets a call that his friends, Mrs Godfrey and Milly, have been taken sick on Madeira. He takes a ship there and a lot of time passes as he and Attley nurse the ladies back to health. On the island they fall in with a wealthy yacht-owner named Shend. Eventually they all ship back to Blighty on a commercial steamer. During the voyage Shend confesses to the narrator that he is an alcoholic, coming to him one night on the verge of delirium tremens. The narrator is sympathetic, listening to poor Shend’s account of his condition, keeping him talking, and eventually Shend confesses that one of his hallucinations is of a funny squint-eyed dog. Really? Can is be of Hervey? How?

The ship docks and the narrator’s loyal chauffeur is there to collect him in his fine motor (Kipling loved motor cars). They drive back through Sussex and stop at the gate of Miss Sichcliffe’s house, where she happens to be outside gardening. Young Shend alights and goes to speak to her. They immediately get on well and turn towards the house together. The dog Hervey is there, skulking, and needs little encouragement to jump into the narrator’s car and be driven home, there to rejoin the narrator’s other dog, Malachi.

I read this story fairly carefully and still don’t understand what it was ‘about’.

The House Surgeon (1909) On an ocean voyage the narrator gets talking to L. Maxwell M’Leod who tells him his story. He recently bought a big old house – Holmescroft – in the Home Counties off the three Moultrie sisters through their lawyer, Baxter, but he has come to believe the house is cursed or haunted.

The narrator is sceptical so, once they’ve docked in England, M’Leod invites him over for a weekend. No sooner is the narrator inside the building than he experiences the extraordinary sense of depression, guilt and despair it throws over everyone who inhabits it.

Intrigued and disturbed, the narrator goes off to visit the lawyer, Baxter, who sold it to M’Leod. He inveigles his way into Baxter’s favour by taking up golf (which he detests) under Baxter’s tutelage and eventually being invited to a health spa, along with the spinster sisters in question, the Moultrie sisters.

What emerges is that only two of the three sisters are now alive – Miss Elizabeth and Miss Mary. The youngest, Miss Agnes, died when they owned Holmescroft. She was found on the path beneath an open first floor window. Now:

a) The narrator himself had stayed in that very room a few weeks earlier, and had noticed that the catch to the window was very close to the floor and stiff, so that in forcing it up and open he very nearly fell out.

b) At this spa there is a dramatic scene when Miss Mary shrieks for help and Baxter and the narrator burst into the sisters’ bedroom to find Miss Mary, her hand and throat covered with blood, wrestling with the open window while her sister grips her knees to stop her throwing herself to her death! Miss Elizabeth claims her sister had slashed her throat and was trying to throw herself out of the window. But after the hysterical women have been calmed down, it emerges that Miss Mary had done no such thing, but had been struggling with the stiff catchment of the window with such force that, when it finally gave, her wrist went through a pane and she accidentally cut herself.

Suddenly all four of them realise that this is what must have happened to their sister, Agnes, at Holmescroft. She had been struggling with the wretched window, yanked it open and fallen to her death by accident. Her spirit has been haunting the wretched house and trying to explain what really happened. This accounts for the terrible sense of foreboding, depression and above all, that something unspeakable is trying to tell you something, that afflicts M’Leod’s family and the narrator and anybody else who enters the building.

The narrator phones the M’Leod family and tells them to vacate the old house while he brings the two spinster sisters over, which they do. The sisters go up to the fatal bedroom (while the narrator and Baxter wait downstairs) and have some kind of mysterious communion with their dead sibling. When they return they have, somehow, spoken to the spirit of their sister, they have accepted that her death was an accident, the terrible secret the house needed to speak has been spoken, and now, magically, Holmescroft is a happy, well-lit, beautiful house again.

The M’Leod family are delighted, and romp through their beautiful and now-released home, and happy young Miss M’Leod sings an old English air.

The name of the story comes from the fact that on the night of the panic at the spa when they think Miss Elizabeth is trying to kill herself, the narrator is introduced as the hospital doctor (to spare the embarrassment of Baxter having to explain that he’s in fact just an acquaintance who he’s told the family secrets); and has another ironic meaning by the end of the story, when the narrator emerges as the hero of the hour who discovered the secret of Holmescroft’s haunting and managed to exorcise it. Early on the narrator says he is no Sherlock Holmes and this draws our attention to the Holmes in the name of the house, Holmescroft.

