top of page
08_john_atkinson_grimshaw_edited (1).jpg




Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

S U B S C R I B E:

Our sincerest thanks for your subscription.

We will be haunting your inbox soon...

E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King" (An English Translation)

Christmas Eve

All day long on the twenty-fourth of December the children of Dr. Stahlbaum the public health officer were expressly forbidden to enter the drawing room, let alone the adjoining stateroom. Marie and Fritz sat cowering in a corner of the parlor at the back of the house; the gloom of late dusk had already set in, and they were genuinely terrified in the utter absence of the light customarily afforded by the diurnal hours. In a whisper betokening the strictest secrecy, Fritz informed his younger sister (she had just turned seven) that from early morning onwards clicking and clanging and faint hammering sounds had been heard in the [two] locked rooms. Moreover [,he added,] not a few [minutes] ago there had [been seen] slinking through the vestibule a dark little man with a large box under his arm, [a man] who he knew full well could have been none other than Godfather Drosselmeier. Whereupon Marie clapped her little hands together for sheer joy and cried, “Ah, Godfather Drosselmeier will have made something lovely for us!” Drosselmeier the high court councilor was hardly a man of prepossessing appearance, being rather dwarfish and gaunt and bearing a thoroughly wrinkled face, a large black patch in place of a right eye, and absolutely no hair of his own, on account of which he wore an exquisitely beautiful white periwig made not of hair but of [spun] glass—in other words, a piece of completely artificial craftsmanship.

All in all, the children's godfather was himself a man of artificial construction who understood the inner workings of clocks and watches and could even build entire timepieces from scratch. Accordingly whenever one of the beautiful clocks in Stahlbaum’s house was ill and unable to sing, Godfather Drosselmeier would come, remove his glass periwig, doff his little yellow frock coat, don a blue apron, and prod the insides of the timepiece with [various] pointed tools, thereby genuinely paining Marie but causing no harm whatsoever to the clock, which to the contrary would [invariably] come back to life and immediately begin whirring, chiming, and [chirping] to the joy of everybody present. Whenever he came he would bring along in his satchel something nice for the children; one time it would be a little fellow who drolly rolled his eyes and presented his compliments [to the ladies], the next it would be a box out of which leapt a little bird, the next something else entirely. But for Christmas Eve he had always prepared artifices of especially wondrous beauty whose construction cost him a good deal of time and labor; and in acknowledgement of this cost, as soon as the gifts had been presented to the children, the parents took them away and kept them under solicitous lock and key.

“Ah, Godfather Drosselmeier will have made something lovely for us!” Marie now cried; but Fritz was of the opinion that this something could only be a fortress wherein all sorts of handsome soldiers would march up and down and perform their drills, and then some other soldiers who wanted to break into the fortress would have to show up, but then the soldiers inside the fortress would bravely open fire with cannons on the outside ones, thereby raising a thunderous devil of a racket. “No, no,” Marie interrupted Fritz: “Godfather Drosselmeier has told me of a lovely garden; in the garden is a large lake on which majestic swans with golden necklaces swim about and sing the prettiest songs. Then a little girl comes from the garden to the lake[shore] and lures the swans to her, and feeds them sweet marzipan.” “Swans don’t eat marzipan,” Fritz somewhat gruffly rejoined, “and Godfather Drosselmeier can’t make an entire garden either. [And] anyway, we don’t even have very many of the toys he’s made; they’ve always been taken away from us straight away; that’s why I much prefer the toys Papa and Mama give us—because we can keep them as long as we want and do what we like with them. Now the children began bandying back and forth guesses as to what this year’s [parental gifts] would be.

