Tag Archives: strange case of dr jekyll and mr hyde (stevenson)

71. D.E. Meredith on Doctor Forrest: “Howling-at-the-moon kind of Gothic”

The author Denise Meredith is someone with whom I’ve lately become Twitter pals, and she and I are kindred spirits in our love of the fog-beset and gas-lit aura of Victorian crime literature. In this line Denise has begun a series of mysteries centred on the double-act of pioneering forensic scientist Professor Adolphus Hatton and his mortuary sidekick Albert Roumande. The first was Devoured (2010), the second, just published, The Devil’s Ribbon, a deliciously dark and page-turning treat for all souls who are similarly drawn to the red meat of sensation.
Denise was recently asked by the Writers Read blog to offer some impressions of things she’s enjoyed reading lately, and she was kind enough to give Doctor Forrest the following reference (in which I especially like the comment about women):

“This book is a one off. Highly original, despite the fact the book is (in many ways) a homage to all things gothic – think Dorian Gray, meets Bram Stoker, meets Dr Faustus meets Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde meets I’m not sure what. It’s about three middle aged men, once schoolboy friends, now medical doctors. One of them – Dr Forrest, a vain, sexy cosmetic surgeon – goes missing, presumed dead. The men have complex relationships with each other, mainly revolving around failed ambitions, lies, envy, ego and their relationships with women. It’s very intriguing on the last score, especially reading it as a woman. I loved Kelly’s emotional honesty, his take on London which was spot on from the slightly scuzzy impression of Parliament Hill and Hampstead Heath to the oh so hopelessly middle class-ness of serving up scallops and salsa verde for dinner. As if. Only in Hampstead, darling! I relished the descriptions of cloying bourgeoisie pretension, overarched by howling at the moon kind of gothic. Just what the doctor ordered, especially as my current book’s set in London, too!”

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70. Durham Reads ‘Doctor Forrest’, with Diverse & Fascinating Opinions…

Last week I had the pleasure of taking Doctor Forrest to the Durham Book Festival, this after 7 weeks’ worth of the novel being widely and freely distributed around the county as part of the Festival’s first ever ‘big read’ initiative. My author event at the Gala Theatre last Tuesday night was a delight for me on umpteen counts, maybe chief among them that I was joined onstage by a trio of excellent actors who got on their feet and performed some choice filleted passages from Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Monk, interspersed with my own (thematically complementary) readings from Doctor Forrest. The chairman of the conversation was the excellent Dr Simon James of Durham University, some of whose students were in the audience and who are all, clearly, relishing the Gothic module of their Literature degree. And most of the rest of the house was comprised of people who had read the novel as part of their regular book groups, thanks to the Festival’s giveaway munificence, and who were kind enough to make the trek to Durham so as to hear what I had to say for myself.
Feedback from those reading groups was regularly relayed back to me over the seven weeks of the ‘Durham Reads’ countywide project, and the comments certainly made for a valuable and thought-provoking mix. I can gather them broadly if partially under the following headings:

SOME CUSTOMERS WERE FULLY SATISFIED

‘This novel is intelligent and interesting with well-drawn characters – intriguing storyline that draws the reader to the end.’
‘Found this novel very fascinating and would read other gothic inspired novels by this author.’
‘Enjoyed it. Shades of Dorian Gray…’
‘Echoes of Jekyll & Hyde, a fascinating exploration of the gothic genre.’
‘Liked the diary format & Confession at the end a little like Frankenstein’s Monster.’
‘Weird, wonderful and very enjoyable.’
‘Loved the book. My suspicions on ‘whodunnit’ crept in on page 73.’
‘Read this on holiday and really enjoyed it.’
‘My favourite character was Dr. Forrest – power crazy!’
‘I think R.T Kelly would be a very good crime novelist.’
‘Brutality of the medical language added greatly to the genre.’
‘Very successful plot. I didn’t guess what was happening until the Confession.’
‘If you enjoy a good mystery it is worth taking time to read this one.’

