Essay for RLS Day: Kevin Williamson on Stevenson, Cocaine and Evil

Foaming potions or white powders? Read the book!

Raise your rum glass and jingle your pieces of eight for today is Robert Louis Stevenson Day.  At long last the great Scottish writer is put on a par with Martin Luther King Jr, Christopher Columbus and Jesus with an official Day of his own.

Stevenson was born on this day  in 1850 and to mark RLS Day, and to pay homage to the author of timeless classics such as Kidnapped, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde here’s a golden oldie of an essay by Bella Caledonia editor Kevin Williamson on RLS, cocaine and duality.

The essay was written in 2000 (in an Edinburgh crack den), at a time when the killers of Liverpool toddler Jamie Bulger were about to be released from prison. It was first published as the cover story in The Scotsman’s now defunct Saturday Magazine.


by Kevin Williamson

First a question.  If Alexander Trocchi,  Scottish beat writer and professional heroin addict, was once famously described as “the George Best of Scottish literature,” how would we look back and sum up Robert Louis Stevenson on the 150th anniversary of his birth?

Would Stevenson be considered a sort of nomadic Maurice Johnston, plying his trade, with no shortage of artistry and flair, to the far flung corners of the globe?  Someone who set out from modest beginnings in his native Scotland,  took up residence in the south of England, spent a fair bit of time swanning around the sun-drenched climes of the Mediterranean, before ending his career in the barren wastelands of North America?

Or would the much-maligned, but prodigiously talented Paul Gascoigne be closer to the mark?   This was the wayward genius who kept ill-advised company and spent much of his stop-start career on the treatment table or round the tables of smoke-filled taverns.

Or maybe, and this one might be harder to sell, Stevenson could be equated with the tousle-haired Scottish international, Christian Dailly.  A versatile player who has successfully strutted his stuff in the positions of central defence, wingback, and striker.  A better-than-average jack of all trades but generally considered a master of none.

Or perhaps Stevenson would be a combination of all three.

Such is the difficulty in attempting to categorise the multi-faceted life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson that ultimately the task becomes a bit like untangling a Mobius strip.   Mission impossible.  Stevenson stubbornly remains an enigmatic figure shrouded in a cocoon of contradictory myths.

So who was this skeletal thin man with the lank hair, droopy moustache, and soft brown eyes who has now become so famous that he can be recognised by only his initials?

The bare bones of his life are known by millions.  Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson – to give him his full christened name – was born on a typically blustery day in Edinburgh on 13th November 1850, at 8 Howard Place, beside the Botanical Gardens.  He was born into a family of famous engineers and lighthouse constructors on his father’s side, and cut from good Presbyterian cloth on his mother’s.

Stevenson had a reasonably well-to-do start in life.  No rags to riches story here.  But what fate dished out as a surplus in economics it took back with a vengeance in terms of health.  And then some.

The young Smout, as he was known, was a sickly child, struck down with all sorts of ailments that would continue to plague him throughout his adult life – right up until his untimely death from a brain haemorrhage at the age of just forty-four.  By then, Stevenson was at the very peak of his creative powers, working at the time on two unfinished novels, Weir of Hermiston and St Ives.  How the literary world mourned the premature loss of one of its favourite sons.

At the time of his death Stevenson had been living in exile on the pacific paradise of Samoa with his American wife Fanny, her daughter, Belle, and his mother, Maggie.  He was revered and worshipped the world over as a writer, a true international literary superstar, whose popularity could be compared to that of a Stephen King or a Michael Crichton.

But it would be wrong to regard Stevenson as merely a popular writer of the day who produced some great boy’s own adventure stories, such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Black Arrow.  Stevenson’s work – including those three famous tales – is every bit as complex and fascinating as the legend of the man himself.

None more so than the book which made him famous.

Of all his published work none is more complex, misunderstood, revolutionary, and more talked about than The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; the short novel which caught the public’s imagination when it was first published in January 1886 and subsequently transformed his fortunes.

The controversies and legends which surround this novel show no sign of abating.  Only last month a newly-discovered letter written by Stevenson’s wife suggests that it was she who may have been responsible for the famous burning of the story’s first draft at their Bournemouth home.  All sort of speculation has followed since then suggesting that if that was the case then how many other of Louis’s works did Fanny Stevenson have a hand in destroying if she didn’t feel they were up to scratch.

