By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was a prolific novelist, short-story writer, and poet, who is perhaps best-known for classic children’s books like The Jungle Book and for poems like ‘If—’. But Kipling’s short stories for adults often get overlooked – a fact which is perhaps hardly surprising given how much enduring and endurable writing Kipling produced.
Below, we select and introduce ten of the very best Rudyard Kipling short stories. These include horror stories, tales about werewolves, science fiction, and even a new take on the ghost story format. All will be explained below …
1. ‘The Phantom ’Rickshaw’.
Kipling made his name as a writer when he was just nineteen years old, in the mid-1880s, with a handful of short stories which much more experienced writers would sell their souls to be able to produce.
This is a ghost story that also has some horror elements: it’s about a man, Jack Pansay, who is haunted by the image of a ghostly rickshaw in which his dead former sweetheart sits. He had spurned his golden-haired beloved for a new squeeze, and shortly after this, his abandoned lover died of a broken heart. Seeing her come seemingly back from the dead will give Jack the shock of his life – and end up destroying all chances of happiness for him …
This was another early story, published in 1885 when Kipling was still a teenager. It tells of how the title character falls down while riding his horse one night, only to find himself in some weird realm where the living dead – people on the brink of death but brought back from that fate – are imprisoned in a kind of camp.
The story was a possible influence on the later H. G. Wells story, ‘The Country of the Blind’, in which the protagonist also accidentally finds himself among a strange community after falling down into a crater.
This is one of Rudyard Kipling’s best-known short stories. Published in 1888, it’s the story of two men who head off to Afghanistan with the intention of being proclaimed kings. Although they succeed, even convincing the locals that they should be worshipped as gods, they are shown to be mere mortals when one of them is bitten by his wife-to-be. The people quickly turn on the pair of kings …
This story is often interpreted as a tale about the British Raj in India: as Orwell would also later show in his brilliant essay (which is perhaps more fiction than fact), ‘Shooting an Elephant’, the English set themselves up for failure when trying to persuade the Indian natives that they were like gods, because their feet of clay would be revealed soon enough.
4. ‘The Mark of the Beast’.
By 1890, when this story was published, Kipling was already making waves in the literary world. But this story made waves for the wrong reasons, according to some editors. Andrew Lang called it ‘poisonous stuff which has left an extremely disagreeable impression on my mind’, while another editor, William Sharp, recommended to a correspondent that he should ‘instantly burn this detestable piece of work’.
Why did they recoil at the story so much? It’s a tale about lycanthropy, i.e., werewolves: it tells of a man named Fleete who desecrates an Indian temple and is bitten by a priest for his crime. Soon after, Fleete begins to exhibit some very strange behaviour …
Along with ‘Mrs Bathurst’ (see below), this story, from 1902, is among Kipling’s most baffling and impenetrable – and yet even though it may not readily give up all of its secrets to us, there is something gripping about the narrative Kipling creates using the new technology of wireless telegraphy.
The story concerns a chemist’s assistant who, like the Romantic poet, John Keats, is suffering from consumption. When he is put under a trance while some telegraphic experiments are ongoing, he produces some snippets from Keats’s poetry – even though he claims never to have read Keats. This is a strange and mesmerising story.
6. ‘Mrs Bathurst’.
A group of men who work for the railways in South Africa sit about telling stories to each other. One of their number, Pyecroft, begins telling the others about a man, Vickery, who deserted the service in mysterious circumstances. The ensuing tale – which is told in a clipped, elliptical, and remarkably authentic style – 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 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.
In our discussion of Kipling’s story, we have argued that this tale (from 1904) represents Kipling’s attempt to write a new kind of ‘ghost story’, in which no actual ghost is present. The new invention of moving pictures made that possible.
Written in 1904, this is sometimes called Kipling’s greatest ghost story. A man driving around the Sussex countryside (where Kipling himself lived by this time) gets lost and takes refuge in a beautiful country house owned by a blind woman. The woman looks after a number of small children, none of whom will approach the man. Who are these children?
We won’t say any more, except to say that this story is thought to have been inspired by the tragic death of Kipling’s own daughter several years earlier.
8. ‘Mary Postgate’.
The First World War gave Kipling’s short stories a new angle. Published in 1915, this story is about a servant, Mary Postgate, who falls in love with Wynn, the son of the family for whom she works. When Wynn dies while engaging in flight training for the war, Mary is heartbroken, though she gives little away to those around her.
But when a man, who appears to be a German airman, crashes into the garden, Mary spies her chance to exact a terrible revenge for her beloved’s death …
This story can be read as a patriotic anti-German piece or, given its ambiguities, as a critique of blind patriotism. There remains a question mark over whether Mary has successfully identified the airman as German, or whether he is actually on the same side as her; Kipling cleverly sows doubt into the discerning reader’s mind.
This is another story inspired by the First World War, although it wasn’t written and published until after the war was over, in 1924.
The story concerns a young ex-soldier named Clem Strangwick, a young ex-soldier who describes the horrors of the war, including a ghostly encounter with the spectre of his aunt, who was in love with the man, Godsoe, who acted like a father to Clem. The appearance of the ghost, and Godsoe’s subsequent death as a result of it, have haunted Clem ever since.
In two short stories, ‘With the Night Mail’ and ‘As Easy as A.B.C.: A Tale of 2150 AD’, published in 1905 and 1915 respectively, Rudyard Kipling pioneered the short story set in the future, in which action rather than simple exposition is the key focus. So this story, the earlier of the two, seems like a good note on which to end this pick of Kipling’s best stories.
Set in the year 2000, the story features transatlantic aircraft and radio communication, with the narrator on board a mail plane travelling from London to Canada. The journey is exhilaratingly good fun to read, with Kipling’s invention and eye for detail a masterclass in what we now call ‘speculative fiction’.