It should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me that Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. For anyone who loves dark and creepy stories, let alone horror stories, this is one of the best times of the year, and there are so many classic horror and close-to-horror books to read, it’s hard to decide which one to highlight this year. There’s H.P. Lovecraft, over the top and with many problematic aspects but who packs a wallop in his finest work (read “The Colour Out of Space”, but not at night in a place where you can hear trees moving in the wind). There’s Frankenstein, so much deeper and more interesting than any of the movies made from it (and if you’re a fan of Young Frankenstein, you will notice places where Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks took whole blocks of text from the original book). There’s Dracula, again a better book than any of the movies, filled with Victorian sexual stereotypes and longings. But it’s late in October, you don’t have a lot of time to read one of those 19th century long books, so for this Halloween, may I suggest you acquaint yourself with what I consider the best written of the classic horror novels: Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?
The general story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has suffused our culture. Everybody knows about it; there have been multiple movies, and even Bugs Bunny took on the story at least once. There are new versions coming out all the time (and here I want to give a shout out to the entertaining The Diabolical Miss Hyde by Viola Carr, published last year and about to be joined by a sequel, The Devious Dr. Jekyll), and it seems there’s nothing new anyone could say about the story. However, while almost everybody knows the outlines of the story, few have read the source, and that’s a shame, because it is a rattlingly good read.
The book is short; you could read it in one sitting, and you might want to, because it’s that terrific. The best way to approach it is to try to forget all you think you know about Dr. Jekyll and approach it as the original readers must have done.
One of the surprisingly modern things about the book, which sets it apart from most of the other 19th century classics, is its structure. This book is not told in a straightforward way (as the movies usually tell it), starting with Jekyll’s creating the formula, then using it, then discovering its harms. No, it’s told in a fractured way, starting with the oh-so-ordinary lawyer Mr. Utterson hearing an odd story about an act of unmotivated cruelty and its strange connection with the house of one Dr. Henry Jekyll, and continuing with a series of increasingly odd incidents, including the nature of Dr. Jekyll’s will, and leading up to the murder of a nobleman and its connection to Mr. Edward Hyde. At last Utterson comes to Jekyll’s house for a final confrontation with Hyde, though it’s not the sort you would be expecting based on any of the movies, and only at the very end of the book do you discover what had been going on behind the scenes Utterson has only understood slightly. Stevenson is a masterful storyteller (the author of, among other things, Treasure Island, the ur-pirate story) and all his skills shine here. I am not going to give away any more details of the way the story unfolds, except to say you might find yourself surprisingly sympathetic to Hyde by the end.
So this Halloween, make the acquaintance of the real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and prepare to be well entertained.