Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1885
The magic trick:
Filling the story with absurdly ornate sentences
Leave it to R.L. Stevenson to spoil a perfectly good Christmas premise by going on and on about the dual nature of man’s being. That is kind of his pet topic after all.
In “Markheim” we meet a murderer who has assured himself of spiritual approval but lives in terror of earthly judgment. He knows his acts are vile but trusts in the goodness of his soul within. Some kind of Christmas ghost (his conscience perhaps? the devil?) visits him and straightens him out.
The philosophical questions raised are interesting, and the man’s journey toward what is, surprisingly, a happy ending is fascinating. Those are not maybe the most original of ideas, though. No, what makes this story stand out – and what often draws me to Stevenson’s writing – is the remarkable quality of the prose. Stevenson writes with a certain elegant complication that I just love. One could accuse him of over-writing. The sentences often are so ornate as to be overbearing. But I love it. Certain paragraphs here could be excised from the story to exist as standalone poems. The writing is that lush. And that’s quite a trick on Stevenson’s part.
The faint, foggy daylight glimmered dimly on the bare floor and stairs; on the bright suit of armor posted, halbert in hand, upon the landing; and on the dark wood carvings and framed pictures that hung against the yellow panels of the wainscot. So loud was the beating of the rain through all the house that, in Markheim’s ears, it began to be distinguished into many different sounds. Footsteps and sighs, the tread of regiments marching in the distance, the chink of money in the counting, and the creaking of doors held stealthily ajar, appeared to mingle with the patter of the drops upon the cupola and the gushing of the water in the pipes. The sense that he was not alone grew upon him to the verge of madness. On every side he was haunted and begirt by presences.