E. T. A. Hoffmann's Freakishly Surreal, Reality-Bending Horror Stories
“I felt as a child feels when some fairy tale has been told it to conceal the truth it suspects.” – E. T. A. Hoffmann
He was the godfather of modern horror, weird fiction, and fantasy, an inestimable influence on Poe, Dickens, and Hawthorne, de Maupassant, Stevenson, and James, left his fingerprints on “Frankenstein,” “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” “Dracula,” and “The Turn of the Screw,” and inspired filmmakers from Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan to David Lynch and Fritz Lang (and films from “Dr. Caligari” and “Metropolis” to “The Matrix” and “Mulholland Drive”). Yet few horror fans have ever read his works. Many have never even heard his name. Today he is most famous for writing the dark fantasy that Tchaikovsky fluffed up into “The Nutcracker” and for his proto-Freudian masterpiece of existential terror, “The Sandman,” but his influence demands that we give E. T. A. Hoffmann a much closer look. An expert at blending the ordinary and the uncanny, his stories were some of the first to feature supernatural invaders in a contemporary setting. Unlike Perrault or the Grimms, his macabre fairy tales aren’t in a land “far, far away” or “once upon a time” – they take place in the sooty, bourgeois streets of his own time, and involve grotesque and often malformed agents of chaos piercing through the veil of the invisible world to introduce moral mayhem into the bland existence of bored daydreamers.
In Hoffmann’s worlds, the “real” world is the fake one – like in “The Matrix” or “Alice in Wonderland” – a superficial façade distracting us from recognizing the wonders and horrors of true reality. Tremendously complex and literary, his gothic stories, dark fairy tales, and diabolical parables explore the relationships between reality and fantasy, reason and imagination, submission and inspiration, groundedness and sublimity, and spirituality and materiality. His stories include tales of castles haunted by family curses, toys brought to life, erotic robots, sinister salesmen with malevolent motives, demonic Doppelgängers, cannibalistic pregnant women, lustful gnomes, hypnotic seducers, sleepwalking ghosts, men without shadows or reflections, and expansive worlds hidden behind the drab exterior of the ordinary prefiguring Hogwarts, Narnia, Wonderland, and Oz. His tales are famous for their blend of horror and allure, of ugliness and beauty, of reality and imagination. The swirl with the vertigo of a rich grasp of fantasy, darkened with inappropriate lusts, repressed urges, and unconscious motives. Deeply psychological and profoundly philosophical, they will shock and offend, but they will also soothe and inspire. These are the Tales of Hoffmann.
Before the rise of Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, and H. P. Lovecraft, there was only one name in literary horror: Hoffmann. His influence is felt in nearly every short story writer of the 19thcentury, and while he takes a decidedly permanent back burner to his later disciples, his role as the originator of speculative fiction is difficult to deny. Hoffmann certainly had his own influences: “The Walled-Up Door” makes references to Friedrich Schiller’s “The Ghost Seer” and “The Robbers,” while “A Ghost Story” (excerpted from “Die Serapionsbrüder”) is mostly constructed off of a major subplot in M. G. Lewis’ Gothic masterpiece, “The Monk.” The works of Goethe (especially “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” “Faust,” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) also factor into his imaginative universe of wild emotions, secret allegiances, and violent impulses, as do those of Shakespeare, Ludwig Tieck, and – most notably – the fairy tales of Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Jacques Callot. But Hoffmann broke with all of these writers in his realism. While Goethe set “Faust” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Medieval Times, Schiller went for the Gothic conventions of the 17th century, and the fairy tale writers distant lands in vague timelines, Hoffmann had no patience for such distance and romance. His monsters roam the snowy streets of Napoleonic Dresden, wearing the same fashions as his contemporaries, and piercing the normalcy of relatable, middle-class settings. Even today, with the distance of two centuries, his stories seem unnervingly personal. We sense that even if these antagonists sport powdered periwigs and buckled shoes, there is something immediate and tactile about them. Although writers of horror would always find it attractive to set a story in the romantic past, most would adopt Hoffmann’s manner of making their lurking creatures a part of the contemporary scenery. Hawthorne, Poe, de Maupassant, Dickens, O’Brien, James, Stevenson, Shelley, and Stoker would all avoid the tradition of planting horror stories in a moldy Italian castle during the Renaissance, with characters like Udolpho, Manfred, Friar Jerome, or Ambrosio.
