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. In this article we look at ten of his very best.
10. THE STRANGER CHILD
Hoffmann was never pleased with his Christmas fantasy, “The Nutcracker,” and although posterity has claimed it as a masterpiece, he reworked its seminal idea in this bizarre and creepy story about two children coming of age over the Christmas season. Two siblings, a boy and a girl, are cared for by their whimsical father and loving mother, despite their poverty. They are incensed when wealthy relatives visit them for the holidays, bringing a cache of toys and two eerily toy-like children, their cousins. Rejecting the expensive gifts, they head to the woods where they encounter “the Stranger Child” – an androgynous spirit (the boy believes it to be a boy, the girl a girl) who bemoans its exile from a fantasyland after being removed from the throne by an evil goblin in the form of a man-sized fly.
The children attempt to console the Stranger Child, but their own trials begin when their offended relatives send forth a tutor from Berlin to teach the children to accept reality and become unimaginative adults (unlike their father, whom the relatives blame for their willfulness). The misshapen Tutor Ink – a sadistic and eccentric martinet – is none other than the Stranger Child’s old enemy, come to bring misery to the human world.
9. THE GNOME-KING’S BRIDE
A truly strange tale, “The Gnome-King’s Bride” tells the story of Anna, a budding young woman who receives no attention from her widower father (an amateur alchemist who dresses up as a wizard and obsesses over elementals) or her long-distance boyfriend (a horrible poet who sends her sappy, shallow verses instead of visiting her in person). Anna is content with her garden, however, and is mesmerized by a wedding ring she finds there one day, with a (notably phallic) carrot growing through it. When her father learns that she has put the ring on, he suddenly awakens from his pretend-world (which includes a false beard and wizard hat) and seems to realize that she has sexually matured.
He warns that this might be a trick from a gnome (an earth spirit known for greediness, wealth, and lust), and his fears prove true when a parade of vegetable imps lead by their king, Daucus Carota, a two-foot tall anthropomorphic carrot, comes to claim her as his bride. Unused to attention, Anna falls for the ludicrous-but-sinister creature’s affection, and her father and boyfriend must snap out of their delusions to save her from a life under the earth filled with fungus, worms, and decay.
8. COUNCILOR KRESPEL
The story of Antonia Krespel and her eccentric father is one of Hoffmann’s most famous, and has been featured in several ballets, operas, and films. The councilor is a wild polymath: a renegade architect, imaginative toymaker, and student of violin making. He takes apart priceless violins in order to discover their secrets (and in the process, destroys them), and is equally possessive of his beautiful daughter’s singing voice. The supple Antonia is the object of a young musician’s passion, and the two secretly meet and sing together (a nearly overt metaphor for intercourse) despite her father’s command that she never sing for anyone else.
Having been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition that could be exacerbated by singing, she tries to obey his orders, but sometimes the heart wants what it wants. One night Krespel dreams of her singing with her lover until two red spots grow on her flushing cheeks, and her song lifts into a wild ecstasy. In the morning he finds her dead and wonders whether it was a dream, a psychic vision, or a spiritual projection of her heart’s desire.
7. A GHOST STORY
Quite short, but haunting nonetheless, “A Ghost Story” tells of two sisters who live in a Gothic mansion said to be haunted by the ghostly White Lady, a family specter. The elder is the hale and hearty Augusta, while the younger, Adelgunda, is equally pretty, but frail and excitable, treated with kid gloves by her overprotective family. On her birthday Adelgunda tells her friends to hide and watch her impression of the White Lady: she dresses in a cloak and stalks about the garden. But when the clock strikes nine, she is suddenly terrified, pointing to some invisible apparition that is pointing back at her. Shaken, she returns to the house and tries to forget, but sees it again every night at nine. What no one realizes is that the apparition is trying to steel Adelgunda and prepare her to become the stronger sister, for a tragedy is approaching that will force her to grow up quickly and exceed her family’s expectations.
6. THE VAMPIRE
Presaging Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” this story tells of an ill-starred marriage between a Prussian noble and Aurelia, the beautiful daughter of a madwoman. The Baron is deeply repulsed by Aurelia’s mother whom he compares to a cadaverous corpse, and is reminded of the lamia, a Greek monster who eats children. He learns that she had been the subject of a famous criminal trial, the details of which were hushed up, leading to her separation from her disgusted husband. Desperate to save the beautiful Aurelia from her mother’s control, he is relieved when the madwoman is found dead in a cemetery, but is surprised of the death’s effect on Aurelia: instead of grieving she is calm and troubled. They marry and conceive a child, and settle down, but as Aurelia’s pregnancy continues, he is surprised by her weak appetite. What he eventually discovers one night, after following her to the cemetery, gives “pregnancy cravings” a whole different meaning.
5. THE EMPTY HOUSE
A tale of corruption, sin, and decay, this story follows a young man who finds himself fascinated by a dilapidated house on a busy street which is said to be empty. Its caretaker is a grotesque man with skin like a mummy, and while it never shows signs of life, the protagonist cannot help but watch its windows. One day, while observing it, he sees the flash of a woman’s bejeweled hand resting on a window sill, and falls in love with its owner whom he imagines to be a prisoner in need of rescue. One night he is overcome by curiosity and breaks into the darkened house. Gropping about, he runs into his beloved: a raving maniac and an old woman. She nearly strangles him before the mummy-faced caretaker stops her with a whip. Then the real story, of who she is and how she lost her mind, begins.
4. THE LOST REFLECTION