The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1884
The magic trick:
The introductory section sends the reader’s imagination running into thoughts possibly even scarier than the story that follows
The framing device Stevenson uses here is quite common to British literature of the 19th century. A group of people gather for a normal night somewhere – in the case of “The Body Snatcher” that somewhere is local parlor – and a member of the group invariably winds up telling an old tale from his past. That old tale, in essence, is the short story.
Sometimes such a story-before-the-story seems cumbersome. It merely delays the plot for no good reason. Most times, of course, the author has a master plan in mind and thus the outer story does something special to cast the inner story in a new light.
In “The Body Snatcher,” Stevenson uses the outer story to generate an ominous tone and plenty of suspense before the inner story even begins. The reader sees, with the other men in the parlor, the effect the doctor’s mere name has on Fettes, and instantly starts to imagine a set of terrifying possibilities to explain the mystery. Stevenson has made his job infinitely easier. The inner story doesn’t have to any work; the reader has already scared himself with his own concocted backstories about Fettes and the doctor. With the tone set, the inner story need only supply the details. And that’s quite a trick on Stevenson’s part.
“What is his name?”
“Doctor Macfarlane,” said the landlord.
Fettes was far through his third tumbler, stupidly fuddled, now nodding over, now staring mazily around him; but at the last word he seemed to awaken, and repeated the name “Macfarlane” twice, quietly enough the first time, but with sudden emotion at the second.
“Yes,” said the landlord, “that’s his name, Doctor Wolfe Macfarlane.”
Fettes became instantly sober; his eyes awoke, his voice became clear, loud, and steady, his language forcible and earnest. We were all startled by the transformation, as if a man had risen from the dead.