Short Story Review: “The Recurring Smash” by Rudyard Kipling

Title: “The Recurring Smash”
Author: Rudyard Kipling
Page: about 3
Source: Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, ed. Stephen Jones, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman. New York: Fall River Press, 2010.
Synopsis: An unfortunate young man named Penhelder has a peculiar sort of curse, in that every third spring, with alarming regularity and despite all attempts at safety, he encounters some painful accident.
Reason for Beginning: Picked somewhat randomly from my large book of Kipling stories; settled on because of its brevity.
Reason for Finishing: Was hoping Kipling would provide some answers.
Story Re-readability: Not much, really. It’s somewhat amusing, but lacks any real meaning.
Author Re-readability: This is a difficult call. From this story alone, I’d say Kipling is fairly re-readable. His prose is graceful and textured, and commanding; by this I mean that he writes with authority, like he knows exactly what he wants to write and how to write it. But I detested his style in “The Wish House,” in which the “texture” of his dialogue utterly overwhelmed my ability to understand what was going on. Another problem he seems to have, is that he often fills his stories with specific details about British India that he never explains, as if his stories are only written for people of his place and time, who would immediately understand his references. If I did get these references, they would undoubtedly become one of the chief strengths of Kipling’s writing, because I suspect that he uses them to suggest quite a bit about his characters. Still, unless you are a student of turn-of-the-century British life and imperialism, you are likely to meet with many terms, phrases, and references you don’t understand. Fortunately, in “The Recurring Smash” these do not impede one’s understanding of the plot.

Key Thoughts & Recommendation

The strongest element is undoubtedly Kipling’s ability to swiftly sketch out a character’s life through specific and believable details, all with hints and references to the outer world, so that you are always aware that this strange little story is just one of many things happening in the world at large. There is also an appealingly droll sense of humor at work here, with Penhelder being generally resigned to his fate, while still frantically trying to avoid it. The ending even resembles the punchline to a joke, and it might even be funny if Kipling would just tell us what he meant.

It’s a passably amusing story, but Kipling’s decision to give absolutely no answers regarding Penhelder’s mysterious condition renders it empty of meaningful content rather than intriguingly enigmatic. I simply don’t see a point in recommending it; unless you are a Kipling devotee, I can see no benefit to be got from reading this story, nor anything that you’d miss by skipping it.

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