Questionable Minds Blog Tour: The Ongoing Influence Of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

When Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, he struck literary gold. Lots of people who’ve never read it or seen any of the adaptations still know what the story’s about. Mr. Hyde is such a familiar figure he’s battled everyone from Scooby-Doo to Marvel Comics’ Thor.

People who haven’t read the book still know exactly what it means to describe someone’s behavior as Jekyll and Hyde. There’s no higher compliment for a writer than having your creation turn into a metaphor.

Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde play a large part in my steampunk novel Questionable Minds. In an early scene, my protagonist, baronet Simon Taggart, talks about how Hyde blackmailed the respectable Dr. Jekyll over some sins the doctor committed in his younger, wilder days. Terrified of scandal, Jekyll paid up, even changing his will to favor Hyde. Fortunately, Jekyll’s lawyer, Utterson, found evidence enough to send Hyde to jail — the blackguard’s criminal record was long and ugly — and used the threat to make Hyde flee the country.

As so often happens, what “everyone knows” is a lie, cooked up by Jekyll and Utterson to conceal the doctor’s true relationship to Hyde. In the years since, Jekyll has devoted himself to doing good works and rejecting vice. He’s buried his darker impulses so deep that he has no fear of Hyde ever resurfacing. When Jack the Ripper winds up attacking Dr. Jekyll, however, Hyde surges out of the doctor’s subconscious to fight back. Once loose, he has no intention of letting Jekyll shove him back down again.

Stevenson dismissed his book as a “shilling shocker,” a slightly more upscale version of a penny dreadful. Assuming that wasn’t false modesty, the author underestimated how much his work tapped into something powerful. Jekyll and Hyde is the perfect metaphor for a world full of hypocrisy and false facades, where an outward show of virtue can hide a rancid core. In the words of the musical Jekyll and Hyde, there are preachers who kill, there are killers who preach; what we see isn’t always what we get.

 Hyde, a completely amoral brute, is memorable in the way villains often are. Jekyll, though, is no saint himself: everything Hyde does is something the doctor is capable of doing and wants to do. His reason for creating his brutal alter ego is to sin (Stevenson doesn’t specify in what way) without getting caught. Jekyll assumes he can restrain his darker urges, indulging them just enough to be enjoyable, only to discover that quitting his bad behavior isn’t so easy.

Most adaptations present the clash of Jekyll and Hyde as one of good vs. evil rather than Stevenson’s concept of morally mixed Jekyll vs. thoroughly evil Hyde. Adaptations rarely follow Stevenson’s plot, either, but that’s a good thing. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not a cinematic story, and the one attempt to adapt it faithfully — Christopher Lee’s I, Monster (1973) — is plodding and dull. 

It’s also a sausage fest where the core cast are all middle-aged, middle-class bachelors. Inevitably the movie and stage adaptations have added women, typically a well-bred love interest for Jekyll and a lower-class mistress for Hyde. In the 1941 Spencer Tracy version, Jekyll imagines Ingrid Bergman (mistress) and Lana Turner (love interest) harnessed to his carriage, pulling it as he whips them. Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll in 1932 is more subtly but just as strongly driven by sexual frustration: if he and his fiancée could have slept together without censure, he’d never have created Hyde.

Other performers who’ve played the dual roles include Michael Caine, Kirk Douglas (an infamous TV musical adaptation), John Barrymore, and Ralph Bates — though as his formula in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde turned him into a woman, Martine Beswick plays Hyde.

While Jekyll’s backstory in Questionable Minds changes the ending of Stevenson’s story, I think I stick close to his core concept of the characters. Jekyll’s moral weakness plays a large role in the book. Hyde comes across better, I suspect, as he doesn’t hide his amorality or his cynicism beneath a veneer of piety. I had great fun writing them both.

Questionable Minds - Fraser Sherman

Fraser Sherman has a new steampunk mystery book out: Questionable Minds.

In Victorian England, 1888, there are those who say Sir Simon Taggart is under the punishment of God.

In an England swirling with mentalist powers — levitation, mesmerism, mind-to-mind telegraphy — the baronet is unique, possessed of mental shields that render him immune to any mental assault. Even his friends think it’s a curse, cutting him off from the next step in human mental and spiritual evolution. To Simon, it’s a blessing.

Four years ago, the Guv’nor, mystery overlord of the London underworld, arranged the murder of Simon’s wife Agnes. Obsessed with finding who hired the Guv’nor, Simon works alongside Inspector Hudnall and Miss Grey in Scotland Yard’s Mentalist Investigation Department. Immunity to mental telegraphy, clairvoyance and mesmerism are an asset in his work — but they may not be enough to crack the latest case.

A mysterious killer has begun butchering Whitechapel streetwalkers. With every killing, the man newspapers call “the Ripper” grows in mental power and in the brutality of his attacks. Is murder all that’s on his mind or does he have an endgame? And what plans do the Guv’nor and his army of agents have for Simon and the Whitechapel killer?

Questionable Minds is set in a Victorian England struggling to preserve the social hierarchy while mentalism threatens to overturn it. The cast of characters includes Dr. Henry Jekyll (and yes, his friend Edward Hyde too), Jack the Ripper, and multiple other figures from history and fiction.

Warnings: Graphic violence. Victorian sexism and imperialism.

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Simon Taggart’s plunge into the abyss happened in an instant.

Col. Moran, seated at the dining table on Simon’s left, had said something to the Duke of Falsworth about a fellow hunter Moran had known in India committing suicide. Falsworth snidely observed that given the man’s debts, hanging himself had been the only possible solution.