SOME WARMED UP TO IT

‘I enjoyed it from part IV…’
‘Once I was past first 5-6 chapters it gripped my interest. I was hooked on finding out what happened.’
‘Style initially off-putting, but once into the story plot enthralling.’

SOME FOUND IT TOO DARK

‘Enjoyed the first three quarters of the book but found the end unsettling.’
‘The consequences of the last part were evil and menacing – I was glad to finish it.’
‘Dark and depressing. I stopped reading at Page 273…’
‘Shocking and disturbing story.’
‘I found it rather horrid…’

SOME FOUND THE PROSE TOO FUSSY

‘The Victorian style of writing and the modern setting seemed to conflict with each other at times.’
‘Style of writing irritating… Not so much Poe, or Wilde as Alistair Crowley!’
‘Words used archaic and not used in this present day.’
‘There was too much punctuation!’

SOME FOUND IT HARD TO FOLLOW

‘Parts 1 & 2 interesting, Part 3 left me so confused I gave up.’
‘The narrative is good but i don’t think i ever cottoned on to what happened to Dr. Forrest.’
‘Confusion amongst the group as to whether or not he murdered his victims.’
‘No suspense or creeping horror, he took over too many people.’

SOME THOUGHT IT ALTOGETHER TOO FANCIFUL

‘I tried very hard and did read the whole of the book, but could not come to terms with the story, demons and strange goings-on.’
‘Beautifully written, easy to read, shame the story was pure rubbish.’
‘Was none the wiser at the end of the story, very far-fetched.’
‘Better than I expected. Content ridiculous. Not convincing.’

SOME FOUND UNEXPECTED THINGS TO COMMEND…

‘Disturbing, disappointing, but the cover art was great.’
‘Nice clear print.’

SOME WERE UNLIKELY TO FIND ANYTHING TO COMMEND

‘Cover of book makes me think its going to be weird. Is this horror?’

AND AT LEAST ONE READER HAD ME BANG TO RIGHTS

‘Does anyone else think author used old ideas from previous books…?’

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66. Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’: Deadly Narcissus

Having rehearsed here the influence on me of a good many of the great and obvious classics of Victorian gothic, I turn a little belatedly to Wilde’s Dorian Gray (1891) – a novel the idea of which I like rather more the work itself, I must confess. As a study of ‘the terrible pleasure of a double life’ it is of course a kind of cousin to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but very much the junior partner. Not to say there aren’t many elements in it that I enjoy a good deal. Wilde’s very fine, only slightly embellished evocation of the streets and physical facades of central London, their handsomeness turned eerie during the condition of twilight especially; his fairly heady accumulation of fin de siecle aestheticism in the descriptions of decor; the relishable gruesomeness of the passage where Dorian blackmails an old ex-friend to dispose of a corpse on his behalf… Truth be told, the bloodiness of that last passage comes to some extent as a cheering remedy to the chill bloodlessness of all the fancy furnishings, and their famous debt to the A Rebours of J.K. Huysman, a work that amused me a fair bit as a teenager but which I’ve never been able to feel the same about since a visit to Gabriele d’Annunzio’s skin-crawlingly decadent play-palace in Gardone Riviera, gilded turtle and all…
But hark at me. For what reason in Doctor Forrest is Robert Forrest’s romper-room boudoir octagonal? And why does he keep an antique cassone at the foot at his bed? Et cetera…
The recent 2009 movie version of Wilde is a handsome enough piece, and could be taken as one more example of how, given the influence of ‘steampunk’, the Victorian era on film is now almost a byword for a kind of stylised frock-coated fast-cutting dynamism. But the problem with the story is the protagonist – a void, really, partially filled on the page by Wilde arranging words like flowers but on screen neither an engaging anti-hero or a properly menacing villain…

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61. On that ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

illustration (c) Cam Kennedy

Early on in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest a police detective named Bill Hagen, who has been handed the case file on the disappearance of the eminent cosmetic surgeon, makes the following observations on the evidence:

