Kipling’s My Own True Ghost Story: How A Rat Became A Ball
Fear plays an interesting role in our lives. Without us knowing, it seeps into minds and suffocates us from within. Movies and books are just some examples of how effective the use of sensory imagery and literary devices like structure and word choice can be at instilling fear into individuals. A prime example of this is Rudyard Kipling’s piece “My Own True Ghost Story.” In his piece, Kipling is able to strategically mislead his reader into thinking his narrative consists of ghosts through his use of allusion, which he creates using sense of sight and sound. Through his careful use of language, Kipling is able to create a reality where common noises are unsettling and terrorizing to individuals. He does through the use of key phrases and words which trigger an emotional response in readers.
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The story begins with Kipling recapping Indian ghost stories which typically took place on the Grand Trunk Road located in Pakistan. The ghost stories always consisted of Sahib travelers who stayed in bungalows along the road when traveling from station to station. Kipling, an English man, decides to stay to stay in one of these bungalows during time working in the area. Kipling decides to stay at a bungalow named Katmal, which in Indian means bedbug. In hindsight, Kipling describes bungalows along the Grand Trunk Road as “very old” and “always dirty” (Kipling 223). The story’s tone of horror essentially begins here with Kipling’s overarching description of the bungalows and is further promoted in his depiction of the bungalow he stayed at. Kipling purposefully uses the words “old” and “dirty” in hopes of alluding to a feeling of uncertainty since most haunted places are commonly painted under similar lighting. Along those lines, Kipling also describes the Katmal bungalow as not for individuals with a “sensitive hide” (Kipling 224). What Kipling means here is that individuals who scare easily should not stay here. Essentially, Kipling thinks the bungalow would be too frightening for them and goes as far as to suggest that individuals should marry before staying here. In doing so, Kipling is adding to the overall upsetting persona that the bungalows embody.
Kipling is emphasizes the story’s tone through the use of sensory imagery which he displays using the sense of sight. Having briefly explained the exterior of the bungalow, Kipling furthers the story’s tone of horror in his vivid description of his overnight stay in the bungalow. Kipling’s initial description of the bungalow was that “the floor was worn brick, the walls were filthy, and the windows were nearly black with grime” (Kipling 224). Kipling purposeful use of the words “filth” and “grime” suck the reader into his narrative’s setting. The reason being that the words “filth” and “grim” instill a sense of uncomfortableness in the reader since filthy and grimy places are often times associated with rodents, which people tend to avoid. Similarly, Kipling also uses light to create a feeling of horror for the reader. Unlike the places Kipling has stayed at before, the bungalow used candles and oil lamps as lighting at night. Kipling wrote that at night “the lamp in the bathroom threw the most absurd shadows into the room” (Kipling 225). This is concrete example of how the use of sensory imagery like sight can create an unsettling feeling for readers. By including the word “absurd” in his writing, Kipling was able to connect with a wider range of readers since shadows of indescribable figures have the potential of scaring all of us equally. The use of the word absurd essentially creates a sense of openness which allows readers to apply their own personal fears onto the shadow.
Kipling is not only effective in use of sight but also in his use of sound in making his reader feel uncomfortable. Like sight, Kipling uses sound to draw the reader closer to his experience of staying in the bungalow overnight. For example, during his stay Kipling was under the impression that the bungalow’s owner had brought some friends in at night to help him move somethings. The noise which lead Kipling to believe this was the shutter in front of the door shaking three times. Having heard the shutter noise a total of three times, Kipling was under the impression that someone else was in the bungalow with him. But yet he heard no footsteps or voices. Instead he hears “the whir of a billiard ball down the length of the slate when the striker is stringing for break” (Kipling 225). The narrative’s tone is emphasized here through the use of sound since the both reader and Kipling have no idea what could have possibly made that sound. Kipling undeniably catches hix reader off guard here and progresses his false reality further. The narrative’s tone is pushed forward by Kipling writing “there was a whir and a click, and both sounds could only have been made by one thing – a billiard ball” (Kipling 226). The reason this is creates an unsettling feeling for the reader is because a billiard ball sound is unlike any other sound and it is heard in such an abnormal environment; therefore, drawing speculation on where the sound originated from. Furthermore, in the morning Kipling asks the home owner what the doolies were doing last night and if “this place always been a bungalow.” He responds with “there were no doolies” and “ten or twenty years ago, it was a billiard room” (Kipling 227). Kipling, via the use of sound and the landlord’s words, uses allusion to promote a reality where the sounds he heard the night before could not have been made by people but ghosts.
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The next morning, Kipling realizes that the sounds he heard overnight were made by a rat who had been running back and forth through the ceiling-cloth and not a ghost. The author’s calculated use of sensory imagery and allusion strategically mislead the reader into thinking the sounds were created by ghosts instead of people. Kipling’s careful use of language, which he shows via word choice and structure, allowed him to create vivid sensory imagery using sight and sound. Similarly, Kipling’s tone and imagery enabled his use of allusion to deceive the reader into thinking what he wanted. Although the story did not accurately consist of ghosts, Kipling’s “My Own True Ghost Story” is a great example of how an author through the use of literary devices can merge their own personal experiences with those of the reader. In doing so, a middle ground is born where the reader is able to connect with the emotions of the author.
- Kipling, Rudyard. “My Own True Ghost Story.” WLIT 215B: Course Packet, edited by Nicole Lobdell, DePauw University, 2019, pp. 4-11.
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