The Wish House (1924) Frame: Two old Sussex ladies, Mrs Ashcroft and Mrs Fettley meet to do some knitting in the sunshine, not much bothered by the packed charabancs motoring by down to the local football ground (the kind of framing detail which Kipling delights in). They fall to telling stories about men, men they’ve loved and lost. Mrs Fettley tells a story about a man she loved, who died recently, but Kipling is such a savage editor of his own works that the entire story has been cut.

Mrs. Fettley had spoken very precisely for some time without interruption, before she wiped her eyes. ‘And,’ she concluded, ‘they read ‘is death-notice to me, out o’ the paper last month.

Then Kipling adjusts himself, makes himself more comfortable, eases deeper into the atmosphere he’s created.

The light and air had changed a little with the sun’s descent, and the two elderly ladies closed the kitchen-door against chill. A couple of jays squealed and skirmished through the undraped apple-trees in the garden. This time, the word was with Mrs. Ashcroft, her elbows on the teatable, and her sick leg propped on a stool…

Story: Now Mrs Ashcroft reveals that she was desperately in love with Harry Mockler, Bert Mockler’s son. It was a fierce passion when she came down from London to the area to work. She went to the lengths of scalding her arm to delay her return. Then they arranged for Harry to get a job up Lunnon so they could be close. ‘‘Dere wadn’t much I didn’t do for him. ‘E was me master.’ But eventually he tired of her and took to other women.

Then a new element enters the text: their charwoman’s fiddle girl — Sophy Ellis. When Mrs Ashcroft has one of her severe headaches, the little slip of a girl goes off to a ‘wish house’, just a non-descript terraced house that’s been abandoned for some time, and says her wish through the letter box to the ‘token’, or demon, within. And – miraculously – Mrs Ashcroft’s headache disappears because Sophy has taken it for her. Stuff and nonsense, the older woman cries, when the girl tries to explain.

But when, later, Mrs Ashcroft bumps into Harry in the street, still besotted with him (though he shamefacedly avoids acknowledging her) she notices that he is looking very ill, and learns that he’s been in hospital having cut his foot badly with a spade and got infected.

So, after much soul-searching, Mrs Ashcroft nerves herself to go to the ‘wish house’, furtively and embarrassed. She knocks and hears an eerie shuffling sound coming closer, then pokes open the letter box.

I stooped me to the letter-box slit, an’ I says: “Let me take everythin’ bad that’s in store for my man, ‘Arry Mockler, for love’s sake.” Then, whatever it was ‘tother side de door let its breath out, like, as if it ‘ad been holdin’ it for to ‘ear better.’
‘Nothin’ was said to ye?’ Mrs. Fettley demanded.
‘Na’un. She just breathed out — a sort of A-ah, like. Then the steps went back an’ downstairs to the kitchen — all draggy — an’ I heard the cheer drawed up again.’

She learns soon afterwards that Harry is healed and getting on with his womanising while she, for her part, develops a nasty ulcer on her shin which she’s had ever since. And that’s it. As so often in Kipling the eerie, ghostly, supernatural element is strangely downbeat, undramatic, almost mundane.

Now, as she talks to her friend, Mrs Ashcroft knows she is dying. And Mrs Fettley, for her part, confesses that she’s going blind. It is a picture of two afflicted old women at the end of their lives. In the final paragraphs, Mrs Ashcroft needs reassuring by her friend that her sacrifice has been worth it, that by taking Harry’s pain she will guarantee his love… in another place.

‘But the pain do count, don’t ye think, Liz? The pain do count to keep ‘Arry where I want ’im. Say it can’t be wasted, like.’

This is a stunning story and a tremendous advance in Kipling’s art from the heartless casual misogyny of his early tales. He shows a moving imaginative sympathy with physical pain and with a certain kind of muted, dignified psychological suffering. And this is just one of many late tales which reach out and depict older women with a tremendous vividness and sympathy.

