The Phantom Rickshaw
Nearly every other Station owns a ghost. There are said to be two at Simla, not counting the woman who blows the bellows at Syree dâk-bungalow on the Old Road; Mussoorie has a house haunted of a very lively Thing; a White Lady is supposed to do night-watchman round a house in Lahore; Dalhousie says that one of her houses “repeats” on autumn evenings all the incidents of a horrible horse-and-precipice accident; Murree has a merry ghost, and, now that she has been swept by cholera, will have room for a sorrowful one; there are Officers’ Quarters in Mian Mir whose doors open without reason, and whose furniture is guaranteed to creak, not with the heat of June but with the weight of Invisibles who come to lounge in the chairs; Peshawur possesses houses that none will willingly rent; and there is something—not fever—wrong with a big bungalow in Allahabad. The older Provinces simply bristle with haunted houses, and march phantom armies along their main thoroughfares.
Oriental ghost stories, we said, and let’s start with Kipling’s The Phantom Rickshaw and other ghost stories, that you can find in a variety of formats on Project Gutenberg.
The book was first published in 1888, but I think the Gutenberg edition is somehow later, because it includes an extra story, The Finest Story in the World, that’s not listed in the Wikipedia page devoted to the book.
The original stories in the book were written by Kipling in his twenties, and published by The Pioneer or the Civil and Military Gazette.
So, four or five stories – one of which does not deal with ghosts and is the most famous of them all: The Man that would be King takes up almost half of the volume, and it remains to this day one of the finest adventure stories ever written.
It does sidestep one of the major drawbacks – to me, at least – of Kipling’s prose: his narrators are always rather stiff and unemotional, their language precise and detached.
Consider, if you will, the passage that opens this post – taken from My Own True Ghost Story. So proper, so measured.
In The Man that would be King, though, the narrative is promptly handed over to Peachy Carnehan, and his voice carries all the wonder and madness of the rest of the novella…
The most amazing miracles was at Lodge next night. One of the old priests was watching us continuous, and I felt uneasy, for I knew we’d have to fudge the Ritual, and I didn’t know what the men knew. The old priest was a stranger come in from beyond the village of Bashkai. The minute Dravot puts on the Master’s apron that the girls had made for him, the priest fetches a whoop and a howl, and tries to overturn the stone that Dravot was sitting on. ‘It’s all up now,’ I says. ‘That comes of meddling with the Craft without warrant!’
Carnehan’s voice is not there to inject passion in the other tales of the collection.
The Phantom Rikshaw’s a story of unrequired love and revenge, and is probably scarier for the way in which poor Mrs Wessington is treated in life than for the haunting.
My Own True Ghost Story takes place in a bungalow along an Indian road, where the narrator witnesses some strange sounds and sensations, and it’s probably the most effective ghost story in the volume.
The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes does not feature ghosts but rather people that have been cast out of society because they revived after an apparent death, and now live in the Village of the Dead. Once again the narrator is very measured in telling his tale.
The Finest Story Ever Told was published in 1895 (and is therefore not part of the original collection), and is set in London. The story deals with reincarnation and the memory of past lives.
What is that makes these stories by the young Kipling work anyway?
Probably the language – that for all its mannered tone, makes a great counterpoint for the bizarre occurrences that are presented to the reader. The plain journalistic tone lends a strange vividness to the stories, and we get trapped. Our conscious mind finds the language too cold, but that coldness is what makes the horror and wonder stand out.
The Phantom Rickshaw was not Kiping’s only foray in supernatural fiction, and other stories include “By Word of Mouth” and “The Bisara of Pooree” in Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), “At the End of the Passage”, “The Mark of the Beast” and “The Dream of Duncan Parrenness” in Life’s Handicap (1891), “The Lost Legion” in Many Inventions (1893), “The House Surgeon” in Actions and Reactions (1909), “In the Same Boat” in A Diversity of Creatures (1917), “The Wish House” and “A Madonna of the Trenches” in Debits and Credits (1926), and “Unprofessional” in Limits and Renewals (1932).
All the aforementioned stories, together with Kipling’s science fiction – that I guess I mentioned sometime in the past – can be found on the Project Gutenberg pages devoted to Kipling, and make for a fine collection of imaginative tales from a Nobel Prize author.
Always worth remembering, and always worth a read.