The central characters in “The Mark of the Beast” are three Englishmen who are living in India. One New Years Eve the men have been out celebrating and one of them, Fleete, who is particularly drunk, wanders into a temple of Hanuman, the Monkey-god, and before anyone can stop him he defaces an idol by burning it with his cigar. “Shee that?” he jokes. “Mark of the B-beasht! I made it. Ishn’t it fine?”
Things are very far from being fine though, and a leprous ‘silver man’ attacks Fleete and makes his own mark on him, with his teeth, and then as the three Brits are leaving one of the priests warns Fleete, “You may be done with Hanuman, but Hanuman is not done with you.”
After the incident in the temple Fleete takes a turn for the worse and within just a few hours he becomes very beast-like himself and demands very rare and bloody chops to eat, which is rather disgusting. Especially at breakfast. This is just the start of Fleete’s troubles, however, and his only chance seems to lie in his friend Strickland, who is a Police officer and has spent enough time amongst the natives to have a good idea of what happens to those who deface gods.
I quite like this story and find it interesting to note that past critics and reviewers of the story have labelled it, ‘poisonous stuff’and stated that Kipling had ‘stepped over the bounds of decorum.’
Well, that was then and this is now and there is little in the story to offend a modern reader or listener. In fact some of the worst aspects of the story are left to the imagination. For instance when the narrator and Strickland succeed in capturing the ‘silver man’ they tie him up and torture him into removing the curse on Fleete by using, amongst other things, the barrels of an old shot-gun that have been heated up to red-hot in the fire. It is not stated exactly how this rather nasty-sounding bit of kit is used, the narrator merely states that ‘we got to work’ and ‘This part is not to be printed.’ Obviously something pretty horrible happened, but as Kipling leaves it all to the imagination I fail to see how he can be accused of stepping over the bounds of decorum.
The Classic Tales audiobook version of “The Mark of the Beast” has a runtime of about thirty-six minutes. B.J. Harrison provides his usual clear and entertaining narration of the story and I particularly enjoyed the voice he used for Fleete, which made me picture a very stiff-upper-lipped ex-army type of guy complete with handlebar moustache. As to what the red-hot gun barrels made me picture . . . well . . . I’d best not say; decorum and all that, don’t you know.