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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Entail: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis

One of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s most ambitious efforts at Gothic fiction is also one of his most complex (which is saying something for Hoffmann): it is a dense mystery involving multiple plots layered one over the other, jumping back and forth in time, with unique casts of characters existing in each timeline.

Biographically, the framing narrative about a sexually frustrated man’s aborted dalliance with a married woman borrows from Hoffmann’s own scandalous attentions toward a woman ten years his senior named Dora Hatt. As with his most famous romantic obsession -- the uncomfortably young Julia Mark -- Dora was one of Hoffmann’s music students, but unlike Mark, she was a married woman with children. Their lessons began in 1794, but within two years her family – outraged by Hoffmann’s obvious and barely restrained lust – fired him (just as the Mark family would in 1812). “The Entail” was written in 1817, after both humiliating experiences, and in many ways Hoffmann blends the older, married Dora and the affianced ingénue Julia into "The Entail's" mysterious, femme fatale, Baroness Seraphina. Like so many of his masterworks, the story's emotional foundation is centered on deep, social humiliation, the orgasmic metaphor of making music, and the frustrations caused by a society burdened with rampant bureaucracy, shameless nepotism, and inflexible traditions.

An early example of the haunted house genre, “The Entail,” (a.k.a. “The Walled-Up Door”) has been cited as a strong influence on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and offers a brilliantly subtle ghost story built around a family curse, crossed-star lovers, repressed emotions, concealed crimes, and an intricate web of psychological symbolism. While the story is admittedly long and often confusing, its visionary embrace of the haunted house story drags the genre out of the Medieval melodramas of Radcliffe, Lewis, and Walpole, transporting it into a contemporary setting with understated rather than excessive Gothic touches. Set in the coastal stronghold of a Prussian nobleman, alchemist, and wizard, “The Entail” follows the trans-generational secrets and tragedies of his progeny as they scuffle over his estate, dragging family friends and servants into their vortex of disillusionment.

Unlike “Nutcracker,” “The Sand-Man,” or “The Stranger Child,” this story avoids Hoffmann’s preferred blend of fantasy, fairy tale, and weird fiction, and presents a straight forward ghost story (in the manner of “The Vampire,” “Mines of Falun,” and – well – “A Ghost Story”). It seems to foreshadow psychologically complex works of the same genre: “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Haunting of Hill House,” “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” “The Shining,” and Poe’s “Usher.” It demonstrates Hoffmann’s ability to conjure mood with restrained vigor – whipping up a believable atmosphere of doom and dread without being carried away into cheap clichés. A classic ghost story complete with hidden rooms, crumbling towers, sleep-walking murderers, buried treasure, dangerous heights, and adulterous lust, it offers a good read for a long, windy winter night, and promises many surprises along the way.


The story concerns the murky and sinister backstory of a gloomy castle perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea.

One snowy, winter night, an elderly lawyer named Theodore travels by sleigh with his great-nephew, also named Theodore, to the Baltic estate of the noble R—sitten family. Theodore the Elder is a legal advisor to the Baron Roderick R—sitten, and has been appointed the manager of the R--sitten castle, which the Baron only uses once a year for a winter hunt. This year, Teodore the Elder has invited his twenty-year-old namesake to go hunting with the Baron and his coterie.

The castle has fallen into disrepair, with the ruins of a collapsed tower crumbled into a massive chasm at its base. The occupants are two ghostly, elderly aunts dressed in decades-old fashion, and a handful of odd servants. The two Theodores are guided through a ruined, snow-swept wing to a bedroom where they sleep uneasily. Oddly, Theodore the Younger notices a bricked-up door at one end of the room.

That night, they both have bad dreams, with the Younger Theodore hearing a man moaning in the hallway and a series of ghostly sounds – scraping, voices, and phantom horses – coming from outside. In the morning the nephew relates his experiences and his uncle is deeply disturbed (apparently because he recognizes the details from an event in the castle’s past).

