First published in Quartette (the Christmas Annual of the Civil and Military Gazette for 1885, which included four stories by the nineteen-year-old Kipling with other items of prose and verse by his parents and sister) with “C.E.” ('Civil Engineer') after the name. This is the third story in No. 5 of the Indian Railway Library, The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales. It was collected in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories in 1895, and in numerous later editions of that collection.
When the story first appeared in the Indian Railway Library it had a final paragraph which has been omitted from nearly all other versions. It reads :
To cut a long story short, Dunnoo is now my personal servant on a gold mohur a month – a sum which I still think far too little for the services he has rendered. Nothing on earth will induce me to go near that devilish spot again or to reveal its whereabouts more clearly than I have done. Of Gunga Dass I have never found a trace, nor do I wish to do. (sic) My sole motive in giving this to be published is the hope that someone may possibly identify, from the details and the inventory which I have given above, the corpse of the man in the olive-green shooting-suit.Haughton [Haughton, Hugh ed. Wee Willie Winkie with Intro and Notes Penguin Classics 1988, Reprinted Penguin Books 1989] quotes the first version in Quartette which differs somewhat from the above but conveys practically the same message.
Morrowbie Jukes, out on a moonlight ride, falls with his horse down an unexpectedly steep slope of sand, into a crater. He finds himself in a sort of village of the living dead, where people who appear to have died of - for instance cholera - but revived when their bodies were about to be burned, are imprisoned. Led by Gunga Dass, a murderous Brahmin, they sleep in burrows in the sand, and live on crows. There is no way out past the steep slopes of sand, or the quicksands of the river. Jukes joins them, despairingly, until he is rescued by his servant, who has tracked him across the sands.
Some critical comments
This is another story in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe (see Carrington pp.68-69) an expedition into the half-world of Indian life like "Beyond the Pale" , "The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows" and "To be Filed for Reference" , in Plain Tales from the Hills. It has attracted a lot of attention over the years, but it is not clear from the commentators consulted so far if it is founded on fact, and if it is, why those recovering from apparently fatal illnesses should have been treated in such an inhumane manner.
Cornell (page 105) goes to the heart of the matter in words which would have struck a chord with the Europeans of the time who were spread so thinly over India; "The village of the dead (the original title) is not the realistic picture of a curious ethnic survival… Kipling… has created a genuine Anglo-Indian nightmare, a vision of what it would be like to be one of the least of the ruled instead of one of the rulers.
A note by Sharad Keskar
Sharad Keskar has kindly provided the following note on the tale. (See also his notes on Kim.)
If we look for truths in this story we will simply have to conclude that Kipling has got his facts wrong and rather mixed up. But that would miss the point of its impact. This tale of an hallucinatory hell is surely an early example of magical realism. Kipling is describing the symptoms that result from sun-stroke or heat-stroke, and the truth lies in the nightmarish delirium that sufferers from this malaise in India could so easily have experienced, particularly one on a mission to the outposts of the country.Some other critical comments
Paffard (page 33) believes this story resembles Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valedemar that could easily be mistaken for the truth (Mark Paffard, Kipling’s Indian Fiction(Macmillan, 1989)
Birkenhead (page 100) refers to this as among "...three of Kipling’s finest stories; “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, “The Man who Would be King” and “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”. Had Kipling died at this point and written nothing else, these three stories might well have snatched his name from oblivion..."
Gilmour (page 31) calls this "...a powerful and harrowing tale illustrating the vulnerability of the Englishman when he strayed beyond the protection of Anglo-India..."
Wilson (page 102) calls the story "a work of genius", and pays Kipling the compliment of borrowing and adapting the title for his biography of the writer, even though he argues (page 72) that "the inartistic and improbable escape of Jukes ... prevents it from being among the first dozen of all Kipling’s stories.
Tompkins considers this (page 199) to be an improvement on “The Phantom ‘Rickshaw”, noting that "..the horrible little burrows of the nightmare village of the living dead receive an added touch of ghastliness from being described to us in the practical professional detail of an unimaginative Civil Engineer
Kipling Journal references to this story
These include KJ 058/23, 135/04, 234/18 & 25, 236/30 and 238/16.