Stevenson’s step-son Lloyd Osbourne was an eyewitness report to the destruction of the original manuscript.  He claimed to have seen the author himself destroy the first draft, “beside himself with anger… so impassioned, so outraged,” at the criticism the story received after he read it out to the gathered family members.

We’ll probably never know exactly what happened that autumn night in Bournemouth.  What we do know is the immediate impact the book made.

Make no mistake about it, this celebrated novel catapulted both Stevenson’s fame and reputation as a writer into interstellar regions.  The novel was the Trainspotting of its day.  A remarkable 40,000 copies were sold in Britain in the first six months, with an astonishing 250,000 soon after in America. In 1901, Stevenson’s first biographer, his cousin, Graham Balfour, noted that Dr Jekyll “was read by those who never read fiction, it was quoted in pulpits, and made the subject of leading articles in newspapers.”

The tale is well enough known, mainly thanks to the old Hammer Horror movies which would portray a mild-mannered Doctor Jekyll gurgling back a vial of foaming liquid before being transformed into the hairy, top-hatted monster Hyde, who would leap demonically out a back window and do his dastardly inhumane deeds under cover of the foggy Victorian night before returning knackered in the morning, tormented by his doings.  Not that much different from poor old Lon Chaney in the Werewolf films of the time.  There, the device of the foaming vials was replaced by a full moon, and the story relocated to some superstitious rural backwaters in the Black Forest, Germany.

First-time readers of the book should brace themselves.  Far from being a shlock-horror speed read, what Stevenson wrote in less than three days, burnt completely, rewrote in another three days (according to the legend) is arguably the book which catapulted Scottish literature into the 20th Century; a thoroughly modern book which grapples with all the great psychological themes of identity; and is a book that has so many facets to it that it may even be justifiably called the first fictional work of the chemical age.  Yep, that’s right.  The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, among other things, most definitely a drugs classic, as valid in its field of chemical inquiry as anything written by Thomas De Quincy or William Burroughs.

In Stevenson’s novel, after imbibing the “white salt”, as the author describes it, Henry Jekyll didn’t simplistically turn into an evil monster, charging off into the night to commit rape, murder, or whatever foul deeds the author ambiguously leaves open to the reader’s imagination.

For unlike in the monster mash movies, the effect of the powders is much more subtle and enticing. Jekyll immediately felt “something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet.  I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul.”

As the (unnamed) powders wear off in the morning – this still in the early stages of Jekyll’s experimentation with the drug – the doctor reluctantly “bade a resolute farewell to the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping pulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde.”

Stevenson’s account of Jekyll’s metamorphosis into Hyde, as most modern day users of cocaine would surely testify reading these passages, are spine-tingling accurate, and have rarely been equalled by any of the so-called “chemical generation” writers of today.

Similarly, as over-enthusiastic dabblers in the double-edged delights of cocaine might ruefully recognise, the hidden traps the drug springs on its regular users are just as chillingly described by Stevenson.

“The power of the drug,” regrets the good doctor, “had not been always equally displayed… I had been obliged on more than one occasion to double, and once, with infinite risk of death, to treble the amount.”

Jekyll realises too late that the allure of the drug, or, more accurately, his desire for the transformation it acts as catalyst for, is getting stronger with each use, and the well worn path to addiction is being unwittingly trod.

Soon the drug-induced state is taking over and the doctor laments: “I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.”

Jekyll’s descent into his drug-induced nightmare, where the personality of Hyde takes over, is also well-known, but no less shocking for that, something that may strike despairingly resonant chords to the strung-out modern day cokehead.

The hallucinations, paranoia, uncontrollable rage, and indescribable fears no longer need the drug to be summoned up.  Jekyll becomes Hyde rampant: “a creature eaten up and emptied by fever, languidly weak both in body and mind, and solely occupied by one thought: the horror of my other self.”

Jekyll’s descent into a personal hell is unremitting.  “This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life,” until finally “the insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye; lay caged in his flesh; where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born; and at every hour of weakness, and in the confidence of slumber, prevailed against him, and deposed him of life.”