Another development that Hoffmann added to the modern horror story was a profound psychological and philosophical subtext. Radcliffe and Walpole certainly crafted intriguing backstories, rife with sexual misdeeds and repressed emotions (to say nothing of Shakespeare, Schiller, and Goethe), but Hoffmann’s approach to horror took on a rich complexity which almost singlehandedly steered the short story as a genre into the 19th century. He was one of the very first writers to work heavily in this medium, and as the century began to embrace the cheaper, more commercial format of tales (which could be serialized or printed in cheap magazines for middle-class readers at fractions of the cost of a hardback book), Hoffmann’s legacy couldn’t be missed in the style and themes of his descendants. One reason for his popularity (although Goethe considered him “sick” and Walter Scott recommended psychiatric attention) was the profound authenticity of his stories. He speaks of gruelingly awkward experiences, cringe-worthy humiliations, and scandalously inappropriate attractions. Instead of writing protagonists with good hearts and good deeds, he created characters like the incestuous Councilor Krespel who envies his daughter’s lover, the manic-depressive Nathanael, who falls in love with a sex doll, the bumbling Student Anselmus, whose ham-fisted incompetence makes him a figure of public ridicule, and even the eccentric Godpapa Drosselmeier, whose passive-aggressive attentions towards his goddaughter smack of sadism and latent pedophilia. Humiliation was key to all of Hoffmann’s works, and an ever-present element in his own life.
Writing about his musical philosophy, Hoffmann once said that artistic creativity “reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind: a world that has nothing in common with the outward, material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible.” Every story he would ever pen would follow this dictum, using the power of the imagination to exceed the limitations of the body, physics, and society itself. His stories’ bizarre – even nightmarish – sense of psychological vertigo and often confusing lack of restrictions stem from a life which often shocked his friends and family, stimmied his career, and hampered his success. Throughout his fiction, Hoffmann extols the virtues of the authentic life (even if it be lonely or eccentric), which was best expressed through “poetry” (i.e. the arts), and was the only defense against the soulless drudgery and robotic servitude which he so dreaded as a public servant. Most who read Hoffmann immediately sense the deep level of personality which is infused in his writing: it is raw and personal, involving scathing humiliations, ludicrous embarassments, boiling lusts, and uncontrollable frenzies – as if written from the personal experiences of a highly emotional, socially frustrated individual. Such is indeed the case.
Psychologists have suggested that Hoffmann may have suffered everything from manic-depression and autism to psychosis and ADHD. His mind was imaginative and uncontrollable, causing him to flit from passion to passion, from crush to crush, and from profession to profession with little concern for the future. He was given to emotional outbursts, highly uncensored opinions, and wild rhapsodies in public. He was by education a lawyer, by profession a government functionary, but also moonlighted as a composer (he wrote a successful opera and a symphony), a music critic (having only read the score to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – without hearing it – he wrote a famous review which had a heavy hand in making it a global sensation), draftsman, caricaturist, toymaker, mechanic, tinkerer, musician, novelist, poet, and short story writer. His career finally ended – along with his life – when he wrote a galling satire which offended several important Prussian officials and landed him in court for libel. In danger of losing everything, he managed his defense from his sickbed (stricken with paralyzing syphilis), and dictated his last stories. Hoffmann was convicted, but the King of Prussia pitied the dying man and softened the sentence so long as a few offensive passages be deleted. His career and health were wrecked, however, and he died at forty-six.