Rudyard Kipling published The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Stories in 1888. It is a collection of short stories, all of which fit into the generic categories of weird fiction and/or ghost stories. In the collection’s Preface, however, Kipling warns readers that “this is not exactly a book of downright ghost stories as the cover makes believe. It is rather a collection of facts that never quite explained themselves.”
Kipling was born in India in 1865 to two British parents, his father being the principal of the new art school in Bombay. At age six, he and his sister were sent back to England to attend boarding school (a fairly typical custom of the time). While at school, he was prepared for a career in the army, and in 1882, his father secured a position for Rudyard on the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette.
For this text, I’ve selected four of the short stories to focus on: “The Phantom Rickshaw,” “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes,” “The Recrudescence of Imray,” and “My Own True Ghost Story.”
“The Phantom Rickshaw”
After an affair with a Mrs. Agnes Keith-Wessington in Simla, the narrator, Jack, repudiates her and eventually becomes engaged to Miss Kitty Mannering. Yet Mrs. Wessington continually reappears in Jack’s life, begging him to reconsider, insisting that it was all just a mistake. But Jack wants nothing to do with her and continues to spurn her. Eventually Mrs. Wessington dies, much to Jack’s relief. However, some time thereafter he sees her old rickshaw and assumes that someone has bought it. Then, to his astonishment, the rickshaw and the men pulling it pass through a horse, revealing themselves to be phantoms, bearing the departed ghost of Mrs. Wessington. This leads Jack into increasingly erratic behavior which he tries to cover up by concocting increasingly elaborate lies to assuage Kitty’s suspicions. Eventually a Dr. Heatherlegh takes him in, supposing the visions to be the result of disease or madness. Despite their efforts, Kitty and her family become increasingly suspicious and eventually call off the engagement. Jack loses hope and begins wandering the city aimlessly, accompanied by the ghost of Mrs. Wessington. 1
Notes & Quotes
- Throughout the story, Pansay’s paranormal experience is treated as a medical malady to be cured. The story is framed by an opening, written by an unnamed narrator. This narrator encourages the bearer of the ghost story (Jack Pansay) to write down his story because “that ink might assist him to ease his mind” (9). This treatment not only doesn’t work, but it worsens the supposed illness. Dr. Heatherlegh believes that Pansay is suffering from “women and indigestible food” which cause disturbances of the “Eyes, Brain and Stomach… You’ve too much conceited Brain, too little Stomach, and thoroughly unhealthy Eyes” (27). There is an argument here for a connection between mind and body- the body is unhealthy, creating a diseased mind experiencing delusions. Dr. Heatherlegh, unfortunately, views his patient not as a human, but as an “interesting phenomenon” (ibid.) Pansay believes that Heatherlegh is “a fool” for believing that the ghost is just a delusion, but encourages the reader to take on the position of a doctor as he or she reads through his account, stating that “you shall judge for yourselves” (11).
- Mrs. Wessington’s ghost does not appear alone to Pansay, but instead is accompanied by her rickshaw and her servants. Pansay is surprised that these workers followed her not only to the grave, but that they also participate in her haunting:
So there were ghosts of ‘rickshaws after all, and ghostly employments in the other world! How much did Mrs. Wessington give her men? What were their hours? Where did they go? (24)
- Part of the story takes on the form of the seduction plot, but with the major difference being that Mrs. Wessington was a married woman. Pansay had an illicit affair with Mrs. Wessington, a married woman, and then completely abandons her in order to become engaged to Kitty. Even prior to this abandonment, Mrs. Wessington was growing ill, weeks after Pansay leaving her, Mrs. Wessington dies. At the end of the novel, Pansay admits that he was her murderer and he therefore deserves to be tied with her in life and in death. This works with the idea of the “lady killer,” the libertine who murders first a woman’s reputation before secondly causing her death:
In justice, too, pity her. For as surely as ever woman was killed by man, I killed Mrs. Wessington. (42)
“The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”