Of course, in trying to bag The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as merely a drug classic, well, I’m bending the stick a bit.  The book deals with much, much more.  Stevenson use the device of the powders as just that.  But the powders are an important aspect to Stevenson’s most influential work, and worth dwelling on further, simply because few commentators deign to even mention the word cocaine in connection with the novel.

Biographies of Stevenson, as well as the entire critical body dedicated to his writing, steadfastly fail to mention the relevance of cocaine to the story.  And this for a book whose influence permeates everything from high brow literature to psychology to popular culture (no prizes where George Lucas got the idea for Darth Vader.)  All very strange.

Whether this omission is out of some misplaced Calvinist attitudes, jealously guarding Stevenson’s reputation, or just critical snobbery looking down its nose at such base ideas, it’s hard to say.

That Stevenson was familiar with the effects of laudanum (an opium solution) hardly seems to be in any doubt given his lifelong struggle against a variety of serious illnesses.  His use of such drugs would have been medicinal rather than recreational.  In his biography of Stevenson, Dreams of Exile, Ian Bell remarks of the 29 year old author, struggling across the plains of America, that “he was feverish; could not eat; and could not sleep without laudanum.  In his delirium, the empty landscape played on his mind.”

Like all great writers, Stevenson was a fastidious user of all he encountered; books and articles he had read, places he had been, people he knew, and in particular, sifting through the extremes of his own experiences, especially his nocturnal fears and dreams.

Rosaline Masson, an early biographer, commented in 1923, that “Stevenson liked to study all his moods, and to present them as of interest, and as he was Stevenson, they were of interest.”  She even claims he “distorted his misery and cherished it.”  Not a particularly unusual trait in a writer.

That Stevenson created great literature in the process is not in any doubt. Upon completing the first (doomed) draft of Dr Jekyll he described it as “a shilling shocker.”  His first goal was always to entertain the reader.

Unlike the likes of De Quincy, Stevenson was unwilling to give away any clues to his drug use, deeming it unimportant.  In a letter to a friend, William Archer, Stevenson spelt out his thoughts on the matter:  “To me, the medicine bottles on my chimney and the blood on my handkerchief are accidents; they do not colour my view of life.  I would as soon drag them under the eyes of my readers as I might mention a pimple I might have on my posteriors.”

That may be Stevenson’s thoughts on the matter, true enough, but his readers’ natural curiosity, and our attempts to understand both the man and his creative process, can not be swept away so easily.

Once the novel is placed into its historical context (it was written in the autumn of 1885) the circumstantial evidence becomes overwhelming in favour of the book being inspired more by cocaine-induced fevers than any single dream, as dreary critics never tire of telling us.

Cocaine was first synthesised from coca leaves in 1860 by the Merck corporation in Germany.  By 1880 commercial production of the drug had gone into overdrive and it was being marketed as a new wunderdrug – mostly in the form of a bottled health elixir – and its use was becoming widespread and respectable.  Even the Pope was known to tipple the drug approvingly.

In 1886, the same year as the publication of Dr Jeykll, Coca-Cola, a fizzy drink containing cocaine, was first put on the market, consolidating the mainstream use of the drug.

But most intriguingly of all, in 1884, an ambitious young Austrian doctor, Sigmund Freud, began experimenting heavily with cocaine, and that same summer published a book on the subject, Uber Coca.  Freud, enthused by his initial positive experiences under the influence of the drug, concluded (way off the mark as it turned out) that cocaine was indeed a wonder drug which had no addictive qualities and which would have much therapeutic use.

Freud was also investigating the questions of identity, duality and split personality – inspired by his experiences on cocaine.  His use of the drug opened doors which would help give birth to the science of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

That the well-read, inquiring mind of the much-travelled Stevenson –  a man constantly attending to his own debilitating illnesses – would be aware of both Freud’s claims and the cocaine fad of the 1880s can surely not be called into question.  That he would have succumbed to trying the drug to alleviate his medical condition, and thereby personally experiencing its highs and lows, must just as surely have been inevitable.  (For what it’s worth, the University of Tennessee Police Department’s website states that “1885 was the year that Robert Louis Stevenson undergoes ‘cocaine therapy’ for the treatment of tuberculosis.”)

Yet all of this is something that most critics and biographers don’t even deem worthy of comment.  Bizarre.

