Sunday, October 31, 2021

Halloween Horror Treat: Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Thrawn Janet’

“The Reverend Murdoch Soulis was long minister of the moorland parish of Balweary, in the vale of Dule. A severe, bleak-faced old man, dreadful to his hearers, he dwelt in the last years of his life, without relative or servant or any human company, in the small and lonely manse under the Hanging Shaw. In spite of the iron composure of his features, his eye was wild, scared, and uncertain; and when he dwelt, in private admonitions, on the future of the impenitent, it seemed as if his eye pierced through the storms of time to the terrors of eternity. Many young persons, coming to prepare themselves against the season of the Holy Communion, were dreadfully affected by his talk. He had a sermon on 1st Peter, v. and 8th, 'The devil as a roaring lion,' on the Sunday after every seventeenth of August, and he was accustomed to surpass himself upon that text both by the appalling nature of the matter and the terror of his bearing in the pulpit. The children were frightened into fits, and the old looked more than usually oracular, and were, all that day, full of those hints that Hamlet deprecated. The manse itself, where it stood by the water of Dule among some thick trees, with the Shaw overhanging it on the one side, and on the other many cold, moorish hilltops rising towards the sky, had begun, at a very early period of Mr. Soulis's ministry, to be avoided in the dusk hours by all who valued themselves upon their prudence; and guidmen sitting at the clachan alehouse shook their heads together at the thought of passing late by that uncanny neighbourhood. There was one spot, to be more particular, which was regarded with especial awe. The manse stood between the high road and the water of Dule, with a gable to each; its back was towards the kirk-town of Balweary, nearly half a mile away; in front of it, a bare garden, hedged with thorn, occupied the land between the river and the road. The house was two stories high, with two large rooms on each. It opened not directly on the garden, but on a causewayed path, or passage, giving on the road on the one hand, and closed on the other by the tall willows and elders that bordered on the stream. And it was this strip of causeway that enjoyed among the young parishioners of Balweary so infamous a reputation. The minister walked there often after dark, sometimes groaning aloud in the instancy of his unspoken prayers; and when he was from home, and the manse door was locked, the more daring schoolboys ventured, with beating hearts, to 'follow my leader' across that legendary spot.”—Scottish fiction writer, poet, essayist, and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), “Thrawn Janet,” in 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). 

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