Spring Break Short Story Recommendation 2023: “The Bottle Imp”

While visiting family over the long Easter Weekend, my mom had me go through a collection of her old books, inviting me to take whatever I wanted (with the [stated] ulterior motive of clearing out my parents’ house).  Among the treasure trove of books was my mom’s 1963 Scholastic book sale edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  In that edition are a few of Stevenson’s short stories, including the subject of today’s edition of Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, “The Bottle Imp.”

“The Bottle Imp” tells the story of Keawe, a hardworking Hawaiian sailor who desires a beautiful home.  While ashore in San Francisco, he stumbles upon a man with a home exactly like the one he wants (except that Keawe wants his home to be one story higher), and the man reveals to him a mysterious, shining bottle with a faint shadow moving inside of it.

The man explains that the imp inside the bottle grants the owner any of his heart’s desires, but at a heavy price:  the owner’s soul goes to Hell upon his death.  However, the current owner may sell the bottle to another, but only at a price lower than what he paid for it.  Thus, the curse of the bottle imp can be passed on for quite some time.

Keawe pays $50 for the bottle, and to test it, wishes his money back.  It immediately reappears in his pocket.  The seller refuses to buy it back, so Keawe continues to test the bottle’s power.  He drops the bottle in the gutter, but it reappears in his pocket moments later.  He sells it for $60 at a trinket shop, but the bottle returns to his pocket again.

Satisfied, Keawe wishes for his perfect home on the way to Hawaii.  He returns to find that an uncle and another family member have died, leaving Keawe quite a bit of land—and enough money to purchase his dream home.  Keawe mourns the death of his family, but resolves to take the “good with the evil,” and hires an architect to build his house to his precise specifications.

The house becomes known as the Bright House, and the home and its owner are admired throughout the islands.  Satisfied, Keawe sells the bottle to his eager friend Lopaka, who desires a majestic schooner with which he can trade throughout the Pacific.  Before he will purchase it, however, Lopaka wishes to see the imp.  Keawe agrees, and while Stevenson does not describe the imp, its image is apparently so frightening, both men are shaken to their cores.  Nevertheless, Lopaka buys the bottle and sails away.

All seems to be well for our hero at this point, as he lives a leisurely, comfortable life in his beautiful home.  While out riding one day, however, Keawe sees Kokua, a beautiful island maiden, and immediately falls in love with her.  Her boldly proposes to her and after some coquettish back-and-forth—and meeting her father—she agrees.  Keawe goes home and is singing and happy—but stops short when he sees a patch of leprous skin on his shoulder.

Lamenting his fate, knowing it will cut short his happiness with Lopaka, and that he cannot expose her to his leprosy, Keawe slowly comes to the realization that he must get the bottle back from Lopaka and use its power once more to heal his affliction.  Keawe sails to the island where Lopaka lives, only to find his friend off on business on his majestic new schooner.

Fortunately, it appears that the bottle has changed hands since Lopaka owned it, and Keawe traces the trail of ownership down to a desperate man who purchased the bottle for two cents.  The gravity of his dilemma is apparent:  in order to purchase the bottle, Keawe will have to pay one cent, the bare minimum price possible (selling it for nothing is, apparently, not an option; besides, who would want it?).  Conflicted, he decides to purchase the bottle despite his misgivings, believing eternity in Hell is worth being with his sweet Kokua.

Keawe returns and the two are wed, and Keawe puts on a brave face for his new bride.  However, she soon realizes he is no longer laughing and smiling and singing all of the time, and believes she is responsible for his sadness.  Keawe reveals the story of the bottle to Kokua, and explains that his sadness is due to his knowledge of his soul being lost forever to the devil.

Kokua, however, knows that the French use a currency, the centime, which subdivides pennies into five parts.  She says they just need to go to one of the French Pacific islands and sell the bottle for four centimes.  They take a long vacation to Tahiti, but find that the island’s religious inhabitants are not eager to make this devil’s bargain, and soon begin to avoid Keawe and Kokua.

