In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses one of Rudyard Kipling’s most baffling stories
I agree with Neil Gaiman: Rudyard Kipling was at his best in the short story form. The generous 800-page Fantasy Masterworks volume of Kipling’s ‘fantastical tales’ which I own (The Mark of the Beast And Other Fantastical Tales (FANTASY MASTERWORKS)) showcases the work of a writer who possessed not only a staggering imagination but narrative ingenuity which we rarely see in writers of short stories. Of all Kipling’s short stories, ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is one of the most ingenious. It is also one of the most genuinely chilling.
But ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is not among the more famous of Kipling’s stories, so it’s worth providing a brief summary here. I say ‘providing’ but ‘attempting’ may end up being a more accurate word, since this tale is difficult to summarise. A group of men who work for the railways in South Africa or in the marines sit about telling stories to each other. One of their number, Pyecroft, begins telling the others about a man, Vickery, a warrant officer who deserted the service in mysterious circumstances.
The ensuing tale – which is told in a clipped, elliptical, and remarkably authentic style (complete with interruptions and lacking in the helpful, but completely artificial, glosses that characters or narrators usually provide us) by both Pyecroft and another man, Pritchard – concerns Vickery’s mysterious relationship with Mrs Bathurst, a young widow who ran a boarding-house near Auckland in New Zealand where the two men had stayed in the past.
The precise nature of Vickery’s ‘relationship’ with Mrs Bathurst is never articulated by the men, but something happened which piqued their curiosity. It involves a then-new invention: the cinema. Shortly before he deserted his post, Vickery (nicknamed ‘Click’ by Pyecroft, in account of the sound made by his false teeth) went to see a showing of the motion pictures with Pyecroft, at the local travelling circus show, and they saw the image of Mrs Bathurst on the screen, large as life, in some footage of a mail van.
Vickery became obsessed with this film and ended up following the travelling circus around the country, deserting his service, in his determination to see the footage of the woman he knows in real life … again … and again. The story ends – well, it’s not for me to spoil the ending, which is as baffling as the rest of the story.
It seems clear to me that ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is a kind of ghost story, but with a twist: there is no supernatural element, but nor is there a rational psychological explanation for the ‘ghost’ in the story (i.e. it was all a hallucination). Instead, for the first time, there is a rational technological explanation, provided by the brand-new invention, the cinematograph. Moving pictures made possible something that had never been possible before in human history: the moving image of someone could survive after they had died. Previously, the only way the image of a person could return from beyond the grave was if their spirit chose to visit the living, and this is obviously what drives the conventional ghost story.
But Rudyard Kipling appears to have been the first to realise the potential for the ghost story form provided by the cinema. What if someone’s image was committed to film before they died in mysterious or tragic circumstances (murder or suicide, perhaps), and then someone involved in or even directly responsible for their death saw their image after they had died?
Of course, this sounds vaguely silly to us, because we’re surrounded by moving images of people who are long dead every day: old repeats of TV shows, archive footage, classic films beaming Marlon Brando or Natalie Wood or Judy Garland or John Wayne or any number of people who have long since passed on. But we know how disconcerting people found cinema when they first saw the moving image in theatres. Whether bewildered Victorians actually jumped out of their seats when they watched footage a train that appeared to be heading straight for them is a matter of doubt, but they were certainly astonished by what they saw. It seems safe to assume that a man who already felt some guilt over the death of a woman he had been involved with, upon seeing that woman plain as day on the cinema screen in front of him, would turn pale at the sight. This, I believe, is what Kipling set out to do with ‘Mrs Bathurst’.
But Kipling, for all that he is perceived as a popular writer, was also a remarkably sophisticated one, at least in his short stories, the form where he was arguably at his best. If I’m right about ‘Mrs Bathurst’ being a ghost story without a ghost, then one of the most remarkable things about ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is that Kipling kept this true ‘meaning’ of his story so well-hidden from readers. He doesn’t even tell us that Mrs Bathurst has died – although Vickery’s semi-incoherent comments upon seeing the film, about him not being a murderer, complete with his cryptic quoting from that ghost-ridden play Hamlet (‘the rest is silence’), all point one way, I’d say.
But then perhaps he felt that the story would exercise more power upon us as readers if he didn’t reveal it; perhaps he even believed that this true ‘ghost story’ narrative would somehow be communicated to us, albeit only on some unconscious level, without our fully comprehending that this is what we’re reading.
As it’s the Christmas season, a time traditionally associated with ghost stories, I would recommend giving ‘Mrs Bathurst’ a read. I know the above summary and analysis of the story may have removed some of the mystery surrounding the story, but the great thing about Kipling’s short fiction is that you can read and reread the stories and still marvel at the technical skill they demonstrate. It’s more than skill. It is genius. If anything qualifies as ‘genius’ in the world of short fiction, it is this.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.