Imperial Gothic: The Strange Tales of Rudyard Kipling

21 Oct

When one is considering writers involved in the creation of ghost stories, supernatural fiction and tales of horror, Rudyard Kipling – the author of The Jungle Book and the Just So Stories – does not immediately spring to mind. Like many successful storytellers of the Victorian era, however, he was drawn from time to time to this particular genre. In some ways it is less surprising that Kipling turned his hand to Gothic entertainments than other English scribes who were lodged in the safe and mundane environs of leafy suburbia, for he spent a great deal of his early life in India at a time when mysticism was almost a way of life there. Indeed, a significant number of his stories have an Indian background. The term ‘imperial gothic’ has been coined to describe Kipling’s strange tales of India. The richness and alien qualities of this locale, allied to the unusual occurrences in Kipling’s plots, give the stories an extra unsettling frisson, which only enhances their power to disturb and intrigue the reader. There is a timeless element to Kipling’s stories of ghosts, monsters and inexplicable happenings, which evoke a bygone era while remaining as relevant and stimulating today as when they were first written. Kipling is an author who has never been entirely free of controversy, however, as we shall see.

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in India in 1865, at a time when the country was ruled by the British. While Kipling grew up in the atmosphere of a white middle-class artistic family, he was also influenced by the Indian culture on his doorstep. Indeed, he was virtually brought up by an ayah – his Indian nurse – who taught him Hindustani as his first language. Since Kipling spent his formative years in India, a country where there was wide belief in ghosts and the supernatural, it is perhaps no surprise that such an imaginative and informed writer should include otherworldly elements in his fiction. At the same period of history, Europe was buzzing with speculation concerning matters involving psychic and spiritualist beliefs. While Kipling was an entertaining enough writer, like all of the truly great wordsmiths he also provides in his tales some enriching or elevating insight about human nature and the world in which he lived. Therefore, while his stories were undoubtedly ‘strange tales’, they were also illuminating and rewarding into the bargain.

Kipling’s literary output was immense, ranging from the fairy-tale like excursions of the Just So Stories and children’s fiction such as Stalky & Co, to the vast array of poems which he penned, the most famous being If – a line from which famously adorns the players’ entrance to Centre Court at Wimbledon (“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”). Therefore it is easy to see how his supernatural tales have occasionally been overlooked. This is an injustice, however, when one considers that Kipling’s portfolio includes classic short stories such as The Mark of the Beast, a graphically horrific tale of lycanthropy; the Edgar Allan Poe-esque The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes; and perhaps one of the finest (and certainly scariest) ghostly tales ever written, They. Kipling was an acquaintance and admirer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the detective Sherlock Holmes, and he gave a nod and wink to his friend when he created the psychic detective story The House Surgeon, which is about a house which he mischievously called Holmescroft. Many of Kipling’s stories were set in the blood-soaked trenches of the First World War, including A Madonna of the Trenches. In a sad postscript to this story, Kipling’s teenaged son John tragically died in the fighting in 1917.

A patriot and staunch supporter of the British Empire until his death, many of Kipling’s views are regarded as controversial today. He has been called a fascist, a jingoist and a racist. Whilst it is true that some of his depictions of foreigners, especially those of Indian and Oriental extraction, might well appear offensive to modern sensibilities, much of the criticism directed at him is perhaps a little unfair. Due to the fact that many older editions of Rudyard Kipling’s books have a swastika printed on their covers, at one time Kipling was even accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. In fact, Kipling used the swastika simply because it was an Indian sun symbol conferring good luck and well-being. Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany, Kipling actually ordered the engraver to remove it from the printing block so that he should not be thought of as supporting them. As an indication of his true views of the Nazis, less than one year before his death Kipling gave a speech titled An Undefended Island to The Royal Society of St George, warning of the danger which Nazi Germany posed to Britain.

None of this controversy has truly marred Kipling’s literary legacy in any case. During his lifetime he was regarded as the literary heir to Charles Dickens and was widely thought of as the unofficial poet laureate (Kipling refused the actual post and many other honours, among them the Order of Merit). In 1907 he was the first author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His later years were however touched by sadness – as well as  the death of his son John, Kipling had to cope with the equally tragic loss of his daughter Josephine while the family were on a visit to the United States in early 1899. In 1902 he sought the seclusion of a lovely 17th century house called Bateman’s, south of Burwash in Sussex, where he spent his remaining years. Kipling died in 1936 and, in the ultimate accolade for any English writer, is buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. I’ll leave you with The Phantom Rickshaw (click to read!) a story infused with the exoticism and magic of Kipling’s first love, India.

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6 Responses to “Imperial Gothic: The Strange Tales of Rudyard Kipling”

  1. redplace October 21, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    Loving your work. Every post of yours is a great read indeed!

  2. Hayden October 21, 2012 at 7:43 am #

    I’ve only read “The Phantom Rickshaw” and didn’t realize that Kipling published other gothic pieces. I’m glad you posted about those stories. I need to look for them now.

  3. Brad C. Hodson October 28, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    Another great post. This has quickly become one of my favorite sites. Keep up the fantastic work!

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