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.

“The Vampyre” by Rudyard Kipling

I should say right up front that I don’t understand this poem. Because I can make so little sense of it, I don’t like it. I have read it and reread it, and broken it down logically and grammatically, and still have reached no satisfying conclusion on the natures of the narrator (a “fool” he calls himself) and the strange, possibly evil woman he “calls his lady fair.” Nor do I understand the various parenthetical statements. It is frustrating. I have yet to figure out who the vampire of the title is, although I am assured that the monster must be there, because the poem is first in a collection entitled Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman (ed., Stephen Jones. New York: Fall River Press, 2010).

If you can explicate this poem for me, please do!

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)

The Vampyre

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair–
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the years we waste and the tears we waste,
And the work of our head and hand,
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand!

A fool there was and his goods he spent,
(Even as you and I!)
Honor and faith and a sure intent
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant),
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why
(And now we know she never knew why)
And did not understand!

The fool we stripped to his foolish hide,
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside–
(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died–
(Even as you and I!)

‘And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand–

It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing at last she could never know why)
And never could understand!’