In desperation, Kokua concocts a scheme to sell the bottle to a sickly old man, which she buys back from him at three centimes, taking on the bottle’s curse herself.  Keawe does not know she has obtained the bottle, and grows angry that his wife—for whom he sacrificed so much—is not happy for his release from hellfire.  Rather, he believes she is grieving over the doomed old man, and Keawe storms out in a huff to go drinking.

While boozing it up, Keawe takes up with a boorish boatswain.  The drunken old boatswain encourages Keawe to return to his home to obtain the bottle so that they might purchase some more booze.  Back at the house, Keawe realizes that his wife purchased the bottle back, dooming herself to damnation for her husband’s sake, and realizes his error.  He offers to sell the bottle to the drunken boatswain for two centimes, then buying it back at one centime, in order to save his wife’s soul.

However, the old boatswain gets the bottle and wishes for some booze.  At that point, he realizes what he has, and is steadfastly unwilling to sell it back to Keawe.  Even after Keawe insists that keeping the bottle will send the old man to Hell, the old man refuses, saying, “I reckon I’m going anyway.”

With that, Keawe and Kokua are released from the bottle’s curse, and return to their home to live happily ever after.

The story is bit of a variation on “The Monkey’s Paw,” although other than Keawe’s uncle and other family member passing, there’s no suggestion that the wishes come with cruel ironic twists.  Many of the characters make requests of the bottle without any negative consequences beyond suffering from the anxiety of owning a bottle that will send them to Hell (which, naturally, makes its current owners always dreadfully anxious).  The story also depends upon otherwise rational people making irrational decisions out of love, obligation, duty, or even desperation.  For example, the man from whom Keawe purchases the bottle the second time bought it for two cents because he was caught up in an embezzlement scandal, and hoped to avoid the consequences.  In the process, he bought himself a far more tragic consequence, as no rational actor would purchase the bottle for one cent.  Keawe only does so to win the love of his life, and he comes to regret his decision almost immediately.

As I read the story, I wondered how it would work out.  I thought there might be a deus ex machina, in which an angel or even Jesus would come along and say, “Because you were willing to sacrifice your souls for one another, I will release you from this bottle’s curse.”  Fortunately, Stevenson didn’t take such a corny route, and resorted to the logical outcome:  someone who figures he is going to Hell anyway, and is therefore willing to purchase the bottle at an impossibly low price.

The story is also unique (and fun) because it takes place in Hawaii, and involves a good bit of the hustle and bustle of the Hawaiian Islands as an important depot in the vast Pacific.  The free and easy interchange between Hawaiians and Haoles (whites) is interesting, as is the oceanic trade.  Maybe it’s just me, but I love stories with maritime themes and settings.

Of course, the biggest appeal of the story is the set of rules it creates governing the devilish bottle.  The temptation of the bottle is massive, so long as the current owner believes he has a reasonable chance of offloading it for a lower price.  The lower the price gets, the harder it is to sell it.  Even at higher prices, owners have to convince the potential buyer that the bottle is magical and wish-granting.

Ironically, it’s one the rare instances in which the buyer would want to pay as high a price as possible for the bottle, which becomes a demonic hot potato.  Even then, the buyer would want to sell the bottle as quickly as possible, lest he die with the bottle in his possession (one “rule” of the bottle is that the owner cannot wish for an extension of his life).  But the normal incentive to get someone to buy—to sell at a very low price—is immediately gone, because the lower the price, the harder future sells become.

Realistically, any price would be too low, but the selfishness of the potential purchaser and the incredible high rewards for owning the bottle override the very high, ultimate risk:  everlasting hellfire.  It’s a devil’s bargain, and Keawe and Kokua were lucky to get away with their souls in the end.  It’s ironic, too, that their salvation comes in the form of a drunken, oafish lout.

I very much enjoyed this story, and while it deals with serious subjects, it’s a light-hearted variation on “The Monkey’s Paw” and other such “wish-gone-awry” stories.  The central concept has even been turned into a card game!  Talk about pressing your luck!

Check it out.  I’ll be going back to the beginning of the book and reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I have seen adapted for film many times, but have never read in its entirety.

Happy Reading!



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