I just done gone finished reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, and by gosh and beggorah if it isn’t quite different from what I had imagined it to be. Everybody knows the heart of the tale: Dr. Jekyll fixes himself a tasty potion that turns him into nasty Mr. Hyde, and he goes back and forth till a bad end claims him. Or something like that. I had a half wishy-washy Picture of Dorian Gray mixed in with what I’d read in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Also, I knew that Julia Roberts had done a piece where she played Mr. Jekyll’s maid, or something, and probably had fainting spells, though I never saw the film itself. Ho-hum, I thought, and set to reading it.

But man, was I off! First off, it’s really well written. I’d only ever considered the idea, never the language itself, but Stevenson was a dab hand at the craft. His London is eerie, fog-enshrouded and decidedly unnerving. Mr. Hyde, stalking through its abandoned streets late at night is perfectly at home, moving through the murk and silence like proto-Jack the Ripper (who indeed made his mark on history but two years after this novel was published). Beautiful writing, masterful suspense, such that I sat up and paid attention after reading only a few paragraphs. An, I thought, this is why it’s considered a classic. Because it’s brilliantly written.

The story is told by outsiders, concerned friends of Dr. Jekyll who seek to uncover what malignant force has coerced him into his strange associations and erratic behaviors. His attorney, medical associate, butler and others all provide pieces of the puzzle, until at last we read a letter and explanation penned by Dr. Jekyll himself, in which the whole and truly awful truth is revealed. I found myself frequently wishing that I didn’t know the story already so as to savor the mystery and confusion that Stevenson so ably weaves into his narrative.

The part that surprised me the most was how miserable and wretched Dr. Jekyll turned out to be; I had imagined him a victim of his own science, trapped or blackmailed by Mr. Hyde, forced to continue with his experiments against his better judgment by forces that would brook no denial. Instead, it turned out that Dr. Jekyll had created Mr. Hyde on purpose, that he reveled in his evil, that he sought to use the anonymity afforded to him by Mr. Hyde’s persona to indulge in his own predilection for sin and vice. If Dr. Jekyll was a victim, it was only to his own pride and and belief that he could control his evil side, that he could somehow separate his ‘true’ and better self from the evil that Mr. Hyde exemplified. How fascinating the story became when Dr. Jekyll realized that his evil half had grown so much greater that he had to begin taking his potion to revert to his ‘good’ self, Mr. Hyde having become his normal and natural form.

So yes! Definitely worth the read, a classic Christmas chiller as they were known back then (for some reason it was fashionable for writers to release a horror story at Christmas time). Creepy and fun and unnerving and deserving of its classic status.