I'm not surprised a story such as "The Body-Snatcher", this week's installment from The Haunted Looking Glass, would have come from the pen of author Robert Louis Stevenson famous for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's not really a ghost story per se, but one dealing with revenge and then (more) revenge of an almost ghostly nature. And yes, as the title implies it revolves around the ghastly (and very prevalent business in the early 1800s) of body snatching! It was first published in December of 1884 and is based on a series of murders committed in Edinburgh in 1828 by two Irish immigrants living in Scotland. The pair murdered sixteen people and then sold the bodies to physician Robert Knox to use in instruction on dissection. It would have been famous and quite well known to readers of the period.
Like so many ghost stories, especially those told at Christmastime it seems, this one begins with a group of friends who meet nightly for a bit of chat in a local pub. There is an unnamed narrator, an undertaker, the landlord and a man named Fettes about whom the story revolves. It's a dark winter night and a traveller is struck down by apoplexy so his London doctor is called in. The man, Dr. Wolfe McFarlane, was at one time a colleague of Fettes. The two seem to have an uneasy relationship. Fettes in particular wants little to do with McFarlane. The awkward exchange between the two results in the question, "Have you seen it again?".
An innocuous enough phrase in passing, but by story's end a chilling one. Just what is "it". Well, if you read the story you'll find out. The words are uttered by Fettes and in a whisper. The two men part ways once again under unhappy circumstances leaving the remaining three men astonished by their behavior. The narrator, however, has a knack for "worming" out of his friend the story behind the scene and once he does he goes on to narrate the "following foul and unnatural events".
The two had been students of medicine together in edinburgh in their youth. And both were employed by the famous anatomist known as Mr. K--. Fettes was in charge of the theater and lecture room at the school and would be called at night to open the door to what we will call "deliveries".
"He would open the door to these men, since infamous throughout the land. He would pay them their sordid price, and remain alone, when they were gone, with the unfriendly relics of humanity. From such a scene he would return to snatch another hour or two of slumber, to repair the abuses of the night, and refresh himself for the labours of the next."
One night he is delivered the body of a young woman with whom he had an acquaintance. Just the previous day he had seen her so lively and full of energy. And now she appears before him laid out on a slab with the marks of violence upon her. When McFarlane arrives later Fettes shows him the body and tells him of his concerns, but McFarlane urges him to say nothing. "The less said, the soonest mended" is his reply. So she goes the way of the rest of the dissection corpses.
One night fellow students, one particularly boisterous and obnoxious chap especially, create a stir. They invite Fettes and McFarlane to dine a sumptuous meal, then belittle them and leave the bill in their care. Not a wise thing to do in the environment which the students work and live where graves are robbed almost nightly. The following day McFarlane raps upon the door. Fettes once again answers, pays the bill and then uncovers the body only to find McFarlane has brought to him the cause of their grief from the night before. The two argue and McFarlane reminds him that the famous Mr. K--employs them for a reason. "Don't be such a boy". "What harm can come to you if you hold your tongue?"
Maybe it's karma. What comes around goes around, or no deed goes unpunished. But a treat of sorts is in store for the two. I won't let on what, but this is a story of revenge. And sometimes it can even come from beyond the grave if you have an open mind.
Wouldn't this have been something to read at a time when grave robbing was so regular an occurrence that families would hold vigils at the graves of their loved ones in fear that they would be snatched in the night!
In two weeks time (of if I can manage it, later this week): "Man-Size in Marble" by E. Nesbit. There are six stories left in this collection, which I hope to finish by the end of October. Hopefully I can manage two a week. As it has turned quite brisk and rainy here, the weather is certainly giving me just the right setting for a few scary stories.