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Rudyard Kipling's Tales of Horror and…

Rudyard Kipling's Tales of Horror and Fantasy (2008)

by Rudyard Kipling

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Kipling's is one of those imaginations which, slipping here and there, seems to plant the seeds for numerous books and genres yet to be devised. He writes to pique, slowly twisting out his stories and drawing the reader along unexpected and unrecognized roads. Each tale might set the mind on a new and unusual tack, and hence, more than anything, Kipling is an author for authors: an author whose imagination is contagious.

His stories always center around the foreign mystery of his native-born India, but more than that, of the intersection of dry, Anglican Protestantism and vibrant, deadly, magical Hindu tradition. The Greeks long ago borrowed from the Indian mystics the ideas of the soul, of atomism, and asceticism, and since then, the West has adopted holy meditation, the scourge of the flesh, and the One God who is Many.

Kipling's cultural crossroads is not a new conflation, but a reintroduction of an old acquaintanceship. Many of his earlier stories present a kind of deniable magic: a magic which is only magical because it is unfamiliar, and which later finds a perfectly reasonable explanation. It is not hard to imagine such overgrown superstitions on the parts of the British, whose magical roots have been long straitlaced and sublimated, excepting ghost stories at Christmas.

In 'My Own True Ghost Story', we find a Britain who is obsessed with finding magic in India, and who comes to find it only because he looks for it everywhere. Kipling's works are full of such reversals of expectation, where it is not the 'alien magic of India' at fault, but the alien India which a foreigner wishes were true.

In his introduction, Neil Gaiman mentions the stigma of Colonialism that follows Kipling to this day. Kipling was representing the point of view of a ruling class descended from a foreign culture, but he is hardly dismissive of Indian culture or its traditions. Indeed, he does not try to make anything absurd out of Indian culture, nor does he try to represent it from the inside.

Though many may be content to declare him a racist and a colonialist because he was of the race of conquerors, that stance forgets that every nation has been conquered and sublimated by a series of various cultures, and that this should not invalidate the conquering culture any more than it invalidates the conquered culture. Even North America's native people wiped out a previous aboriginal population in staking their claim.

Gaiman is also one of the authors who shows a clear line of inspiration back to Kipling. The concept of his novel 'American Gods' is completely laid out in Kipling's 'The Bridge-Builders'. Likewise, one can find the roots of Gaiman and Pratchett's 'Good Omens' in Kipling's 'The Appeal', which also forms a background for C.S. Lewis' 'Screwtape Letters'. All three show the afterlife in terms of a purely British bureaucracy: polite and convoluted. Kipling also provides a scaffold for Gaiman's favorite: 'awkward fellow in an incomprehensible underbelly of horrifying magic'.

Yet these are not the only threads to be traced through Kipling. 'A Matter of Fact' is a proto-lovecraftian horror tale, if there ever was one, from the carefully-paced, skewed tone to the confessional style to the incomprehensible sea creatures and the alienating realization that the truth often has no place in the world of man.

The collection also includes a pair of science fiction tales, which are not Kipling's best work. The first, especially, is difficult to follow. His retro-future is barely comprehensible today, and he has made the most common mistake of the unskilled sci fi author: he explains too much. He spends much more time on describing his unusual, convoluted technologies than on imagining the sort of world they would produce.

The second, 'As Easy as ABC: A Tale of 2150 AD ', spends more time on plot, politics, and character, and if one makes it through the overwrought sections, one can see a prototype of 1984. The political tack of the story tries to tackle fascism versus democracy decades before it became a reality. While he does not have Verne's eye for the social impact of technology, he did succeed in making a remarkably forward-looking tale.

He also dabbles in metaphysical and psychic connections, trying to divine the nature of consciousness. In 'The Finest Story in the World', he presents a case of previous lives as the lively backdrop for a true Author's Story. The narrator obsesses with writing, talent, inspiration, and the eternally looming specter of Lost Perfection in a way which threatens to pull out the heart of any aspiring writer by its strings.

'The Brushwood Boy' deals with another obsession of the writer: the despair that there will never really be an audience who can comprehend you. Eventually, the tale collapses neatly into a paranormal love story, but its implications stretch far beyond its conclusion. 'Wireless' takes a technological tack in the question of whether there might be a universal source of human inspiration.

He also writes many more standard English Ghost stories, usually regarding mental breakdown and obsession, as in the 'The Phantom 'Rickshaw' or 'Sleipner, Late Thurinda'. Perhaps the most powerful of these is the seemingly innocuous 'They', which subtly and slowly builds a mood of thick unease without resorting to any tricks or shocks.

There are also the tales of a world which suddenly turns, growing stranger that the protagonist could have imagined, but without resorting to magic or the uncanny. Such stories as 'The City of Dreadful Night', 'Bubbling Well Road', 'The Strange Ride of Morrowby Jukes', and 'The Tomb of his Ancestors' ask us to accept a world which seems eminently possible, if unlikely. It is these stories that most stretch our horizons by asking us to imagine something which requires not a leap of faith, but merely a coincidence of remarkable circumstances or an unusual world view.

Kipling also has chance to show the humorists' pen in the Fish Story 'The Unlimited Draw of Tick Boileau' and in the uproarious farce "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat', which rises in ever steeper climaxes of unimagined consequences until it begins to shake the high seat (and low comedy) of Wodehouse himself.

There are many other tales besides, from Fairy Stories to original Mythology (which Kipling fully realized in his lovely 'Just so Stories'), adventures, and even a mystery. Kipling's great wealth of production and imagination is daunting, but we may at least take comfort in the fact that his soaring wit is not the kind that overawes and dumbs us, but the sort which sets our mouths to laugh and call, and our minds to dance and twitter, or to fall suddenly into unknown and unrecognized depths in just the place we thought we knew the best.

He may lack the poetic turn of Conrad, the drive of Verne, or the harrowing of James, but neither could they lay claim to the far-ranging vivacity of that ingenuity that is, and remains, Kipling's. ( )
2 vote Terpsichoreus | Mar 30, 2010 |
This is a huge tome, I think everything Kipling wrote relating to the fantastic or the horrific was thrown in here. There are a handful of really great stories, and some that miss the mark as well. I think this volume could have been better edited, with stories grouped more by theme, and with an introduction to each section. To be fair, there is a write up of Kipling at the back which touches on some of these stories, but this should have been inserted into the book differently. ( )
  Qorvus | Jun 22, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rudyard Kiplingprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fusco, MichaelCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gaiman, NeilIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nicholson, Sir WilliamCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A complete volume of the Nobel Prize-winning writer's fantastical pieces ranges from traditional ghost stories to works of psychological horror and includes the works "The Phantom Rickshaw," "The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes," and "The Mark of the Beast."… (more)

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