Guest Author - Siobhain M Cullen
In looking for weird short scary Stories suitable for a Burns Night Supper storytelling,I found this paranormal creature stiry by Robert Louis Stevenson from the collection 'The Suicide Club.'. I sought a story which imparted a clear atmosphere of Scotland.
There were many Short Stories written by Scottish authors which were set not in Scotland, but in New York or London. These included stories by R.L. Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle among others. One of RL Stevenson's Short Stories (from his “Fables “ collection New York 1914) from the outset breathed a salty breeze of Scotland as it began …. There was a man in the islands who fished for his bare bellyful….”
As I began to read however, the language style and the particular way in which the words were laced together began to suggest to me that the origins of the short
Story “The Poor Thing” were not in fact Scottish but Irish. It may well be that the two Gaelic cultures were so well knitted together that the language style was embedded in both.
The paranormal short story from The Suicide Club effortlessly paints a poetically picturesque scene of the man’s existence and environment with exquisite Gaelic literature descriptions such as “the gulls heard him laugh when the spray met him” as he sets off to fish. However, all is not well with the weird man for he is “bitter poor and bitter ugly” meaning that he is unable to attract a wife.
One day the man wakes to find someone warming “his hands at the red peats” (Another charming reference, here to the moorland peat fires traditional in Scotland and Ireland.) He asks his name, but the supernatural diaphonous "Being" cannot give it as he has no identity as yet. ”Ny name is not yet named and my nature not yet sure” it explans. Some readers will guess here, as I did, that the Being has not yet been born and therefore exists in the future. In short he is the representation of the man’s future offspring.
Here is a clever treatment from Robert Louis Stevenson,of the abstract concept of Time, for the Being “The Poor Thing” exists also in spiritual form in the past and the present saying "I was a part of your fathers and went out to fish and fight with them in the ancient days” adding “ I wait until you have a wife….I shall be in your son …… rejoicing manfully to launch the boat into the surf, skilful to direct the helm…… where the ring closes and the blows are going.” Nowadays we might call this Being or concept "DNA."
The man sympathises with his visitor however, ruefully discussing the unlikelihood of such a possibility and considering the eventuality that “The Poor Thing” may never take human identity in the light of the Fisherman's own bitter poverty and ugly face. He fears he may never get a wife until “the age of eagles” – a reminder from Robert Louis Stevenson of Scotland’s glorious native Golden Eagles.
The paranormal creature, the Poor Thing, replies that it is his mission to help the fisherman find a wife, and himself find a mother. He takes him across the seas in a little boat – a lovely description of his amorphous nature is presented lightly and skilfully “the spray blew through his bones like snow, and the boat dipped not with the weight of him.” The science-defying image is typical of the preoccupation of the Scottish and Irish with the paranormal and the superstitious.
Another typically gaelic Scottish image looms large and topical at this time of New Year, Burns Night Supper and farewells to the Dead. On setting “foot to shore” on the little isle of sheep, they go to beg favours of the dead in a stone-heaped cairn, the Poor Thing urging the man to beg any virtue they withheld whilst alive. Like “a swarm of bees” the voices of the dead murmur in myriads that the man should face his problems in life as they had done before him, before “ebbing away like the eddy of a river.”
The weird Poor Thing urges the man to force them to give him a gift so he rents asunder their bones, stones and ribs to the noonday sun, plunges his hand down into the skeletons, resisting their cobwebby grip all the while - and draws out an object. Disappointed , he realises it is only a horseshoe and a rusty one at that.
They set sail for the island of an Earl where the fisherman sits gloomily in the fish market with nothing in his creel to sell, except the horseshoe - the Irish-style addendum to the sentence being “and it rusty.” The Earl's daughter passes by and her curiosity is piqued. Certain that it must have some secret value or power in order to be present in the man’s creel in a market at all, she asks to buy the horseshoe. The man replies that it is not for sale and he has come to sit in the market for a different reason – to find a wife, a typical story line for fairytales including short scary stories.
Perhaps infuriated by the novel experience of being denied a request, the Earl’s daughter informs her father whose mind is also engaged by the intellectual puzzle challenge. He says he cannot rest until he solves the answer and threatens to hang the fisherman on the nearby gallows if he does not set a price on the horseshoe. Like the constant rhythm of waves splashing the shoreline , the three engage in a rally of repetition “ the way of life is grooved like the launching …in the time of my fathers….”
"Enough with your fathers," the girl bursts out, telling him to state what he will take for the horseshoe. Of course, the man says that the only thing he needs is a wife. At this, the Earls daughter notices the Poor Thing which at once appears to her like a sorrowful motherless bairn. After demanding a reason why she should marry, she is able to fel the mysterious weight of the now bairn-like thing in her arms before its presence melts away. In true Gaelic style, her aristocratic father is described as watching events “with the end of his eye.” He suggests that as she has refused so may suitors before, marriage to this man might not be such a bad idea.
“Behold a vision of our children” says the fisherman ... “the busy hearth and the white heads.” She sighs in acceptance and they agree to make a kirk and a mill from the horseshoe. The Poor Thing did indeed become part of their eldest son - “a man of might where the ring closes and the blows are going.”
One explanation for the Irish-style delivey of a Scottish Short Story might be that Robert Louis Stevenson originally heard it told as Gaelic literature by an Irishman and remembered the narration. The rare story appears in the collection 'The Suicide Club' which also includes many more of Stevenson's most admired dark stories.