“The photos we obtained show a fellow very presentable for his age, if somewhat saturnine in looks. Physically he was in decent shape though a habitual drinker, and partial to some soft drug use. ‘A man of night and day’ is how his friend [Dr Grey] Lochran describes him, albeit fondly, attributing this to what he calls ‘a touch of the Jekyll-and-Hyde’ inherent in the surgical profession. That is to say, the incredible rigour of the work produces a commensurate need for a private cutting-loose, what in Forrest’s case Lochran quaintly calls ‘carousing.’ (Mr Hyde can take other forms too, I would say: Lochran, initially open and affable, can switch to a very stern and short-tempered force coming down the phone-line)…”

Now, I appreciate that a reader coming to Doctor Forrest with a basic sense of the scenario might consider the foregoing just a little too ‘on-the-nose.’ Must the immortal Henry Jekyll, and his equally deathless shadow Edward Hyde, be invoked in a modern story that would seem already to owe no small debt, both structurally and in smaller ‘touches’, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous creation(s)?
I can see that argument. My defence is only that the idea of ‘a touch of the Jekyll-and-Hyde’ being ‘inherent in the surgical profession’ is not one I invented myself but rather a theory that was expounded to me by a surgeon with whom I spoke when I was first researching the general terrain of the novel. But maybe I’m making too much of a minor coincidence? Given the enduring force of Stevenson’s allegory, might it not be that many more professions could be characterized by that touch? Politicans, schoolmasters, bus drivers, oral hygienists…?
Moreover: the sense in which that surgeon meant when I spoke to him was that ‘Hyde’ is the professional steeliness of the surgical practitioner, such that when Jekyll is at home or otherwise supposedly at leisure, with partner or family or whoever, still the phone call from the hospital might come, and ‘Hyde’ might have to start dispensing swift and hard-edged wisdom down the line on an emergency matter, having moments before been playing catch-ball with his toddler or whatever.
So the Mr Hyde in every surgeon (contra moi) is not some dissolute, depraved wraith. But then precisely what was the depravity of Stevenson’s Hyde? Just how dreadful are his crimes? The reader is not really to know, for Stevenson gives us only glimpses – the brutal trampling upon a girl-child, the killing of Sir Danvers Carew. The mystery of what Jekyll-as-Hyde really desires or is driven by, precisely what evil force in himself Jekyll unleashed, is a quite considerably thick fog. The moviemakers, with an eye on the contemporaneous Whitechapel ‘Ripper’, nearly always interpret the force as repressed lust – a respectable cloak of Victorian hypocrisy shrugged off by the pursuit of lustmord. (Perhaps this is why Vladimir Nabokov in his celebrated lecture on the work urges his students to forget, ‘obliterate’ in their minds all staged or cinematic adaptations of it.) But the dramatists were onto this angle immediately after the book’s appearance in 1886. Recently I was interested to learn that Stevenson complained about a stage version of Jekyll to the editor of the New York Sun in 1887. “… [P]eople are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality”, he wrote, insisting that it was Jekyll’s “selfishness and cowardice” that let out the beast Hyde, “not this poor wish to have a woman”.
How about that perhaps equally poor wish to have a man? Nabokov was keen to tease out the shade of the homoerotic in Jekyll: the absence of women from the story, the intriguing coincidence that 1885 saw the criminalization by parliament of homosexual acts between men. I’m not persuaded, but perhaps it’s better to say I am in (at least) two minds. The gothic mode always exhibits some interest in the taboo or the ostensibly perverse – ‘the unspeakable’, stuff that dare not speak its name – and I’m happy for the mist of ambiguity to remain around Jekyll and Hyde.
A word on the structure of the story, and Forrest’s debt to same: Ian Rankin, a celebrated and most perspicacious admirer of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, wrote a fine foreword to a re-issue of the text, extracted in the Guardian. Stevenson fans will find much to celebrate in Rankin’s piece – in particular, perhaps, his stress on the story’s ‘complex narrative’, which is much more tricksy than those umpteen film versions that doggedly take Jekyll’s point of view from inside his laboratory as he struggles to perfect his ‘transcendental medicine’. Whereas in Stevenson, as Rankin points out, “Jekyll himself figures only as a friend of the other characters and narrators – right up until the revelation provided by his “confession”. We start the book in the company of two gentlemen called Utterson and Enfield…”
Can readers who encountered the films before the original take the same pleasure, the proper pleasure, in the story’s unfolding? “Sadly,” Rankin writes, “we’ll never know the thrill experienced by this explosive book’s original audience. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a work of suspense, but we all know the twist these days, don’t we?”
All I can say is that while still a schoolboy I’d seen about a zillion adaptations of Jekyll without having savoured the ur-text, but only once I had Stevenson did everything become clear, gloriously so. For me much the best film of Stevenson’s tale is actually the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton version of Valerie Martin’s hommage/rewrite Mary Reilly, but it was a picture that thrill-seeking audiences didn’t warm up to. It looks better every year, though – like its inspiration.

