Eerie tales of Empire

A few years ago I picked up Rudyard Kipling's The phantom rickshaw & other eerie tales, a near-facsimile edition of A.H. Wheeler & Co's Indian Railway Library No. 5. I can quite understand why these particular tales were picked as part of the Indian Railway Library series, they're just the right length to pick up and put down between stops. They're also tales that tell you something very fundamental about the land you're passing through, should you have been a young Brit fairly freshly arrived in India in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century.

They're also very appropriate reads for this time of year. Only one is a true ghost story, but the other three are certainly eerie, and have an otherwordly element to them. The four stories contained in The phantom rickshaw anthology are: The phantom rickshaw, My own true ghost story, The strange ride of Morrowbie Jukes, and The man who would be King (which has sometimes been credited as the finest short story in English).

The phantom rickshaw is a proper ghost story. The caddish narrator believes he's got away with dumping his current girlfriend for a rather better prospect, only to discover that death is not the end...It's a well written, sometimes rather scary tale, but with a vein of humour to it too - the rickshaw coolies having died of cholera themselves seek employment in the afterlife, I think this is Kipling with his tongue firmly in his cheek. But there is a serious side to it too - he challenges the sexual mores of the day. Admittedly it's not the most serious of stories but the challenge is there.

My own true ghost story is a ghost story that is a debunking of the genre. I suspect that one of my favourite Saki stories The open window owes its existence to this Kipling miniature. It's not a particularly good tale of itself, but has influenced the genre.

My favourite of the four tales was the decidedly eerie The strange ride of Morrowbie Jukes. A horrifying tale of a British man, who driven mad by fever sets out on a hellish horse-ride that will land him in a village of the dead. It's a tale that feeds off all the negative, unearthly preconceptions (and misconceptions) that the British would have had of India in the Victorian age - a land where fever raged (this sadly was true certainly for Europeans - the cemeteries of India are full of nineteenth century Brits who died at a young age from malaria, cholera, dengue fever, and any other number of illnesses, many of which were largely unknown outside the continent at the time), a land with religious rites that were misunderstood, an alien land. And that other-worldliness, that eerieness, comes through brilliantly here. The village of the near-dead that is at the centre of the tale doesn't exist, there was nothing similar to it in Indian reality, and yet, that is the whole point, this is an hallucinatory vision of a chaotic mad country, a country that can, quite literally, drive a European mad. And it is this nightmarish quality that makes it such a stunning story.

It was also interesting to me the way in which Kipling reverses Indian life. Here the central Brahmin character, who would have had an important trusted place in Anglo-Indian society is revealed as an evil man, and one not to be trusted; while the dog-boy, Dunoo, probably an untouchable in ordinary life turns out to be a hero. This is a tale of the world turned upside-down.

If Morrowbie Jukes is a nightmarish vision of the perils of Empire, The man who would be King is undoubtedly a fable of the makings and breakings of Empire-building. This too has a nightmarish quality to it, but it's a brilliantly well written tale. The story of two men, who search for a lost kingdom, somewhere on the borders of India and Afganistan. They think of themselves as latter-day Prester Johns intending to forge their own empire, something after the white rajahs of Sarawak. They find their empire, build it, and for a while all prospers, but when the people find that they are not gods, but men, the empire is doomed.

This is a clever story. Very perceptive in many ways. The formation of the empire would have rung true to Victorian readers, then part of the biggest empire the world had ever known. But perhaps even as he wrote it, Kipling was aware that this could not last, India had seen many empires rise and fall from Alexander the Great to the Mughal Empire, the British Empire was just another such at its height when The man who would be King was written, but ultimately doomed to failure.

This is a fascinating selection of stories - great for a dark November night; and rather more thought-provoking than you might think just from looking at the title. Admittedly I'm a bit of a Kipling fan, but I'd thoroughly recommend these.


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