Subtitled “An Imitation of the German,” this, the earliest of Poe’s supernatural tales, builds a unique atmosphere on a foundation of Gothic conventions: a hereditary feud between two ancient families, a gloom-drenched castle, a cryptic curse, and vaguely sinister machinations. A few scholars have categorized it as a Gothic farce – possibly a literary joke presaging the satires of Twain and Bierce. And yet the building blocks of “Usher,” “Ligeia,” “Hop-Frog,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Black Cat” brew in this Germanic romance. What should be buried does not remain buried – what is hidden from society will be first internally resurrected, then publically exposed. This is the critical thesis of Poe’s horror, and it permeates the volatile relationship between the brash playboy Baron Metzengerstein and his aged and (supposedly) cursed counterpart. It may play loosely with the Gothic building blocks constructed by Radcliffe, Lewis, and Bürger, but the conclusion is no farce: it teems with apt irony and chilling details reminiscent of the best ghost stories of M.R. James and J.S. Le Fanu. In fact, it is not entirely inaccurate to term this a ghost story, and of the few that Poe renders, this is unquestionably the best.
The story (like Irving’s “Spectre Bridegroom” and Dickens’ “Baron of Grogzwig”) is set in an wider Germany (technically modern Hungary) during an indeterminate time period (implied to be during the 16th or 17th centuries), and features a feud between two proud families: the Metzengersteins and the Berlifitzings. While no one is sure how the rivalry began, it is accompanied with an ominous prophecy that “A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider of his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berliftizing.” For centuries this motto has been whispered in the two ancient houses, but its source is as unclear as the feud itself. We are then introduced to the current householders of the respective families: Frederick von Metzengerstein (who inherits his estate at 18, and is renowned for his almost psychopathic cruelty) and Wilhelm von Berlifitzing (who is much older and known to be vindictive).
Four days after his ascent to his family seat, Frederick learns that the Berlifitzing family stables were burned to the ground, and that Wilhelm – a devoted horseman – was “miserably” killed in the fire, saving his horses. While the locals suspect Frederick of arson, the Berlifitzing estate now has no heir, and the Metzengersteins seem to have triumphed. On that day that the stables burn, Frederick is found seriously studying an antique family tapestry which depicts the prophetic legend: a gigantic, flame-colored Berlifitzing horse whose rider has been stabbed in the back by a Metzengerstein. In a moment of horror, he thinks he sees the horse in the tapestry move: bending over its dead master in mourning, eyes gleaming red, and its “disgusting and sepulchral” teeth bared. Frederick rises from his studies (causing his shadow to overlap that of the Metzengerstein assassin) when he is told that a horse has been recovered from the burnt stables. While the Berlifitzing servants don’t recognize the ferocious charger, it does have the initials “W.v.B.” branded into its forehead, suggesting it was the late Wilhelm’s horse. Ominously, the monstrously large and violent horse is an unnatural shade of orange, with the same red eyes and repellent teeth as the tapestry.
But Frederick is not intimidated by this omen. Immediately obsessed with this new trophy, Frederick spends all his time riding it in the countryside, becoming increasingly negligent in his business affairs and pouring all of his energy into the strange animal. This concerns the locals, who worry that he has gone insane, and their diagnosis is soon frightfully confirmed. One ill-omened night, Frederick gallops off into the countryside shortly before his own stables catch fire. As the servants free the horses and fight the flames, they notice a hard-riding horseman – who disoriented, frantic manner suggest that he has lost control of the vicious animal – charging towards the conflagration. With no hope of stopping, the two are swallowed up in fire as the horse leaps into the wreckage, causing the fire to die down soon after. As the flames continue to lap at the timbers, the crowd notices the flame-colored smoke shaping itself into the figure of a massive horse.
Was, then, the flame-colored stud Berliftzing’s wrathful reincarnation? A demonic familiar? A divine karma? A manifestation of a tormented conscience? An Imp of the Perverse? Surely it must have been one of these – or so horror conventions inform us. But Poe never does. Aside from the brand on its forehead (an admittedly weak road sign) Poe remains vague in details that lesser writers would have vigorously clarified. We may guess which part of the tapestry has disappeared, but Poe trusts the intelligence of his audience, emphasizing atmosphere over explication. The horse, a traditional symbol of unfiltered spirit, is inescapably physical: its hideously carnal teeth and sulfurous hide are a manifestation of Metzengerstein’s murderous arson – impossible to miss and impossible to deny – not unlike the gallows on the Black Cat’s chest and the murmuring Tell-Tale Heart. And yet no ostentatious moral is embossed into the text. Rather, Poe infects his setting with vague supernatural mechanics, a cynical moral vision, and a sudden and disturbing climax that would proceed to influence masters of horror like J. Sheridan Le Fanu (“Squire Toby’s Will,” “The Familiar,” “Mr Justic Harbottle”), M.R. James (“The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral,” “The Ash Tree,” “The Tractate Middoth,” “Martin’s Close,”), Nathaniel Hawthorne (“The Burial of Roger Malvin”), and Saki (“Srendi Vashtar”).
Although Poe is often criticized for being too didactic, this ghost story (for so we may call it regardless of what agency the horse actually represents; it does not matter: the man is unquestionably haunted) is a fine example of restraint and artfulness. Employing the eerie weirdness of German masters like Goethe, Schiller, Bürger, and Hoffmann, Poe reshapes their brooding fairy-tales into a sophisticated expression of psychological malice and self-destruction. Decades later, Le Fanu, Blackwood, and James would adopt the power of “Metzengerstein” as they translated its themes and energies into the most complex supernatural form in Western literature: the classic English ghost story.