Friday, July 15, 2016

Audiobook Review: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Book Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Bottom Line: This book delivers a quintessential piece of 19th Century horror / sci fi that presents some challenging moral quandaries.

In this classic 19th Century tale,  a lawyer--Gabriel John Utterson--finds himself entangled in the affairs of his friend, the upstanding Dr. Henry Jekyll, along with a rather surly dwarf of a man known as Mr. Hyde. The latter, a person of loathsome appearance and demeanor, has been seen around town and was guilty of assaulting a girl, which Dr. Jekyll later paid retribution for. Hyde has an unspecified connection with the doctor and Utterson is particularly dismayed when Jekyll revises his will to include Hyde as a beneficiary. This all comes to a head when a man is violently murdered and Mr. Hyde is linked to the crime, becoming a fugitive from justice. Utterson tries to talk with Jekyll about the situation, but the doctor assures his friend that they beastly man will not return. Later, though, Jekyll withdraws from almost all human contact prompting his butler to seek Utterson’s aid. They eventually break into Jekyll’s quarters and find the dead body of Mr. Hyde, though in the doctor’s clothes. They also find a letter written by Dr. Jekyll that describes his experiments in which he tried to separate his good side from his evil side but which instead produced the alter ego Mr. Hyde. Jekyll could at first control the transformations, but later found that he would morph involuntarily into Hyde. And then he found that he could no longer recreate the potion that prompts the metamorphosis because the key (tainted) ingredient he had previously used no longer exists. Eventually both personalities succumb to death and in his dying words Jekyll writes (as he transforms for the final time into Hyde) “I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end”.

This infamous novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson was first published in 1886 and has since become an iconic piece of genre fiction and has been retold countless times in film, on television, in comics, on the stage and more. The reason the story has lived on is that Stevenson managed to deliver a powerful tale that resonates with his readers and definitely touches a primal nerve of sorts. The first nine chapters of the book, written from the point of view of Utterson, give us a mystery tale as the lawyer tries to find out the truth about Mr. Hyde and his connection to Dr. Jekyll. But it is the final chapter that propels this book into the realm of literary masterpiece. This chapter unveils the final journal of Dr. Jekyll as he details his experiment and descent into the depths of his own dark side. But instead of simply looking at this from the simplistic point of view of good vs. evil, Stevenson adds another dimension to his tale by acknowledging the fact that both sides co-exist within us all and that we must learn to cope with our own dark sides in order to not be controlled by it. Jekyll tried to control his own licentiousness by devising a means to eradicate his dark side, but instead that created the Mr. Hyde alter ego. And this evil side of him gradually overtook the good side and ultimately destroyed both. Stevenson gets into some pretty heady (and cutting edge for the time) psychological territory in this chapter, and the moral issues he raises still provide subject for debate today.

I have to admit, though, that I found the ending a bit unsatisfying. After the revelations of the final chapter, all written in the words of Jekyll, I wanted to see the reaction of Utterson as well as some additional resolution of earlier plot threads left hanging. But that did not come as the novella ends on Jekyll’s words quoted above. On the plus side, this tale is not overly wordy like other important genre works from the 19th century like Dracula and Frankenstein. The relatively brief length of this book makes it a quick read, unlike the two mentioned above (or the thousand-plus page bloatfests we currently see hitting the shelves these days), but a short chapter wrapping up the loose ends would have been nice.  But then that's just a quibble and who am I to try and perfect a literary masterpiece?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is often looked at as a horror story, but the fact is that it is also a proto-science fiction tale as well. Jekyll’s experiments that lead to the creation of Mr. Hyde come about through scientific endeavors and have no supernatural links. In this sense, the book is similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which based the creation of that book's monster on scientific knowledge of the time. Stevenson also works in some of the early discoveries of psychology, a field that had established itself as a new scientific discipline at about that same time (separating itself from philosophy where it had previously been relegated). But whether you consider it horror, science fiction or both, it is a must-read for all genre fans.

Since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is in the public domain, there are many audio adaptations and dramatizations available for this work, but I decided to check out the Librivox version and was pleasantly surprised. For those not familiar with Librivox, they are the Project Gutenberg of audiobooks, offering free audio adaptations of works in the public domain available for download. This is the third work I have reviewed from Librivox and the other two were of varying quality as far as narration goes. Their version of Stevenson’s book gets the first-rate treatment, though, with narrator David Barnes giving us a professional quality reading. Whereas some of the readers for Librivox (all volunteers) provide barely passable narrations, Barnes delivers an excellent vocal performance and makes the story a pleasure to listen to. Why pay good money on a professional adaptation when you can get one just a good for free from Librivox? You can download it as MP3 files at this link and I highly recommend this version whether you are a regular audiobook listener (used to a professional level of quality) or just trying them out for the first time.

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