A Matter of Fact (1892) Three journalists – Keller, Zuyland and the narrator – on a steamer from South Africa to England, the Rathmines, witness a wonder at sea – first a tsunami sends a vast wave of water past them, immediately they are caught in a fog and narrowly miss other boats sent hurtling by the wave but then – the fog clears and they see a never-before-observed vast leviathan of the deep, badly injured (presumably from some underwater cataclysm) break the surface and howl and moan, with great blind eyes and an appalling face surrounded by feelers – and then its female mate also surface and swim round it keening until the male dies and sinks and the female, after last haunting wails, itself disappears.

The stunned newspapermen fall to writing their accounts of this historic event but, in this the second part of the story, as they approach Southampton, dock and take the train amid the snug suburban villas and arrive in smoky London with its ancient institutions, they realise it’s hopeless: nobody will believe them; such a miracle just won’t be believed in this staid suburban country. The American holds out the longest but when he takes the story to the Times, is thrown out as a prankster. And over lunch hears the narrator saying the British public would never accept the truth of such a matter – which is why he’s going to dress it up as a fiction and sell it as a short story – the one we’re reading now!

The vision of the tsunami, the monster in the fog, the overturned steamer they pass and then the two creatures is as vivid a piece of science fantasy as anything in H.G. Wells or Conan Doyle. The second half insofar as it takes the mickey out of the American, over-awed by British civilisation, feels cheap, but on another level, also satirises the staid, unimaginative English, who can only accept the out-of-the-ordinary if sold as fiction, and so, to some extent, satirises the author himself and his trade. 

This, I think, is a good example of Kipling’s weakness: there is a powerful central vision but it is weakened by cheap and superficial jibes; his artistry cannot fully support or elaborate the power of the vision – the strength of his imaginative daemon is so often let down by the shallowness of his sensibility. This is why he is a better poet than prose writer, poems being more clipped and focused.

Atmosphere and description:

The sea was as smooth as a duck-pond, except for a regular oily swell. As I looked over the side to see where it might be following us from, the sun rose in a perfectly clear sky and struck the water with its light so sharply that it seemed as though the sea should clang like a burnished gong. The wake of the screw and the little white streak cut by the log-line hanging over the stern were the only marks on the water as far as eye could reach.

‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915) It is the first autumn of the Great War. Old German widow Miss Ebermann is in bed in her apartment in Berlin with a heavy cold, whining at her maid to bring medication from the chemists, and the maid scuttles off. To Miss E’s surprise, when she next opens her eyes, she sees, first one little child poking about in her room, and a moment later, five little children.

Miss Ebermann shouts at them to get out of her apartment, telling them they have no right to break into her home like this. But the children reply that they have been told to come here until ‘their people’ come to reclaim them. And then, through a series of hints, the reader realises that the children are from a town in Belgium where someone fired on the German army passing through, who promptly massacred the inhabitants and burnt it to the ground. Miss Ebermann remembers letters from her son at the front claiming that the German army has to carry out ‘justice’ when it is attacked by treacherous civilians. Now she is seeing the ghostly victims of German ‘justice’.

Her and the reader’s suspicions are crystallised when the children finally agree to leave, but on their way out, as they turn to go, Miss Ebermann sees their horrific open wounds and they leave blood puddled all over her bedroom floor. When the maid comes back into the room she finds the old lady on her hands and knees trying to scrub the blood off the floorboards, so the place is ‘swept and garnished’ ready for the Lord.

The Kipling Society website gives useful historical notes to this story, listing genuine German atrocities from early in the war, including the rumours that the Germans cut off the right arms of Belgian boy children, so they wouldn’t be able to fight in the future. Kipling’s stories are no longer about helping tottering old ladies in health spas as they were only a few short years previously. All is changed, changed utterly.

Mary Postgate (1915) This is an extraordinary story, combining war, vengeance, sadism and barely suppressed sexuality. Mary Postgate is the plain Jane, 44-year-old personal maid to old Miss Fowler. She fetches and carries without question, is always well organised and emotionless. Miss Fowler’s nephew, Wynn, is orphaned and comes to live with them and Mary brings him up almost as a surrogate son though he is unceasingly rude, arrogant and unfeeling to her. When war comes all the sons go off and Wynn enlists in the Air Force, coming to visit them in his fine uniform until one day he is reported dead, having died in a training accident – the implication being that he fell, maybe 4,000 feet, from the cockpit of one of those primitive early aircraft.

