The Complete Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Charles Neider (1969)
Some readers are likely to have encountered Robert Louis Stevenson in their childhood, as a poet. Far more people will experience him secondhand, through the many Hollywood adaptations over the years of his adventure novels like Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae.
But I was delighted to find, in adulthood, that he was also a master of short fiction, especially in the horror genre. I blogged previously on “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Body Snatcher.” Equally remarkable in its way is a story I discovered only recently, “Thrawn Janet.”
The quote leading off this post also begins Stevenson’s tale. In its tense sense of atmosphere, it is as powerfully foreboding as anything to be found in the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
It is also, in a sense, a trick—written, unlike the rest of the story, written in conventional English. But the atmosphere of evil is so densely concentrated that readers are dying to know what will occur next.
For the majority of readers unfamiliar with Scottish dialect, much of the ensuing tale requires patient, intense concentration. Some translations exist, but I read it slowly—an experience that reminded me of encountering Canterbury Tales in Chaucer’s original Middle English. But dispensing with a translation can be done and is worth the effort.
The unfamiliar verbiage in this short story starts with the first word of the title, a strong but necessary hint about the nature of this tale. “Thrawn” is Scottish for “twisted,” indicating the sinister force in this story.
Just as Stevenson produces a change in narrative direction after the opening, he also effects a change—a “twist,” if you will—in characterization and voice.
The Rev. Soulis, who sounds initially like a Scottish fire-and-brimstone counterpart to one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan divines, was, we learn shortly, a rationalist of Enlightenment bent in his younger days, disbelieving the belief of his congregants that the woman he wants to hire as his housekeeper, Janet, could be a witch.
Horror is about altered mental states after an encounter with the inexplicable. By this standard, the horror of “Thrawn Janet” lies less in Satanic possession of Janet than in the haunted, demon-obsessed minister that Rev. Soulis becomes through his encounter with her.
The image accompanying this post, illustrating Stevenson’s story, is an 1899 etching by the Scottish painter and printmaker William Strang (1859-1921).