Marie was of the opinion that Goody Trutchen (her large[st] doll) was very much changing [for the worse], for more and more [often she could not be set upright] for an instant without gracelessly pitching over on to the floor, which never failed to leave the ghastliest [dirt-]streaks on her face; to say nothing of the prospective impossibility of ever restoring her clothes to their original [pristine] cleanness. All her vigorous chastisement of the doll had come to naught. Moreover, Mama had smiled at her extreme elation over Gretchen’s little parasol. Fritz for his part averred that nothing would spruce up his royal stable like a wily fox, and that his army had not a single cavalryman in its ranks, as Papa was well aware. So the children knew full well that their parents had bought them all sorts of lovely presents that they were now in the midst of arranging; they were equally certain that these presents were imbued with the divine light shed with childlike piety and benevolence by the eyes of their dear savior Jesus Christ, and that, as if touched by the benedictory hand of God, each and every Christmas gift imparted a delight for which there was no substitute in point of sheer splendor. Of this their older sister Luise reminded the children even as they continued their whispered conference about the prospective gifts, and she added that their parents were but proxies for their dear savior Jesus Christ, who knew much better than the children themselves what was capable of imparting real pleasure and delight; and that on this account they must by no means hope and wish for everything under the sun, but instead silently and piously resign themselves to whatever they were actually to receive. Little Marie [now] grew quite pensive, but Fritz murmured to himself, “I’d really like to have a fox and some hussars.”

By now it was completely dark. Fritz and Marie huddled close together [and] no longer dared to speak a word; they were wafted by a gentle breeze that seemed to have been stirred up by wings of pure down, and they fancied that they could hear quite faint but distinctly majestic music playing in the distance. A luminous glow played on the wall opposite the children, informing them that now the Christ child had flown away to the refulgent clouds [en route] to [the houses of] other happy children. At that moment the silvery “ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling” of a bell sounded, [and] the doors sprang open, letting in such a flood of bright light from the great drawing room that the children cried out, “Ah! Ah!,” and stood transfixed at the threshold. But [then] Papa and Mama stepped through the doorway, took the children by the hand, and said, “Come along now, come along now, dear children, and see what the holy Christ[child] has given you.”

The Presents

I call upon you personally, my dear gentle reader or listener—Fritz or Theodor or Ernst or whatever your name may be—to revivify in your mind’s eye the image of the last Christmas table you saw, to picture all those lovely, parti-colored, jewel-encrusted presents, that you may be capable of imagining how the children with their shining eyes stood transfixed and completely speechless [in the middle of the drawing room]; how by and by Marie, fetching a deep sigh exclaimed, “Ah, how beautiful! How beautiful!” and Fritz attempted to cut a few brisk capers [around the room] with remarkable success. The children must have been especially well-behaved and attentive to their religious duties throughout the preceding year, for never before had they received a Christmas offering of such beauty and splendor as this one. The great Christmas tree in the middle was festooned with [dozens of] golden and silver apples; and sugared almonds, parti-colored bonbons, and other types of confectionery sprouted from its every branch like so many buds and flowers. [But] the most beautiful attribute of this marvelous tree was surely the hundreds of tiny candles that twinkled like little stars amidst its dark greenery, whereby in both radiating and containing light it seemed practically to be inviting the children to help themselves to its treasury of fruits and flowers. All the objects heaped up around the tree shone with superlative splendor and brilliance of color; every type of beautiful object imaginable was represented there; it was indeed quite literally indescribable! Marie could espy dolls of exquisitely delicate features, all manner of sprucely constructed items of [dolls’] furniture, and what was most beautiful of all to behold, a little silk dress trimmed with delicate, parti-colored ribbons, which hung on a frame positioned in such a way that little Marie could contemplate it from all sides, as she proceeded to do while exclaiming over and over again, “Ah what a beautiful, ah what a lovely, lovely little dress: and to think that I shall actually—and most certainly—be allowed to put it on!”