Both Mary and Miss Fowler are strangely unemotional – Miss Fowler had expected Wynn’s death all along, Mary had completely repressed her anxiety. The two women agree to donate Wynn’s uniform to the Forces, but to burn all his private belongings. Kipling then gives is a moving page-long description of a young man’s belongings, stretching back through all his toys and school prizes, which Mary collects and takes to the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.

Then she has to go buy some paraffin in the village and, on the way back, she and a friend she’s bumped into, hear a bang and a wail and run behind a house to find a local child, Edna, has been blown up by a casual bomb dropped from a German plane, maybe returning from a bombing raid on London. The friend, a nurse, wraps the little girl’s body in a blanket, which immediately soaks with blood and they carry it indoors. Here the blanket falls open and Mary sees, for a second, poor little Edna’s body torn ‘into those vividly coloured strips and strings’. (Not so far-fetched. I was recently at Essendon, a little village in Hertfordshire. Here, in the early hours of 3 September 1916, a German airship returning from a raid on London dropped a bomb on the village which killed two sisters and damaged the east end of the church. Dead, out of the blue, for no reason, except the incompetence and stupidity of the German Army High Command which thought it could invade and conquer France in 6 weeks in August 1914.)

Staggering out of the house with the eviscerated child, Mary regains control of herself and walks back to the big house. Here she wheelbarrows dead Wynn’s belongings down to the incinerator and begins piling them in to burn. It is at this point that she hears a noise from the trees at the end of the garden and discovers a German airman who also seems to have fallen from the skies and crashed through trees, landing badly injured not far from the incinerator.

And this is the crux of the story: for although Mary gets an old revolver from the house (the kind of thing which seems to have been much more common in those days than now) she decides to deliberately let the man die in agony without calling for a doctor or any help.

And it is in the phrasing of the physical bodily pleasure this gives her, that many critics detect a sexual element, some going so far as to say that the dying man’s death throes give the lifelong repressed virgin an orgasm, as all kinds of anger and repressions brought to a climax.

As she thought — her underlip caught up by one faded canine, brows knit and nostrils wide — she wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom, and careful scrapes round the brick-work above… The exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones. She hummed — Mary never had a voice — to herself… A woman who had missed these things [love, a husband, children] could still be useful — more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it… She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling… Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly…

Anger, revenge, violence, sadism, repressed sex – this is an extraordinarily powerful, haunting concoction of a story.

A Madonna of The Trenches (1924) Frame: One of several post-War stories set in the Freemason Lodge ‘Faith and Works 5837’. The narrator is helping the Senior Warden who is also a doctor, Dr Keede. During a lecture a new recruit, Strangwick, has a nervous attack, has to be helped out and administered a sedative. The noise of scraping chairs had reminded Strangwick of the noise made by the leather straps of the corpses which the French used to build their trenches over, of the squeaking noise the straps made when you walked on the duckboards laid over them. God. What horror. But as Keede gently questions and sympathetically listens to the stammering man, he draws out a story which is far weirder and stranger than mere post-traumatic stress.

Story: Strangwick was in the same regiment as an older man, Sergeant Godsoe, who he’d known since a boy and had been a father figure to him and his sister. On the day in question, Godsoe was found dead in a sealed gas room in the trenches, with two lighted braziers. Asphyxiation. Dr Keede knew about the incident but thought, like everyone else, it was an accident – that the gas-proof door banged shut and locked Godsoe in by accident.

Now Strangwick slowly, hesitantly, in his working class idiom, explains that Godsoe had been having an affair with his (Strangwick’s) auntie Armine, his mum’s sister (real name, in fact, Bella). Auntie Armine had given Strangwick, on his most recent leave, a note to take back to Godsoe, saying her little trouble would be over on the 21st and she was dying to meet him as soon as possible thereafter.

Strangwick, in his job as a runner on the fateful 21 January, thinks he sees his Auntie Armine at a corner of an old French trench, and, when he tells Godsoe, the latter realises what it means and makes Strangwick take him back to the scene. Here Strangwick’s hair stands on end as he realises that the apparition he thought was a trick of the light earlier on, really is the ghost of his Auntie who – he later finds out – died of cancer that morning. The ghostly figure is holding out her arms to Sergeant Godsoe, imploring him with a terrifying look on her face – and the Sergeant calmly beckons her into the gas room with the braziers and barricades the door behind him. He deliberately asphyxiated himself, killed himself, so that he can be with his lover for all eternity.

