Brief encounters: “The Body-Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen by Edward Gorey

From The Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen by Edward Gorey

Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1884 chiller “The Body-Snatcher” is nominally a tale of supernatural horror, but it also works as a story of morality and the nature of psychology. In this vein, it has affinities with Stevenson’s short novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, first published two years later, in 1886. But whereas the strains of good and evil in that novel were contained within a single individual, here they are spread between two figures: the dipsomaniac Fettes and the London doctor Wolfe Macfarlane (note the none-too-subtle given name).

Stevenson’s story is told in flashback. The framing device finds Fettes ensconced in the George tavern in Debenham. Fettes is introduced as “an old drunken Scotchman, a man of education obviously, and a man of some property, since he lived in idleness.” He is a fixture at the George, where he consumes five glasses of rum each night and habitually sits “in a state of melancholy alcoholic saturation.” He is a man of “old, crapulous, disreputable vices” who has engaged in “some fleeting infidelities.” He is presented as dissolute, though not surpassingly malevolent.

One other detail Stevenson gives us, in an almost throwaway aside, is that Fettes does not attend church. We learn that the aging drunkard was once a student of medicine, which is how he made the acquaintance of Macfarlane: the two studied under the tutelage of the anatomy professor Mr. K––––. The fact of Fettes’s background in science, along with his avoidance of organized religion, gives the impression of a rational man not taken by the beliefs and practices of faith, many of which depend on an acceptance of the supernatural.

There is reason for this, as we discover over the course of the story, which shuttles back in time to fill in the details of Fettes and Macfarlane’s association in medical school, where the latter was known as “a high favourite among all the reckless students, clever, dissipated, and unscrupulous to the last degree.”

Macfarlane’s lack of scruples – which extend to grave robbing and murder – become starkly apparent to Fettes as the two characters are ever more closely entwined. Fettes has been assigned by Mr. K–––– to supervise and maintain the lecture theatre where the students perform dissections upon human corpses. One of his tasks in this capacity is to receive and attend to the bodies that are supplied to the school for this purpose. These “unclean and desperate interlopers” arrive at night, in the “black hours before the winter dawn.”

What Stevenson lacks as a stylist, he more than makes up for in his mastery of atmosphere and creeping dread. When Macfarlane – now a wildly successful and wealthy physician – is called to the George at the beginning of the story to attend to a local politician who has fallen ill, Fettes recognizes him and engages in a dialogue that is fraught with unease and foreshadowing. “Have you seen it again?” Fettes demands of Macfarlane, who reacts in a manner that is more violent and suspicious than such an apparently innocent question would warrant: “The great rich London doctor cried out aloud with a sharp, throttling cry; he dashed his questioner across the open space and, with hands over his head, fled out of the door like a detected thief.” The comparison of Macfarlane to a “detected thief” – a criminal – is appropriate and germane to the revelations to come, and the vibrant adjectives “sharp” and “throttling” almost make up for the lazy repetition of variants on the word “cry” and the awkward rhyme in “head” and “fled.”

It will transpire, in the flashback section of the story, that the school on occasion ran short of bodies for dissection; this lack was made up for by Macfarlane, the eponymous body snatcher, who would not restrict himself to digging up graves to supply the requisite corpses. When a man who had previously belittled and taunted Macfarlane publicly winds up on Fettes’s table, it becomes apparent that Macfarlane has murdered the fellow, whose name was Gray (and who is described as being “very pale and dark, with coal-black eyes”).

Following the murder and dismemberment of the body – the parts of which are passed around to the anatomy class members for dissection – Fettes and Macfarlane embark on one last adventure in grave robbing, which is the point at which the story takes a Poe-inflected turn to the supernatural. What transpires is so disturbing to Fettes (or so it appears in retrospect, once Stevenson’s narrative is complete and the reader is able to consider earlier events in light of the uncanny conclusion) that he abandons the practice of medicine altogether and devotes himself in equal measure to alcohol and atheism.

That Macfarlane not only manages to disassociate himself from the criminal activity he perpetrates, but goes on to fame and fortune as a well-established doctor in London testifies to his utter amorality and lack of anything resembling a conscience. This is in keeping with the life philosophy he lays out to Fettes in a speech about how the world works and what it takes to get ahead: “There are two squads of us – the lions and the lambs. If you’re a lamb, you’ll come to lie upon these tables like Gray … if you’re a lion, you’ll live and drive a horse like me, like K––––, like all the world with any wit or courage.”

Macfarlane’s material success might on the one hand be proof that his Machiavellian approach to life has paid off, though his reaction to Fettes’s question in the parlour at the George also indicates that he continues to be haunted by the events that befell the two as students. “I should like to know how any one of us would look, or what the devil we should have to say for ourselves, in any Christian witness box,” the young Macfarlane says to his classmate during one exchange over a freshly murdered corpse (this one of a woman Fettes recognizes on his dissecting table). It is the answer to this question that separates the morally upright Fettes from the venal Macfarlane, and what gives thematic resonance to Stevenson’s chilly, unnerving tale.

Brief encounters: “The Body-Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson