The House Surgeon

(notes edited by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


First published in Harper’s Magazine for September and October 1909 and collected in Actions and Reactions the same year. Scribner’s Edition Volume XXIV, p.283. Sussex Edition, Volume VII, p. 251. Burwash Edition, Volume VIII. In the magazine, the story had a heading from 2 Samuel 14,14 which is quoted in some editions:

For we must needs die and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person: yet doth he devise means that his banished not expelled from him.

The story

On board ship, the narrator makes friends with Mr M’Leod, a wealthy business-man, who tells him that his fine country house is haunted by a sense of depression which afflicts everyone who enters it. On their return to England he asks him down for the weekend to see for himself, and indeed, as he settles into his bedroom he feels a sense of ‘swift striding gloom … despair upon despair, misery upon misery, fear after fear…’

Determined to discover the cause of the house’s dreadful atmosphere, the narrator gets to know Mr Baxter, the lawyer who had handled the sale of it to Mr M’Leod. He was a cousin of the previous owners, three old sisters. One of them had fallen from the window of that very bedroom to her death, and the surviving two had always believed that she had committed suicide, condemning herself, as they believed, to eternal damnation. Ever since they had brooded on the tragedy, and every day they revisited the house in their imagination.

The narrator realises that it was more likely that the dead sister had fallen by accident when seeking fresh air in the night. He persuades the sisters to revisit the fatal room, and they too realise that it must have been an accident. Their sense of gloom, and the depression in the house, is lifted.

Some critical comments

Fido (p. 123), notes:

The idea of breakdown found its way into stories. The cheerful cover of a tale about a haunted house cannot disguise the knowledge and fear underlying the powerful re-creation of an extreme depressive anxiety in “The House Surgeon.”

Charles Carrington (p. 243) looks at the Torquay period (1896) which produced this story some thirteen years later.
Angus Wilson (p.201) confirms that “Rock House”, Torquay. which the Kiplings took furnished in 1896/7 depressed them both, and produced this story. See also Something of Myself (p. 134) in which Kipling writes of: ‘…a gathering blackness of mind, and sorrow of the heart…’
Dr Tompkins, as always, puts her finger on it when she says (p.130):

When Kipling fused his experience in the unhappy house at Torquay, of which he has told us, with still living experience of the spiritual climate of the House of Desolation, and cleansed the site, not as by fire but as by the water of grace, he performed an act of imaginative charity. Moreover, he put the “I” into the story, subjected him to the reflected agony of despair, and used him to remove the barriers that obstructed the renewal of love and hope.

Dr Tompkins warns us, however (p. 256) against rashly regarding Kipling as the “I” of all the stories, though the present Editor believes that in this instance we may be permitted to do so. See also (p. 162) for comparisons with “The Dog Hervey” and “In the Same Boat” (A Diversity of Creatures), and passim.


Other ‘uncanny’ tales

For other stories with what might be called an ‘uncanny’ atmosphere, see (with dates of first publication):

Despite its title “My Own True Ghost Story” (Wee Willie Winkie) has a perfectly rational explanation.

[J H McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe2006 All rights reserved