Frame: Having got all this out of his system, Strangwick sleeps. The Brother who introduced him comes along and apologises for his behaviour. He’s been under a lot of strain, he explains, on account of a ‘breach of promise’ action brought against him by his sweetheart, after Strangwick broke off the engagement. The Brother doesn’t know why, but we know the full story and the way the sight of a) a middle-aged love affair b) and the ghostly horror of his ‘uncle’s death have unhinged Strangwick. And there is a final irony because the Brother who brought him to the Lodge is his actual Uncle, Auntie Armine’s husband. Only Strangwick knows that his Uncle’s wife was so totally unfaithful to him. And this is another element or level in his hysteria.

A spooky story, sure enough – but for me the ghost story element is outweighed by the touching sensitivity to hysterical soldiers shown by the narrator, the doctor and the other Masonic members, who quietly come to enquire if they can help. It is a community of men looking after men.

Strangwick, who had been fidgeting and twitching for some minutes, rose, drove back his chair grinding across the tesselated floor, and yelped ‘Oh, My Aunt! I can’t stand this any longer.’ Under cover of a general laugh of assent he brushed past us and stumbled towards the door.
‘I thought so!’ Keede whispered to me. ‘Come along!’ We overtook him in the passage, crowing hysterically and wringing his hands. Keede led him into the Tyler’s Room, a small office where we stored odds and ends of regalia and furniture, and locked the door.
‘I’m — I’m all right,’ the boy began, piteously.
‘‘Course you are.’ Keede opened a small cupboard which I had seen called upon before, mixed sal volatile and water in a graduated glass, and, as Strangwick drank, pushed him gently on to an old sofa. ‘There,’ he went on. ‘It’s nothing to write home about. I’ve seen you ten times worse. I expect our talk has brought things back.’
He hooked up a chair behind him with one foot, held the patient’s hands in his own, and sat down.

It feels a world away from the cocky young men kicking their native servants in Plain Tales, nearly 40 years earlier.

‘At The End of The Passage’ (1890) Four men in the service of the British Empire in India – a doctor, a civil servant, a surveyor, and an engineer, Hummil. Each week they meet up at Hummil’s station to play cards and eat the horrible food which is all that’s available. It is the summer and blisteringly hot on the plains of northern India, like living in an oven, with nothing to do, no ice, horrible food, barely any drinks. Although there’s a plot of sorts, really this is an evocation of the terrible isolation and mental strain suffered by men given huge responsibilities in an alien and inhospitable land.

They were lonely folk who understood the dread meaning of loneliness. They were all under thirty years of age — which is too soon for any man to possess that knowledge.

Their conversation is about colleagues who’ve died of disease, for example as a result of the continual cholera epidemics, have become lonely alcoholics, or have simply killed themselves – a fairly common occurrence. The doctor, Spurstow, realises their host, Hummil, is at the end of his tether. He is tetchy with his guests and when the other two leave, Spurstow volunteers to stay and Hummil breaks down completely and confesses that he hasn’t slept for days and days, and begs for sleeping pills. Spurstow realises that Hummil has put a spur in his bed to stop himself drifting into the shallow sleep of nightmares. Spurstow disables Hummil’s guns and gives him sleeping draughts.

When the three rendezvous at Hummil’s a week later none of them are surprised to find him dead in his bed. But he didn’t kill himself. In a strange technical twist, Spurstow uses a Kodak camera to take a photograph of the dead man’s eyes and then, minutes after he’s gone into a darkened room to develop the images, the others hear the sound of smashing and breaking. ‘It was impossible,’ he repeats to the others, ‘impossible’. Spurstow obviously saw images of unspeakable horror imprinted on the dead man’s retinas.

The thrust of all these early India stories is the immense sacrifice made by the white men who ran the Empire, in the teeth of resentful ungrateful natives and despite concerted opposition from ignorant Liberals and politicians back home. Their strength is the powerful evocations of India in all its moods: 

There was no further speech for a long time. The hot wind whistled without, and the dry trees sobbed. Presently the daily train, winking brass, burnished steel, and spouting steam, pulled up panting in the intense glare.

