This story was first published in the Civil and Military Gazette on September 26th 1884, when Kipling was not yet nineteen, and collected in Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in subsequent editions of this collection. It was his first short story to be published – a tour de force that set a standard which – with a few lapses – he maintained for the rest of his life. When it was first published, the distinguished critic Andrew Lang said that the tale “defeats de Quincey on his own ground”.
The tale is presented as a monologue by Gabral Misquitta, a half-caste opium addict, six weeks before his death. It describes the life of the opium den, and of the opium smokers, in the Coppersmith’s Gully near the mosque of Wazir Khan. In the end, all life for them revolves around the ‘black smoke’. There is nothing else.
It is written entirely as reported speech, indeed the ORG suggested that it might have been taken down verbatim in shorthand, in the notebook which Kipling sometimes took with him. It may equally have been an entirely invented story, inspired by Kipling’s night rambles in the dark alleys of Lahore. (See also “In an Opium-Factory” and Chapter VI of “The City of Dreadful Night” in From Sea to Sea vol. II. This should not be confused with another story based on Kipling’s nocturnal ramblings with the same title, collected in Life’s Handicap)
See also Mary Hamer’s essay “Kipling and Dreams”
A possible film
This story was considered by Kipling nearly forty years later, in 1922, as a possible basis for a silent film, on which he worked with a scenario writer. It was to have included a number of characters from other tales and poems concerned with low life in India, including Fung-Tching, the Chinaman who kept the opium den in “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows”, MacIntosh, an Englishman who has taken to drink and married a native wife, as in “To be Filed for Reference”, ‘Anne of Austria’ the prostitute from “The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House” and ‘Hans the Dane’ from the same poem, and ‘Mother Maturin’, the central character from Kipling’s lost novel of that name, on which he was working while in India, and which was never published. The film project came to nothing, and no script or scenario has survived, but there is a good deal of information about it in Rudyard Kipling’s World by Thurston Hopkins, pages 197 to 233.