By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) died young, but in his forty-four years he wrote some of the most enduringly popular and influential novels ever written, as well as a number of perfectly crafted short stories. He also wrote popular poems for children.
We have collected some of Stevenson’s best poems in a separate post. But what are his best stories – whether short stories or longer works, including novels and novellas? Below, we introduce ten of Robert Louis Stevenson’s greatest stories and make the case for why you should read them all.
Let’s start with one of Stevenson’s most unsettling short stories, from 1885 and based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The title character murders a shopkeeper and is plagued by a series of ‘visions’ in the wake of this horrific deed. Are these ghostly apparitions, or the pricking of his own conscience?
Following Poe and Dickens and others, Stevenson leaves the matter open to question with some wonderfully ambiguous details.
2. Treasure Island.
Even people who have never read Treasure Island know something about the story, whether it’s the one-legged pirate Long John Silver (based on Stevenson’s friend, the writer W. E. Henley, who wrote the poem ‘Invictus’) or the map showing where ‘X marks the spot’ where the treasure is buried. Both of these details were Stevenson’s invention but they have taken on a quasi-mythic force in the general popular imagination.
Stevenson’s 1883 novel rejuvenated the Victorian adventure novel and inspired other books: famously, H. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines as a wager, believing he could write a more exciting book than Stevenson’s. Treasure Island is packed full of excitement too, however, and remains a gripping adventure tale.
3. ‘The Body Snatcher’.
This 1884 story is one of Stevenson’s darkest, not least because it was based on a real-life event from Scotland’s history (namely the body-snatching – and murders – carried out by Burke and Hare earlier in the nineteenth century).
The story centres on a couple of friends, Macfarlane and Fettes. Fettes begins to suspect that his friend has not only been collecting bodies for medical dissection, but has been murdering the victims first. The end of the story is chilling in its suggestion that one of the victims has returned to ‘haunt’ them …
Subtitled A Winter’s Tale, this 1889 novel is about two Scottish noblemen who are brothers. The novel’s crux is the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The two brothers couldn’t be more different from one another, even to the extent that they find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.
Published in January 1886 and so just missing the lucrative Christmas ‘ghost story’ publishing market which Dickens had established over forty years earlier, this novella is Stevenson’s most famous story of all, and lends itself to many interpretations. It can be analysed as a religious fable, an anti-drug or anti-drink tale, or (Stevenson’s own recommended view) an attack on Victorian hypocrisy.
As with Treasure Island, the story is familiar to people who have never read a word of Stevenson’s book (which he reportedly rewrote, after his wife criticised the original draft – Stevenson promptly tore it up and started again).
An upstanding doctor in Victorian London, Henry Jekyll, discovers a way to turn himself into an ugly little man named Edward Hyde. As Hyde, he can stalk the streets of London and act on every suppressed impulse, without anyone suspecting Jekyll. But his morally bankrupt double life starts to catch up with him …
6. ‘The Merry Men’.
This 1882 story has nothing to do with Robin Hood, despite the title: it is set on the fictional island of Eilean Aros, based on the Isle of Erraid, in the Inner Hebrides off the Scottish mainland. The title derives from the local name given to a group of waves in the story.
Essentially, it’s another treasure-hunt story, and is thus a kind of forerunner to Treasure Island, even though in every other respect its tone and focus are quite different. A young man hears a rumour of treasure lost at sea off a nearby island and goes in search of it. The figure of a mysterious stranger towards the end of the narrative lends this story its supernatural aspect: is he the ghost of a murdered man, or the Devil himself?
After Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, this 1886 novel is probably Stevenson’s most popular. It would now probably be called a ‘young adult’ novel, and is another adventure tale.
Set in Scotland during the eighteenth century, the novel is about Robert Balfour, a recently orphaned teenager who discovers that he may be entitled to the estate which his uncle inherited when David’s father died. However, when the uncle learns of David’s suspicions, he kidnaps him and plans for him to be sold into slavery in the New World …
8. ‘The Bottle Imp’.
Owing to his failing health, Stevenson left Britain for the South Seas in 1890, believing the tropical climate would help alleviate his TB. While living on Samoa, Stevenson penned this story, which was published in 1891.
The story takes one of the oldest storytelling tropes in the world: the magical creature who can grant wishes, but at a cost. A Hawaiian named Keawe buys a bottle with an imp inside that grants wishes. However, the bottle is cursed; if the holder dies bearing it, their soul will go to hell. Keawe learns that the bottle was previously owned by, among others, Napoleon Bonaparte and Captain Cook. Will Keawe’s soul be similarly forfeit, or can he rid himself of the bottle imp – and, with it, the curse?
9. The Black Arrow.
Subtitled A Tale of the Two Roses, this 1888 novel is another adventure tale, but this time it’s not set on the high seas but during the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses. Stevenson drew on the famous Paston letters for the book’s historical detail. Dick, the young protagonist, becomes a knight in the wars, learning much about courage, honour, and loyalty as he journeys through medieval England.
10. The Ebb-Tide.
We’ll conclude this pick of the best Robert Louis Stevenson stories with another one of his South Sea tales. Published in 1894, the year Stevenson died, The Ebb-Tide is a novella which he co-wrote with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne.
As the title suggests, it’s another sea adventure tale, in which three beggars are given control of a schooner full of champagne, which they plan to steal and then sell on once they reach Peru. But will their criminal masterplan pay off?