Fritz had meanwhile galloped and trotted around the table another three or four times in search of his new fox, which he did indeed find [stationed] on the table. Dismounting [from his invisible horse], he said that the fox was a wild beast and basically a do-nothing, that he would come back for him later; and turned to the inspection of his new squadron of hussars, which were clad in red and gold, equipped with weapons of pure silver, and mounted on horses of such a lustrously white sheen that one would have thought that they too were made of pure silver. Now that the children had calmed down somewhat, they asked for their picture books, which were [duly] brought over and [placed open before them]; on the pages of these books they could behold lovely flowers of all species, men and women of various colors, and even adorable, frolicking children painted so naturally that they seemed to be living and speaking. [But] no sooner had the children asked for these marvelous books than the bell sounded again. [By this signal] they knew that Godfather Drosselmeier was about to present his gifts [to them], and they ran to the table standing against the wall. Briskly the screen behind which he had been hiding for so long was whisked aside. [And] what did the children then behold? On a verdant lawn bejeweled with flowers of various brilliant colors stood a most majestic castle with numerous looking-glass windows and gates of gold. [A few notes of music in the timbre of] a glockenspiel were heard, gates and windows [flew] open, and in the [various] rooms [inside the castle] one could see tiny but daintily [elegant] ladies and gentlemen in plumed hats and long-trained gowns promenading about. In the middle room, which seemed to be virtually bathed in fire—so many miniature candles were burning in its chandeliers—children clad in little doublets and gowns were dancing to the accompaniment of the glockenspiel.

[Meanwhile] a gentleman in an emerald-green cloak kept peeping through one of the windows [of the castle]; he would peer out [of the window] and then vanish again, just like Godfather Drosselmeier himself, and yet he was hardly bigger than Papa’s thumb; from time to he would appear down there [at this window] near the gate of the castle, and then once again withdraw. Now that he had propped his arms up on the table and taken a good look at the beautiful castle with its dancing and promenading little figures, Fritz said, “Godfather Drosselmeier! Please let me go into the castle!” The high court councilor gave him to understand that at present this simply and categorically would not be possible. And he was not mistaken, for it was [sheer] madness on the part of Fritz to propose entering a castle that [even] with its [lofty] golden towers included was still shorter than Fritz himself. Fritz, too, realized this. By and by, as the ladies and gentlemen kept promenading to and fro, the children kept dancing, and the emerald man kept peeping through the same window—all exactly as they had been doing from the beginning—Godfather Drosselmeier interposed himself [between Fritz] and the [front] gates of the castle, prompting Fritz to cry out impatiently, “Godfather Drosselmeier, why don’t you come [out of the castle] at that other gate over there?” “That is not possible, my dear little Fritz,” replied the high court councilor. “Well then,” Fritz resumed, “why don’t you let that green man who keeps sticking his head out like a cuckoo walk about with the other people?” “That won’t be possible either,” demurred the high court councilor once again. “Well then,” cried Fritz, “the children will have to come downstairs so that I can get a better look at them." “Nothing [you have asked for] is possible,” the high court councilor peevishly rejoined: “the mechanism must perform as it was designed to perform.” “Oh, re-e-e-ally?” asked Fritz, in an excruciated tone, “is none of it possible?” Listen here Godfather Drosselmeier: if those squeaky-clean figurines of yours can’t do anything but move about in the same way over and over again, they aren’t worth a fig, and I shan’t take any further interest in them. No, give me my hussars over them any day: they have to maneuver forwards, backwards, whichever way I want them to, and they’re not locked up in some house.” And with that he dashed over to the Christmas table and let his squadron trot and traverse and assemble and fire to and fro on their sliver steeds to his heart’s content. Marie, too, had moved away from the castle, but softly and by degrees; for although she too had quickly grown tired of the little dolls’ promenading and dancing, she was much nicer and better behaved than her brother and did not wish to draw so much attention to herself.

“Artifices of such intricacy as mine,” Drosselmeier rather dyspeptically remarked to the children’s parents, “are wasted on children as stupid as yours; I shall pack up my castle forthwith”; but their mother temporized by allowing the high court councilor to show her the inner workings of the castle and the marvelously intricate clock