Guest piece for Wordsworth Editions.
In ‘The Man Who Would Be King,’ Rudyard Kipling described the Native States of India as, ‘the dark places of the earth, full of unimaginable cruelty, touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and, on the other, the days of Harun-al-Raschid’ (Kipling: 1890, 69). In this allegory of imperialism, in which two redcoats conquer an entire Afghan province before being ultimately destroyed by their arrogance, Kipling sets the scene by juxtaposing images of British progress with the age of the Arabian Nights. He thus places British India somewhere between the rational and the fantastic, which is where many of his stories occur. This is a conceptual borderland that is essentially present in all gothic narrative, that liminal space in which the ordered and pragmatic suddenly gives way to something much darker and elemental, a screaming madness of the unreal. What’s distinctive about Kipling’s gothic fiction – of which he wrote more than you might think – was that he was locating this boundary of ‘unimaginable cruelty’ in the present day, and not just in the far-flung reaches of the empire, but at the point at which the two cultures met. This was not a physical space. It was therefore much closer to home, and far more complex than the ostensibly simple dialectics of English rationalism versus Asiatic otherness might imply. As Conrad later wrote in Heart of Darkness, to the Romans, London, the centre of the British Empire and thus western civilisation, had once also ‘been one of the dark places of the earth’ (Conrad: 1983, 7).
Kipling’s early stories are at the forefront of a sub-genre in late-nineteenth century magazine fiction that Victor Sage has usefully labelled ‘Empire Gothic,’ where the fraught relationship between colonists and colonised was explored, and to which we might usefully add the ‘lost world’ adventures of H. Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This form of narrative reached its peak with Heart of Darkness, which prefaced both Modernism and the First World War. Kipling, who was, of course, Anglo-Indian, was replacing the traditional settings of the eighteenth-century gothic – European, historical, Catholic – with the exotic and the oriental, but with the addition of the contemporary and the psychological, the legacy of the nineteenth century form. His Indian stories offer no comfortable relegation to a superstitious past, yet they nonetheless seem to demand a superstitious response, and this sits uneasily alongside the Victorian certainties of the Church of England. ‘Sometimes,’ lamented a contemporary Bookman reviewer, ‘he stoops to the Supernatural’ (qtd. in Page: 1984, 80).
This complicated cultural collision is everywhere in Kipling’s writing, but two particularly striking examples appear in his collection Life’s Handicap (1891), united by the presence of the enigmatic policeman, Strickland, the protagonist of half-a-dozen early stories and a minor character in Kim. ‘The Return of Imray’ is the more straightforward of the two, although sequentially and chronologically second. In this story, Imray, an English civil servant, vanishes without a trace, and Strickland takes over his bungalow. When the unidentified narrator of the story visits, he becomes uncomfortably aware that, ‘We were alone in the house, but none the less it was much too fully occupied by a tenant with whom I did not wish to interfere.’ There is wild hammering at the door at night, footsteps on the veranda, a shadowy figure glimpsed from the edge of a dream, and low, eerie whispers. Strickland’s dog, meanwhile, glares into darkened rooms, ‘with every hair erect’ (Kipling: 1897, 313). Eventually, they find Imray mummified upon a roof beam, his throat cut, hence the ghostly whispers. But India killed Imray as much as his murderer, Bahadur Khan, because he was ignorant of the cultural codes. On meeting Khan’s son for the first time, the proud servant confessed that, ‘He said he was a handsome child, and patted him on the head; wherefore my child died. Wherefore I killed Imray Sahib in the twilight’ (Kipling: 1897, 319). And it’s the twilight that lingers, despite Strickland’s assessment that Imray made a mistake, ‘Simply and solely through not knowing the nature of the Oriental, and the coincidence of a little seasonal fever’ (Kipling: 1897, 321). He does not, however, explain the apparition.
This acceptance of the paranormal is perhaps because of the previous story, which Imray’s chronicler describes as a ‘little affair’ that had, ‘brought me to the doors of a lunatic asylum’ (Kipling: 1897, 314). ‘The Mark of the Beast’ also has the feel of an anecdote at a gentleman’s club, disguising a much cannier use of the first person narrative as open testimony. In his preferred method of narration – the voice of the unidentified and slightly world-weary ex-patriot – Kipling foregrounds the boundaries between possible explanations for another uncanny event, thus revealing an uncomfortable schism between the religious and cultural values of East and West, as his introduction makes quite explicit:
East of Suez, some hold, the direct control of Providence ceases; man is there handed over to the power of the Gods and devils of Asia, and the Church of England providence only exercising an occasional and modified supervision in the case of Englishmen.
This theory accounts for some of the more unnecessary horrors of life in India; it may be stretched to explain my story (Kipling: 1897, 290).
In this story, a drunken Englishman called Fleete stubs a cigar out on a statue of the monkey god, Hanuman, and receives, in turn, a curse from a faceless, leprous priest referred to as the ‘Silver Man.’ In a long night in the company of Strickland and the storyteller, Fleete becomes increasingly bestial until, ‘His eyes were horrible to look at,’ after which, ‘Presently, from the room, came the long-drawn howl of a wolf’ (Kipling: 1897, 299).
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