Of course, although the drug is important to a better understanding of the novel, it was, ultimately, merely a device used by Stevenson to help shed light on the complexity of the human personality or what Jekyll refers to as the “primitive duality of man.”  It is that capacity within all of us, for both “good” and “evil”, and all the shades of grey in between, that is one of the key ideas underpinning the story.

Stevenson, through Jekyll, even guesses that future research will go beyond the duality of good and evil residing within us all, those two simplistic polar extremes, and that others would find “that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.”  Quite.

With Dr Jekyll, Stevenson was delving deeper into the human personality than even the eminent practitioners of the fledgling science of psychology back then.  This was revolutionary stuff indeed.

The “duality of man” was a concept running through all of Stevenson’s writing.  As was the constant indecision between settling down and doing what was expected versus breaking free of constraints and exploring life’s possibilities.  In fact, if the essence of Stevenson could be summed up in a  single song it would probably be the old Clash hit ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go.’

Stevenson went.  He went further than most.  And despite his dogged ill health he resolutely broke free of family expectations and what his contemporaries thought best for him.  He was his own man.  Whether travelling alone through the Cervennes mountains on a grumpy donkey, whether traipsing across the wild frontiers of America, or whether finally consigning himself to permanent exile on the other side of the world, Stevenson went for it.

This constant travelling wasn’t just for health reasons either.  Stevenson wanted to grab life by the throat and pack as much into his days as possible.  He wanted to experience all that life had to offer.  And in almost every fiction he ever wrote, from his first published short story, Will o’ the Mill, through the likes of Kidnapped and  The Master of Ballantrae, and including his two great unfinished novels, he threw down this eternal challenge to both his characters and to the reader.  This, and, of course, a body of work unsurpassed by any other Scots writer, before or since, is his inspirational legacy.

And just as the black-and-white moral certainties so beloved of politicians and priests would have cut no ice with the searing intellect of Stevenson, it is a tragic irony too, that as the ugly face of the lynch mob prepares to gather up its pitch forks and tighten its noose – with the expected release of Jamie Bulger’s young killers – it would seem that Robert Louis Stevenson’s “shilling shocker” has lost none of its relevance through the years.

© Kevin Williamson, 2000

Comments (9)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. norrie hunter says:

    captivating and most enjoyable piece of writing well constructed and obviously researched fully

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      cheers Norrie

  2. Doug Daniel says:

    Excellent piece, Kev. Although I suspect psychologists would take umbrage at you referring to psychoanalysis as a “science”! Or indeed anything Freud did – there was nothing empirical about his research methods, and his theories tell you more about the man himself than the human psyche!

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Freud was a groundbreaking pioneer like Hutton, Marx and darwin. But like those three a lot his ideas didn’t stand up to further investigations and others have expanded and enriched their respective fields. But pioneers like Hutton, Freud, Marx and Darwin are invaluable, even when they get so much wrong. IMO Stevenson, in the arena of literature, stands alongside those guys.


      1. Doug Daniel says:

        I’ll give you that. I just remember doing a Psychology course at uni to make up credits, and the lecturer saying “we’re going to cover Freud, so that you know what psychology isn’t.” His theory was that Freud’s influence was in the literary world, rather than psychology.

        This article has spurred me on to get a copy of Jekyll & Hyde. It’s one of those stories you grow up knowing without ever actually reading it, and as you point out, often not understanding the true story, instead hearing the bastardised version of a bastardised version of a film.

  3. muttley79 says:

    Yes, Stevenson was a great and special writer. To have wrote so many quality novels (given his age when he died, and the illnesses he endured), is remarkable. His novels, such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jeykll and Hyde, and The Master of Ballantrae, have not just stood the test of time, but still seem very fresh today. No doubt they will remain so in the future. If just one thing makes you proud to be Scottish, then having produced a writer of Stevenson’s calibre has to be one. As I mentioned earlier, Stevenson’s writing output was prodigious, given he died when he was approaching his mid 40s, and his almost relentless health problems. Very good, and interesting article Kevin.

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    Thanks. Agree with you totally and I hope RLS Day will go on now to become a fixture in the Edinburgh calendar on a par with Dublin’s Bloomsday.


  5. Sabattus says:

    A marvelous read, Stevenson would have approved, no doubt

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.