And the sense of men at the very limits of endurance is powerfully present and, on a human level, is persuasive. But their weakness is their crudity and the bitter sarcasm and contempt for anyone who opposes his Imperial views which run through them like cheap fabric. And, almost needless to say, the obvious fact that it depicts this vast country overwhelmingly from the point of view of the colonial masters, whose interactions with the native inhabitants all too often are limited to kicking and cursing.

The Bisara of Pooree (1887) Very short story about a tiny magic charm in the shape of a carved fish; whoever owns it can make people fall in love with them. A disreputable man named Pack overhears two officers discussing the charm, one – Churton – has come into possession of it, the other – The Man Who Knows – explains its magic powers. Pack overhears all this, breaks into Churton’s house, steals the Bisara and uses it to magic the lovely Miss Hollis in love with him. Churton is outraged and steals the charm back – very satisfactorily watches Miss Hollis fall out with the reptile Pack, then hands the charm on The Man Who Knows who ties it to the bridle of a native pony and watches it being ridden off into the distance. Although very short, this text packs in loads of facts and attitudes about British India, about the social structure and customs of the British in Simla, as well as the weirdness of the native religions and superstitions, all told with  a droll ironic tone.

The Lost Legion (1892) Told as if to a journalist (as Kipling indeed was): officers on a cavalry night manoeuvre into the foothills of Afghanistan to arrest a persistent bandit leader, Gulla Kutta Mullah, keep hearing the chinking of cavalry behind them; it isn’t their own forces and the bandits’ horses are silent. Our boys are able to penetrate beyond the watch towers of the bandits because the bandits are calling to each other in terror. Because down in the valley they can see the ghosts of an entire native Indian regiment which rebelled in the Great Mutiny of 1857, which fled the British into the marches of Afghanistan, and which was massacred a generation earlier. Now their ghosts return to haunt and paralyse the Afghans allowing the little expeditionary force to take Gulla Kutta Mullah’s village by surprise and (much to Kipling’s ironic disgust) politely arrest him and his other men wanted for various crimes and murders.

The Dream of Duncan Parrenness (1884) Kipling was only 19, maybe 18, when he wrote this pastiche of an 18th century East Indian administrator, returning extremely drunk from a party at the office of Warren Hasting (first Governor-General of British India, until 1785) to be confronted by the ghost of himself in the future,

and I, Duncan Parrenness, who was afraid of no man, was taken with a more deadly terror than I hold it has ever been the lot of mortal man to know. For I saw that his face was my very own, but marked and lined and scarred with the furrows of disease and much evil living.

The ghost of his future self makes the drunk and stunned young man an offer to remove everything that will hinder him in his future career: and, in three grand moments, the apparition says:

  • Give me your trust in men
  • Give me your trust in women
  • Give me your boy’s soul and conscience

and at each vow the apparition puts his hand over Parrenness’s heart, which he feels growing colder and harder. And finally, in return for abandoning all his principles, the apparition puts into his hand – a little piece of dry bread. This has the power and the three-ness of a good folk story; combined with the Biblical strangeness and pregnancy of the piece of bread. No wonder Kipling made such an impression at such an early age, he had full command of his strange, haunting idiom so young.

The Tomb of His Ancestors (1897) A hymn to the dedication and hard work of a typical English family, the Chinns, whose menfolk have served in India for generations, since 1799.

It was slow, unseen work, of the sort that is being done all over India today; and though John Chinn’s only reward came, as I have said, in the shape of a grave at Government expense, the little people of the hills never forgot him.

Young John Chinn takes up a post with the ‘Wuddars’, a regiment made up of men from the Bhil tribe – ‘wild men, furtive, shy, full of untold superstitions’ – who worshiped and revered his father Lionel and his father, John. The text takes a long time explaining the good work the white man did, first to win the trust of a tribe inclined to be savage and murderous, then to discipline them and bring them The Law, and eventually Pride in the native Regiment which they formed and served in.

The arrival of young Chinn back for England to join his Wuddars allows Kipling na orgy of lachrymose sentimentality as the young man remembers the Bhil phrases he used in his boyhood, is reunited with his loyal Bhil nurse and faithful Bhil retainer etc and the tears flood into his eyes at each step.

The man was at his feet a second time. ‘He [Chinn] has not forgotten. He remembers his own people as his father remembered. Now can I die. But first I will live and show the Sahib how to kill tigers. That that yonder is my nephew. If he is not a good servant, beat him and send him to me, and I will surely kill him, for now the Sahib is with his own people.’

