Tag Archives: Edinburgh

“The Body-Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Science as Horror

BodySnatchersIn my quest for stuff to read and write about for my October horror blog series, I searched the free e-books available for download on the iPad and found The Body-Snatcher. I decided to give it a read.

The story works for me on several levels. First off, the writing is excellent and really draws you in to the story, which is about the cadaver trade in Edinburgh. Several years ago, while I was visiting Scotland, I toured the catacombs of Edinburgh where the body snatchers would hide the cadavers before bringing them to the university to sell them to the science department for dissection. It was fascinating and eerie at the same time. Anyway, this story vividly brought those memories back to me.

Next, there is a great surprise ending. It’s really good! I am not going to say anything else about it—just  read it.

Finally, I see this story as a parable about the horrors of science and how science, when void of compassion and humanity, becomes a dark art. This is the aspect of the story I want to explore in this post.

There is a scene in the story where one of the medical research assistants murders a person named Gray. To hide the evidence, the body is sold for medical experiments. The medical students are described as being indifferent and in one case happy about receiving the cadaver, which they proceed to cut apart.

Hours passed; the class began to arrive; the members of the unhappy Gray were dealt out to one and to another, and received without remark. Richardson was happy with the head; and before the hour of freedom rang Fettes trembled with exultation to perceive how far they had gone toward safety.

It was at this point in the story that I caught a strange coincidence. The person being dissected was named Gray, and that made me think of the classic book of anatomical science, Gray’s Anatomy. I made a mental note to check the dates and compare when Stevenson wrote this story and when Henry Gray wrote his famous work. As I suspected, they were very close: Gray’s Anatomy was first published in 1858 and The Body-Snatcher was published in 1884. I figured this could not be a coincidence and that Stevenson was actually criticizing Gray’s book and the scientific community as a whole, which was probably viewed as insensitive to the sanctity of human life and concerned only with the cold advancement of knowledge. In an ironic twist, it is Gray who is killed and tossed upon the slab of science, to be sliced apart by unfeeling students who were studying his own works.

Literally, I am gritting my teeth and forcing myself not to write about the ending, because it is so poignant and the twist is so great, it’s hard for me not to share my thoughts. But you all are thoughtful and intelligent readers. I am certain that when you come to the end of the story, you will reach the same conclusion that I did. So go ahead and read it. It’s short and you will love it. Cheers!!

Comments Off on “The Body-Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Science as Horror

Filed under Literature