“ Henry Jekyll is dead.” The novel opens, and craggy, excited and mystified, Edward Hyde surges to life in Daniel Levine’s bloody remix of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, which allows the good doctor’s dark alter ego a chance to tell his side of the story.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde begins with witnesses' accounts of the battle between good and evil raging inside Henry Jekyll's head and introduces a tortured confession by the doctor himself. Given 19th-century sensibilities, Stevenson’s horrors are suggested rather than laid out in grisly detail. Levine's lively spinoff brings Hyde front and center, with plenty of 20th-century psychiatric insights and 21st-century lashings of kinky sex and rivers of blood.
Meanwhile there's the cyanide. “Jekyll cooked up the dram of clear, colourless extract a month ago,” Hyde says. “As if he could see the ending too. As if the cyanide were to be his parting gift to me. That is what I'm saying. Inevitability. You cannot evade what is going to happen because, in a sense, it already has happened...”
Hyde reports that Jekyll left his confession in a sealed envelope addressed to his lawyer, to be opened on his death. It sits on his table, taunting us: Open it. Go ahead, open it! But we can't, unless we skip to the end.
Hyde won't open it. Holed up in the “cabinet” where Jekyll's experiments began, he spends his final days nursing a festering arm as he broods over the events that brought him here. “Up here in the cabinet after dark, Jekyll would prepare the twin syringes, strip off his clothes, and slide the needle into his arm; the floor would flip in a sickening spin and I'd stagger out into the body.”
At first Hyde's adventures unfold at night. Every morning, a second injection brings Jekyll back — until the experiment goes off the rails. By the time their story ends, Hyde fades in and out of the body when they least expect it.
Jekyll starts him out with a checkbook and five thousand pounds in the bank. Hyde rents a house in Soho, hires a creepy housekeeper, orders a new wardrobe to replace Jekyll's baggy castoffs, and the adventures begin. Some are drawn directly from Stevenson’s prototype, and some are imagined by Levine: Jekyll's lost love, an abusive father with a Stradivarius and a back story that apparently caused the doctor's profound psychological kinks. There's also a disturbed patient Jekyll treated in a case that drove the patient to suicide, preparing the way for the best invention in the book.
Instead of Stevenson's classic battle between ego and id, Levine turns the Jekyll-Hyde split personality into a case of Multiple Personality Disorder. (See Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, a 1970s account of ...) No, this is not a spoiler. Watching the details play out is great fun.
As in the original novel, Hyde rescues a little girl from a bully and is accused of trying to kidnap her, or worse. Then he rescues Jeannie, a 16-year-old prostitute and her little sister from their abusive father — or does he? The girls move into his house in Soho and are happy — or are they? There's something going on that Hyde doesn't know about. Bent on destroying evidence of a murder he knows he committed, he returns to his house with the hounds of London on his heels. Astonished, he finds a cache of hair from several different heads, trinkets and underwear, suggesting that he's more of a monster than he thought. This is the clever trick Levine plays, leaving us to wonder who’s in charge, the undisciplined monster or the sophisticated, ambitious and severely troubled doctor. Or is there another force at work?
Perhaps the best section of the novel comes near the end of Hyde's days as a free man, when he roves the seedier parts of Soho, fetches up on the river bank and discovers the ravages of opium. “An androgynous scrap of muddy child straightened with something that it put in its mouth, sucked on, and then removed ... Later on, in a clapboard shanty groaning over the water, pitch-black but for knotholes gleaming here and there, I felt my way into a low-cushioned berth, and a frail Chinese boy lit the long slender pipe extending from my lips ...”
Levine's account is a masterpiece of hallucination; his narrator is feverish, righteous, intense. The author knows what to invent and what to leave to the master. And about that confession: Hyde doesn't open it, and neither does Levine. He leaves it to Stevenson, to whom he is faithful with his prose. The shockers may be born of this century, but this chilling new version is a remarkably good fit with the original horror classic.
Kit Reed is the author of ‘The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories.’