This old man, Bukta, takes Chinn out for his first tiger shoot which Chinn insists on doing the Bhil way i.e. on foot. Bukta vets reports of tigers until he hears of a monster, ten foot long and virile, they stalk it, and Chinn shoots it through the shoulder at fifteen paces, like a man. That night he is the centre of a native feast or orgy, with lots of strong drink, gifts of flowers from grateful natives and – it is hinted – native women. These treks among the people teach him their ways and customs, and give him authority. Bukta encourages him to dispense the Law to ‘his’ people; his people, for their part, believe his is a demi-god, the reincarnation of his ancestors, even down to the tell-tale Chinn birthmark on his shoulder.

The actual ‘story’ only kicks in half way through the text with all is explanatory apparatus. Rumour comes that the Bhils of the Satpura Mountains have been seeing a vision of old John Chinn riding a tiger in the moonlight. The wise Colonel of the regiment says this kind of thing always prefigures trouble. And sure enough, word then comes that the Satpura Bhils have taken prisoner a Hindu doctor sent to innoculate them against smallpox. So young John Chinn is sent, with the faithful Bukta, to defuse the situation, which he does, masterfully.

But the Bhils are still scared of the night tiger they see  his ancestor riding. So, ‘the Deuce take it’, some terrified locals take young John and faithful Bukta to the cave of the tiger and there is an eerie powerful moment when it emerges and stares directly at our hero – who promptly shoots him, leaving the tiger enough breath to bound up to the tomb of his ancestor, John the first, and there expire. Thus the superstitious Bhils are freed from their visions, and vaccinated, and confirmed in their awe of Chinn Sahib.

I suppose a modern reader ought to be offended and outraged that the ‘natives’ are referred to as children throughout, naughty children, good children, embarrassed children, but always children who must be managed and controlled by the White grown-ups.

The officers talked to their soldiers in a tongue not two hundred white folk in India understood; and the men were their children, all drawn from the Bhils, who are, perhaps, the strangest of the many strange races in India.

The least excitement would stampede them, plundering, at random, and now and then killing; but if they were handled discreetly they grieved like children, and promised never to do it again.

‘The Bhils are my children. I have said it many times.’
‘Ay. We be thy children,’ said Bukta.

‘We are the thieves of Mahadeo,’ said the Bhils, simply. ‘It is our fate, and we were frightened. When we are frightened we always steal.’ Simply and directly as children, they gave in the tale of the plunder…

It is hard for children and savages to behave reverently at all times to the idols of their make-belief; and they had frolicked excessively with Jan Chinn.

A rhetoric which, of course, justifies Imperial rule over India by a wise and ‘paternal Government’ (and, incidentally, justifies male rule over the memsahibs). But it is so entirely a quintessence of its time and place, that I can’t see the point of arguing with a text like this, but a) admiring its craft and rhetoric, on its own terms b) pondering the complexity of its relationship with the power structures of its day.

By Word of Mouth (1887) A very short story from Plain Tales From The Hills, in which the doctor mentioned in some of the other stories, Dumoise, marries a meek wife, who promptly dies of cholera. He buries her, then goes for a break in a hill resort, but has barely unpacked his bags before his servant comes running in panic fear, saying he has just seen the dead memsahib walking below, who told him to tell Dumoise that she will see him next month in Nuddea (in Bengal, on the other side of India from the Punjab where Dumoise is based).

Dumoise has barely arrived back at his station before a telegram comes ordering him to Nuddea to help deal with a massive cholera epidemic. He shows the telegram to his assistant who tries to stop him going, saying it is a death sentence, but Dumoise doesn’t care, he knows his fate, he packs and goes and is soon himself dead and reunited with his wife.

There isn’t much suspense in the story; it is really just another example of Kipling’s early vein of ramming home again and again and again the cost to the White Man of running Imperial India and the bloody ingratitude of the lazy sneaky natives and ignorant Liberals back home.

My Own True Ghost Story (1888) The narrator devotes pages and pages to showing off his in-depth knowledge of India and its temporary accommodation for Imperial officers, the dreaded dâk-bungalow, along with a breezy expertise about Indian ghosts.

