Some time ago I heard the British novelist A.S. Byatt talking about the work of Robert Louis Stevenson on a podcast about the uses of enchantment in fiction. In order to show that magic and enchantment were not traditionally meant only for children, she pointed to the work of Stevenson. His novels, she said, were written for readers of all ages. Be that as it may, certainly by the 20th century they, the most popular ones at any rate — Treasure Island, Kidnapped — had become staples of young adult literature, stories of adventure mainly for young boys. The one exception, the one piece that has still retained its appeal to the general reader is his novelette, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
This story of science run amok taps into some of the central human themes that have long concerned literature: the Faustian search for knowledge, the evil that may lie dormant in the best of us waiting patiently for some trigger to awaken it, the doppelganger, the mad scientist obsessed with his discovery. These are themes that are still the stuff of fiction today, and more than likely always will be.
It is, then, good to see that C. E. L. Welsh’s adaptation of the story for the Campfire Graphic Classic Novel series does nothing to dumb down the book and its themes. It follows the well-known story of the good doctor who discovers a drug that to his horror unleashed the evil beast inside him, and who is unable to control his other self closely and sets up the moral questions the story raises with some clarity.
This is a dark story and that darkness is emphasized in the illustrations of Lalit Kumar Sharma. It is not a pretty world. Faces are sharp and scowling, lined with care. This is not only true of the misery-laden Jekyll and the hideous Hyde, but it is the way all of the characters are drawn. There is rarely a smile in the book. Kumar has drawn the kind of world in which it is extremely likely an evil like Hyde can be carelessly loosed. While there is little in the way of blood and guts, this is not a book for the youngest of readers. It is a book aimed at young adults.
Like others in the Campfire series, the book includes a one-page introductory biographical sketch of the author and an appendix which looks at some further examples of some element in the story. In this case the appendix deals with a gaggle of mad scientists through history. There are six in all; all of them unknown to me. There is a 19th-century Italian physicist, Giovanni Aldini, who we are told electrified the body of a hanged convict at the London College of Surgeons, frightening many in the audience so badly, that one member is said to have died as a result. Others mentioned are 20th-century psychologist Harry Harlow, who was known for his cruel experimentation with animals, and Vladimir Demikhov, a transplant scientist infamous for his attempt to create a two-headed dog. These are the kinds of informational tidbits aimed at encouraging further study in the youthful reader.