Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Bottle Imp (1891) - Robert Louis Stevenson

I am a great fan of old bookshops. Whenever I happen to be in a new town my first port of call is an old bookshop. Basically, I am a reader and prefer reading to watching television or listening to radio.
At times I find the read so engrossing that I become completely oblivious to my surroundings. Perhaps there is something in my brain which makes the paper characters come alive. The printed words turn into a slide show and the written sequence of events appears as a show in a magic lantern. Occasionally after a lapse of time I find it difficult to be sure whether the memory is of a written word or of a visual event as if seen through a praxinoscope.
On one such foray I found a book of short

stories, an anthology. It was the kind of book when publishers prided themselves not only in the content but also in the appearance and get-up of what they produced. In a mock green leather cover with a gilded spine niether the ink had lost its sparkle nor the pages their shine.

I lost sight of the book when I moved. I remembered the story but couldn't recall the title. Happily, though I managed to find it on the web for my memory had stored the name of the author--Robert Louis Stevenson and the memorable tale was titled The Bottle Imp.

It is a horror story with a very human content.

In a Polynesian setting it begins in Hawaii with a man identified as Keawe to protect his real identity. He decides to travel the world and in the process acquires unwittingly and unintentionally a bottle wherein lives an imp, a minor demon. The imp is capable of granting wishes and in return takes a lien on the soul of the person who has possession of the bottle. When he learns of this terrible price Keawe tries his best to get rid of the accursed thing but without success for an owner could only free himself from the affliction if he transfers the ownership to someone else at a lesser price than the one which he himself paid.

Since this is now a fait accompli, a done deal, he wishes for a beautiful house delightfully furnished and then sells the bottle to his friend Lopaka who wishes for a schooner. The bottle then continues to be bought and sold until as the fate would have it, it comes back to haunt Keawe.

The imp in the bottle is the fulcrum which sustains the narrative, beyond that he is only glimpsed once as an extremely ugly and horrible creature who instills great loathing and fear in whosoever happens to cast an eye over his visage. But he hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the head of any one who is in possession of the bottle ready to whisk his soul away to Scheol as soon as he gives up the ghost.

The human characters in the story are so sharply delineated that the reader can visualise them in flesh and blood and feel with them their hopes and fears.

The central figures are Keawe and his wife Kokua but there is one character which has immense appeal for me and he is the old man seemingly a tramp, a vagrant but in reality compassion incarnate and an embodiment of moral integrity. He buys the bottle from Keawe for Kokua and offers to keep it to save the young woman from eternal misery. Not only that when Kokua before buying the bottle back from him suggests that at least he should ask the imp to cure him his cough he declines to do that. The whole scene is so moving that I am persuaded to quote it in full.
Then she saw the old man returning, and he had the bottle in his hand.
"I have done your bidding," said he. "I left your husband weeping like a child; tonight he will sleep easy." And he held the bottle forth.
"Before you give it me," Kokua panted, "take the good with the evil--ask to be delivered from your cough."
"I am an old man," replied the other, "and too near the gate of the grave to take a favour from the devil. But what is this? Why do you not take the bottle? Do you hesitate?"
"Not hesitate!" cried Kokua. "I am only weak. Give me a moment. It is my hand resists, my flesh shrinks back from the accursed thing. One moment only!"
The old man looked upon Kokua kindly. "Poor child!" said he, "you fear; your soul misgives you. Well, let me keep it. I am old and can never more be happy in this world, and as for the next--"
"Give it me!" gasped Kokua. "There is your money. Do you think I am so base as that? give me the bottle."
"God bless you, child," said the old man.

[Excerpts from]

Despite of all the difficulties the story has a happy ending for the loving couple, which is indeed a tribute to the fine and prolific imagination of the writer.

And the boatswain who brings the story to an unexpected finish deserves in my opinion a pride of place for the devil himself will come to receive him at the gates of hell.
-----------and there goes the bottle out of the story.

By the way, if someone still has the bottle they need not lose all hope for so long there is a mint willing and prepared to issue coins of ever smaller denominations the bottle can continue to be traded for the series of positive fractions is unending.