There are, in this land, ghosts who take the form of fat, cold, pobby corpses, and hide in trees near the roadside till a traveler passes. Then they drop upon his neck and remain. There are also terrible ghosts of women who have died in child-bed. These wander along the pathways at dusk, or hide in the crops near a village, and call seductively. But to answer their call is death in this world and the next. Their feet are turned backward that all sober men may recognize them. There are ghosts of little children who have been thrown into wells. These haunt well curbs and the fringes of jungles, and wail under the stars, or catch women by the wrist and beg to be taken up and carried. These and the corpse ghosts, however, are only vernacular articles and do not attack Sahibs. No native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman; but many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black.

After all this build-up it is a comically debunking story. In the depths of the night the narrator is convinced he can hear billiards being played in the room next door, though it is a basic bed room just like his. Next morning the servant says it used to be a billiard room thirty years ago when the white men were building the local railway, which puts the narrator into mortal terror.

But at the end of the story he walks into the ‘haunted’ bedroom and sees the loose curtains banging against the windows to produce the sound of billiard balls clacking. What a fool!

Men on the edge of a nervous breakdown

The suppressed violence and sadism which stand out in Kipling’s early stories – especially marring the stories which make up Stalky and Co – and his vicious asides about niggers and natives, his contempt for memsahibs and women – these all make Kipling’s stories hard for anyone of a sensitive nature to read.

Similarly, there is a continuous thread of hysteria, of depression, guilt, mental torment and countless references to horrors of the mind, which create a claustrophobic and sometimes unbearable atmosphere of stress and despair.

Nominally these are ghost stories or tales of the uncanny – but the cumulative impression they give is of an array of male characters just about managing to hang on to their sanity in situations of unbearable strain and torment.

Oh, Spurstow, for pity’s sake give me something that will put me asleep — sound asleep — if it’s only for six hours!’ He sprang up, trembling from head to foot. ‘I haven’t been able to sleep naturally for days, and I can’t stand it! — I can’t stand it!’ (At the End of the Passage)

About half-way through, Strangwick, who had been fidgeting and twitching for some minutes, rose, drove back his chair grinding across the tesselated floor, and yelped ‘Oh, My Aunt! I can’t stand this any longer.’ Under cover of a general laugh of assent he brushed past us and stumbled towards the door. ‘I thought so!’ Keede whispered to me. ‘Come along!’ We overtook him in the passage, crowing hysterically and wringing his hands.  (A Madonna of the Trenches)

I moved toward the bed, every nerve already aching with the foreknowledge of the pain that was to be dealt it, and sat down, while my amazed and angry soul dropped, gulf by gulf, into that horror of great darkness which is spoken of in the Bible, and which, as auctioneers say, must be experienced to be appreciated. Despair upon despair, misery upon misery, fear after fear, each causing their distinct and separate woe, packed in upon me for an unrecorded length of time…  (The House Surgeon)

The man was beyond any expression of terror. He lay and quaked, grunting. When Halley took the sword-hilt from between his teeth, he was still inarticulate, but clung to Halley’s arm, feeling it from elbow to wrist. ‘The Rissala! The dead Rissala!’ he gasped. ‘It is down there!’ (The Lost Legion)

Do you know what fear is? Not ordinary fear of insult, injury or death, but abject, quivering dread of something that you cannot see — fear that dries the inside of the mouth and half of the throat — fear that makes you sweat on the palms of the hands, and gulp in order to keep the uvula at work? (My Own True Ghost Story)

All this makes the moments of gentleness stand out all the more – in a way the eeriest moments are when one of Kipling’s narrators sounds like a normal, sensitive, empathetic human being, for example in the dream-like sweetness of ‘They’, in the rare tone of emotional candour signalled by the narrator’s respect for the blind lady of the house.

And, out of hundreds and hundreds of ‘moments’ and ‘scenes’ in these densely packed stories, one which endures for me is the gentleness of the doctor and the calm understanding tone of the narrator when they have to deal with the ex-soldier right on the verge of hysteria in A Madonna of The Trenches. It is a cliché but it feels like the experience of the Great War, the loss of his only son, Jack, and the extensive work Kipling did writing a history of his son’s regiment and thus poring over countless diaries and letters, have really chastened him, given the old brute a late-flowering gentleness and sympathy which is eerily moving.


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