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60. Guardian podcast: Gothic Edinburgh, the darker side of the city, with Richard T Kelly

This recently posted by the Guardian:

“In our second podcast from the Edinburgh international book festival, we delve into the city’s dark underbelly… and what state gothic literature is in in the 21st century… Richard T Kelly and Kevin MacNeil talk about the different ways in which [R.L.] Stevenson’s classic [Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde] influenced their new novels, and… Louise Welsh, whose work is rooted in Scotland’s murkier side, takes Xan Brooks on a gothic tour of Edinburgh, including the Surgeon’s Hall Museums and the catacombs beneath the city where legend has it plague victims were walled up.”

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58. ‘Beguiling… dark, troubling… deliciously sly’: Doctor Forrest reviewed in City A.M.

A lovely write-up here by Jonathan Hourigan (scroll down a bit):

Richard T Kelly has followed his first novel, the chunky – in both its size and ambition – Crusaders, with a beguiling, Gothic-inflected thriller.
At the heart of the narrative are three Edinburgh childhood friends, now respected middle-aged doctors living in London. When hard-living but deeply-troubled cosmetic surgeon Robert Forrest – his own once good looks now fading – goes missing his friends, psychiatrist Steve Hartford and paediatric surgeon Grey Lochran, are gradually drawn into their own investigations, a web of deceit, menace and fatality.
For much of its duration the novel inhabits the points of view of Hartford and Lochran, illuminating middle-aged male anxieties with psychological acuity and lightness of touch, as well as driving Kelly’s deliciously sly thriller onwards. When point of view switches to that of Doctor Forrest himself – and we have never really believed him dead and are dying to hear from him – all Hell breaks loose. It’s an audacious shift of tone and largely successful, prompting the reinterpretation of much that has gone before and clarifying the novel’s thematic purposes.
This is a confident and bold novel about death, the desire for immortality, vanity and much besides. Its moral references as well as its form – letters, diaries, interviews and reports from a variety of points of view – are those of nineteenth century Gothic fiction. Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll, Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray and Count Dracula all have a place in this dark, troubling, uncertain but finally, intensely human universe.
Jonathan Hourigan

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56. Dr Forrest descends on the Marlborough Literature Festival: September 24 2011

I’m very pleased to have been invited to Marlborough for its LitFest 2011 in September, the second edition of this Festival chaired by the novelist Mavis Cheek, which has gathered a really splendid line-up this year ranging from Michael Holroyd and David Edgar to Deborah Moggach and Lauren Child, with your humble servant included to offer the audience a taste of the dark stuff…
Details and billing for my event are as below:

Richard T Kelly – The Possessions of Doctor Forrest
Marlborough Town Hall, upper floor Assembly Room
Saturday September 24: 12.30 PM
Introduced by Ben Budd
“Richard’s second novel, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, draws inspiration from the darker side of Victorian fiction, a genre he will be discussing in Marlborough. As the story progresses, the truth about Forrest seeps into our understanding with increasing menace. Fans of Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Castle of Otranto or even Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, will all find something fascinating here. But it’s definitely a graduation to adult gothic horror. Richard has written and edited several books on film. His highly regarded debut novel Crusaders explored the state of the nation, taking in New Labour, lawless estates and the decline of the Church among its themes.”

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