Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has been adapted so many times for the big and small screen, that you must have been living under a rock not to know the rudimentaries of his story. So, I was intrigued when Russell’s book arrived. I wondered where he would take this infamous tale and how he would make it his own. Thankfully, Russell doesn’t tinker with the source material, but gives more a ‘what if…’ scenario to how that kernel of an idea was first embedded in the fruitful imagination of Stevenson.
Russell turns Hyde into the reality and Jekyll the imaginary alter ego. One could not describe Hyde as the ‘hero’, as throughout one is never sure if Hyde is all we are told. He has fugue states, periods of time that go missing from his memory as he slides into the Otherworld. He suffers nightmares and sometimes cannot differentiate between what is real and imagined. The horrific murders that happen across Edinburgh could easily be at Hyde’s hands. He has been known to have violent outbursts. With wonderful dexterity, Russell keeps flipping that coin, showing the two sides to Hyde. In fact, this is a running theme throughout. The question of two entities living in the same body arises along with the two faces of Janus. Are we all in varying degrees more than just one person in a single body? Have we not many of us turned on our public face when all around us falls apart? Russell cranks up this idea of Stevenson’s ‘duality of human nature’ to show the impenetrable darkness that can lie within someone, a ‘beast’, caged within and fighting to get out.
The Victorian age was the infancy of medicine. Doctors were not only beginning to understand the anatomy of the body, but also of the mind. Although a woman could still be thrown in an asylum for being outspoken, psychology was taking baby steps and the brain was the new frontier to be conquered. At the other end of the scale, séances, were also all the rage, the supernatural widely accepted and Russell superbly brings that in to play here, mixing his story with mythology that was still strongly believed and carried down from generation to generation along with those who believe in science. This mythology adds a Gothic element to Hyde’s story. Is Hell’s Black Hound an aberration of Hyde’s condition, is it real or a symbolism of Hyde’s own darkness? With a scent of Conan Doyle’s own Baskerville classic, (plus Dr Bell also makes a cameo), Russell appears to be paying homage to those Scottish writers who opened the doors to the kind of dark fiction many of us enjoy today.
Russell conjures up the Gothic Victorian atmosphere, not just with his descriptions, but even the words he uses, (my dictionary came out more than once). No wonder ‘Hyde’ won the McIlvanney Novel Prize 2021. ‘Hyde’ is eerie, atmospheric, menacing, completely compelling and breath-taking. Highly original and one of the most innovative novels I have read in a long time.