And suddenly Simon was standing in the drawing room again. Staring up at Agnes in her white nightgown, hanging from the ceiling with her tongue protruding, her face blackened. Rage consumed him at the memory, rage at the men who’d brought about his wife’s death. Pearson Bartlett, mesmerist. The Guvnor, who’d given Bartlett his orders. And behind them, the unknown man who’d paid to have Agnes slain.

It was the scent of mutton that snapped him back to the Montworths’ dining room, a scent rising from the porcelain serving platter levitating through the air before him. Steered by Amanda Montworth’s vril, the platter bore the roast saddle of mutton down the long dining-room table. Her grey eyes were fixed on the platter, of course, as levitators depended on sight to focus their vril. The eyes of her parents and eleven uneasy guests were also watchful as the dish approached the epergne, the massive candelabra at the table’s center. Simon knew he wasn’t the only guest imagining what a shower of spilled gravy would do to their formal black waistcoats, jackets and white gloves, or the women’s elegant dresses.

The platter clinked against the epergne and shuddered for a moment, but Amanda, brow furrowed, regained her mental grip. The platter ceased quivering, backed away and settled into the hands of one of the footmen, to be served a la russe, around the table. Amanda gasped slightly as she released control.

“There, isn’t that remarkable, Sir Simon?” Buxom Mrs. Montworth flashed a smile at Simon, the wealthiest of her guests. “I don’t know anyone with the strength of mind my Amanda has, do you? Well, not anyone who is anyone, shall we say?”

“Mother, please,” Amanda said. “This is embarrassing.”

“No, you did quite well.” Simon smiled politely, forbearing to point out that for all the money John Montworth’s ironworks brought in, in London society the Montworths were emphatically not anyone. Amanda performing a servant’s duties only confirmed that, as the poor girl undoubtedly knew. “A strong mind is—an asset to the Empire.”

“When the turtle soup comes out, Amanda,” Mrs. Montworth went on, “I think you should levitate—”

“Oh, no, my dear Mrs. Montworth,” Simon said quickly, remembering soup spurting from a shattered tureen at another dinner he’d attended. Besides, Amanda had been embarrassed enough. “A girl as lovely and delicate as Amanda, no matter how strong her vril, should be careful not to overexert herself.” As Mrs. Montworth simpered and nodded, Amanda, who looked as delicate as one of her father’s foundry workers, smiled her thanks at Simon.

“That’s enough entertainment for this evening,” John Montworth said in his north-country accent. “Carmody?” Carmody, the butler, gestured for the footmen to resume their duties; it was a faux pas for Montworth to address a servant during dinner, but the past few minutes had utterly nonplussed the staff.

Simon considered Amanda sensible and good-hearted. It wasn’t her fault her vril manifested as a crude, physical ability, nor that her mother was as blind to the social graces as some men to colors. Fortunately, with several months before the start of the Season, the guests had few people they could gossip with—and there’d be much better gossip by January, when the Montworths presented Amanda at court.


“‘Preciate your help, Sir Simon.” John Montworth said, clipping off the end of his cigar as a servant filled Simon’s glass. The women had left the room moments before, allowing the men a half-hour or so to indulge themselves. “Mrs. Montworth’s dreadful proud of our girl having vril, she is—I try to tell her to be more discreet but—”

“It’s been a new world these past eight years,” Simon said, savoring Montworth’s peerless port. “Too new to have all the polite niceties of psychic usage down pat.” A courteous lie; everyone knew physical manifestations of mentalist power were completely inappropriate in society.

“You mean like yourself assisting Scotland Yard?” Thin, pallid Ronald Carpenter, Duke of Falsworth, smirked and blew a plume of smoke. “A man of your impeccable pedigree, mingling with the lowest orders? Gilbert and Sullivan could make a wonderful comic opera out of it if you ask me.”

“I don’t believe I did.” Simon’s anger surged up again, but the smile beneath his thin mustache stayed coldly formal. “And there is nothing comical about the beasts who use vril to prey upon others.” Like Pearson Bartlett, who could mesmerize a woman to put a noose around her own neck. “I do my duty to England, nothing more.”

His Grace met Simon’s cold stare, then looked away with affected unconcern. Dukes far outranked baronets, but Falsworth’s title was new, and the man was still insecure. A Taggart was never insecure.

“Men like your Inspector Hudnall have my highest respect,” Moran said to Simon. As usual the colonel had stuck with whiskey instead of port. “In the jungle or the London streets, it takes a sharp man to hunt predators successfully. And who’s better suited than you, Sir Simon, to the sport of hunting mentalists?”

“Hardly sport.” Simon replied. “Unlike you, colonel, I consider hunting man-eaters a public service, not an adventure.”

“But men like that are evolutionary dead ends,” Montworth said. “Thanks to Lady Helena, all mankind—almost all—will ultimately be elevated to a higher plane.” His glance had lit upon Simon at the “almost.” “The murderers, the butchers, the Varneys of the present day will become fairytales, like ogres or Bluebeard, in the world that is to come.”

It was a typical Theosophist sentiment, but Simon found he was in no mood to argue with it.

Author Bio

Fraser Sherman
By the time Fraser Sherman graduated college he’d lost interest in his degree field. He tried writing and discovered he liked it. Since then he’s spent ten years as a journalist, sold two dozen short stories and five film reference books. His most recent book was the self-published Undead Sexist Cliches, about the stupidity of misogynist beliefs.

Although born in England, Fraser spent most of his life in Northwest Florida. He’d be there still if he hadn’t met his dream woman and moved to Durham NC to be with her. They’ve been married 11 years and are the proud parents of two small dogs and two half-domesticated cats.

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1 Response

  1. Fraser says:

    Thanks for hosting me.

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