Jekyll and Hyde is up there with Frankenstein as a Gothic novel that utterly deserves its reputation and has depth and intelligence bolstering its huge popularity.
This is another of those books that really makes you sit up and pay attention because it takes so many Gothic ideas and then uses them so well.
1. The setting: in a way, Gothic has been moving closer and closer to home ever since its first conception. Here it finally finds its way to the big city and provides horror right on your doorstep. It is one of the great London novels (though Scots are very welcome to say it’s really about Edinburgh) and all the action is witnessed by the city’s inhabitants. This makes it all the more scary – they can watch, but they can’t protect themselves. All a villain needs to do is buy a mask and rent a new flat. He’s nearly untraceable, blending away into the fog that permeates the novella.
2. Detecting: the detective novel has been establishing itself on the edges of the gothic for ages, but here it merges again seamlessly. Sherlock Holmes is going to appear in 1887, so this is also one of the last gasps of the non-genius amateur sleuth who bumbles along putting clues together until the very last moment. It’s only the lucky few who read this novel now without knowing the twist at the end, but if you can manage to forget it you know you’re properly immersed in the story. It’s a great journey of discovery when not hampered by too much knowledge on the part of the reader.
3. A proper exploration of good and evil: is science good or bad? How hypocritical are the people we trust? Do we ever really know our neighbours or friends? Do we ever really know ourselves? The novel doesn’t give easy answers, but it raises wonderful questions and treats its characters and its readers with respect in how it addresses them.
I only have one problem with this book and that’s Stevenson’s physical presentation of evil. The good news is that five years later Wilde will write ‘The Portrait of Dorian Grey’, adding complexity and completing the and the cannon of psychological, supernatural Gothic horror stories.