One evening Morrowbie Jukes, an Englishman, is feeling a bit feverish and the barking of the dogs outside his tent is upsetting him. So he mounts his horse in order to pursue them. The horse bolts and they eventually fall into a sandy ravine on the edge of a river. He awakens the next morning to find himself in a village of the living dead, where people who appear to have died of, for instance, cholera, but who revived when their bodies were about to be burned, are imprisoned. He quickly learns that it is impossible to climb out because of the sandy slope. And the river is doubly treacherous with quicksand and a rifleman who will try to pick them off. He recognizes one man there, a Brahmin named Gunga Dass. Gunga has become ruthless, but he does feed Jukes with dead crow. Eventually Jukes discovered that another Englishman had been there and died. On his corpse Jukes finds a note explaining how to safely get through the quicksand. After Jukes explains it to Gunga, Gunga confesses to murdering the Englishman for fear of being left behind. They plan their escape for that evening, when the rifleman will be unable to see them in the dark. When the time to escape arrives, Gunga knocks Jukes unconscious and escapes alone. When Jukes awakes he is found by the boy who kept his dogs and is helped to escape by means of a rope. 2
Notes & Quotes
- This story makes use of a fairly common pattern in imperial ecogothic texts: the land upon which no white man has trodden. The second sentence of the narrative states: “Jukes by accident stumbled upon a village that is well known to exist, though he is the only Englishman who has been there” (45). This demonstrates the imperial fear that gaining knowledge (and therefore mastery) of the world could lead to death or decay. Once he finds himself in the village of the living dead, Jukes is terrified not only of the possibility of his own death, but also his new status as equivalent to the outcast Indians also stuck in the ravine. The fear that imperialism would drag the Englishman down to the levels of the supposedly uncivilized “other” is common in imperial gothic literature. Imperial anxieties are here tied to ecogothic fears, as quicksand and sand pits promise death to Jukes. Both the Indian land and its people are threatening to the story’s English hero.
“The Recrudescence of Imray”
|Imray has disappeared, and despite the usual enquiries, there is no trace of him. Three or four months later his bungalow is rented by Strickland of the police and soon after the narrator quarters himself on Strickland. It is a wild night, of drenching rain, and is is hard to get to sleep. During the small hours the narrator senses the presence of a strange figure, trying to convey some urgent message. Strickland’s great dog is also disturbed.
The next day there is no rational explanation for these apprehensions. However, they happen to see a snake up by the corner of the ceiling cloth, which is disappearing into the roof space. Strickland climbs up after it, and finds Imray’s body, with its throat cut, lying on the rafters. Strickland suspects Imray’s servant, who confesses to the murder. 3
Notes & Quotes
- This story takes on a home invasion narrative, but then flips it in order to fit within the imperial gothic subgenre. First, the bungalow seems to still belong to the missing Imray. It is only rented out to Strickland, who also maintains Imray’s original servants. Additionally, Imray’s body is discovered in the ceiling- the owner is invading from within. When Strickland first notices a body in the ceiling, he doesn’t immediately notice that it is a corpse, and instead cries out to the narrator that, “There’s room for another set of rooms up here, and, by Jove! some one is occupying ’em!” (93). However, it is quickly discovered that the real threat from within the house lies with the servants, Bahadur Khan, one of whom eventually confesses to murdering Imray, his former master. This result is terrifying to the narrator and Strickland because the servants, including Khan, had been with Imray for a long time and never demonstrated any discontent. The narrator reflects that his servants “had been with me for exactly that length of time” (100). This reminds me a lot of the American fear of slave mutinies present in 19th century literature, especially gothic texts written by southern authors. It also is reminiscent of the fearful white reaction to the Nat Turner rebellion- the slaves involved never demonstrated any anger or hate, so it made other slave-holders feel that a violent mutiny could occur to them as well without any warning. In this story, the fear of mutiny is attached to the Sepoy Mutiny, which occurred in 1857-8.
“My Own True Ghost Story.”
The narrator, while staying at a dâk-bungalow in Katmal, India, hears someone in the next room playing billiards. He assumes that it is a group of doolie-bearers who’ve just arrived. The next morning he complains, only to learn that there were no coolies in the dâk-bungalow the night before. The owner then tells him that ten years ago it was a billiard-hall. An engineer who’d been fond of the billiard hall had died somewhere far from it and they suspected that it was his ghost that occasionally came to visit it. 4
Notes & Quotes
- Once again (like in “The Phantom Rickshaw”), Kipling explains a racial view of the supernatural. Only certain racial bodies can bare witness to racially marked ghosts. For Kipling, a ghost maintains its racial and national identity and this impacts its presence as a ghost, as well as its ability to be sensed:
These and the corpse-ghosts, however, are only vernacular articles and do not attack Sahibs. No native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman; but many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black. (104)