They decide to stay up all night to watch for the presumed ghost, and to their horror, both hear something moaning and scraping from behind the bricked up door that apparently led to the demolished tower outside. The Elder Theodore knowingly attempts to exorcise by reciting a phrase: “Daniel, Daniel! What are you doing here at this hour?” The words seem to do something to the ghost, whose sounds cease and are never heard again.


The next morning, Baron Roderick – a brusque and passionless man – has arrived with his young, melancholy wife, Seraphina. Theodore the Younger immediately falls in love with her, and when he learns that she has a deep appreciation for piano music, he buys a piano from the village and they begin spending all of their time together: the Baroness seems to find great spiritual relief both from his piano playing, and the presence of his watchful great-uncle.

Theodore the Elder views his great-nephew’s increasingly irrational love for the married woman with skeptical fear and attempts to shake him from her spell, while Roderick is seemingly unthreatened and only asks his young rival to help him dispel his wife’s manic obsession with the wandering ghost, and grimly requests that he ease off on their eroticized music sessions which he believes have been inflaming her already wild imagination.

During his increasingly dreamlike stay at the castle, Theodore the Younger eventually accompanies the Baron on a snow-swept hunt in the Baltic woodlands. Lost in a reverie, he is surprised by a wolf who attacks him, but manages to kill the beast. This ominous event brings him the further admiration of Seraphina – and the whole party – but seems to signal the beginning of the end.

He repeatedly regales her with exciting details from his encounters with the wolf and the scratching ghost – Seraphina’s favorite topic – but this sends her into a dangerous, manic episode: she falls violently ill with a brain fever and nearly dies during the night.

Ashamed by his having ignored Roderick’s warnings, and horrified at the results, Theodore the Younger has to be restrained from committing suicide, but his uncle succeeds in bringing him to his senses. The Baron seeks them out, furious at the nephew for his lack of discretion. He commands him to cease their music sessions, and explains that they have had a close call: Serphina is completely recovered and nothing is wrong with her – this time. Rattled by the experience, both Theodores depart abruptly that morning, leaving Theodore the Younger heartsick but alive.

Soon after, Theodore the Elder suffers a stroke when he reads a letter whose contents he refuses to share. Before his own death, he summons his great-nephew to his bedside and agrees to tell him about the castle’s strange past, filling in the missing pieces to the family's dark history, and helping convince the young man that he had been lucky to avoid becoming entangled in their history of betrayal and greed…


In the mid-18th century, Roderick’s grandfather, Roderick R—sitten the First (a greedy, eccentric alchemist who dabbles in the dark arts), is killed when his private, laboratory tower mysteriously collapses during a freak storm implied to have been conjured by his own astrological experiments.

This fact is discovered by his elderly steward Daniel, who opens the door to the tower and almost steps through it, but finds himself staring into wild space. According to Roderick's intentionally provocative will, the entire R—sitten estate is entailed to pass on to his oldest son, Wolfgang, a greedy cur who mistreats and browbeats Daniel in search of his father’s hidden cache of alchemical treasure, which is suspected to be lost amongst the inaccessible rubble below.

Incensed by his mistreatment, Daniel conspires with Wolfgang’s wastrel brother Hubert Sr. to side-step the stipulations of the entail through murder. One night, Daniel personally shoves Wolfgang to his death while the frustrated heir was standing at the tower door, staring into space, wondering about the treasures buried in the wreckage below. His last words are “Daniel, Daniel! What are you doing here at this hour?”

His murder hands the estate over to Hubert Sr. who has the tower door bricked up. When Hubert Sr. dies, his arrogant son, Hubert Jr., expects to be given R—sitten as a matter of course, but is shocked when his father’s will reveals that he has been aware of the existence of Wolfgang’s secret marriage to a commoner. Disapproving of his son’s clandestine marriage and child, Hubert Sr. disinherits him

Instead, the castle (and its legendary treasures) is given to this new heir – Roderick II, Seraphina’s husband – and Hubert Jr. is killed in a duel shortly after Hubert Sr.’s death.

Meanwhile, Theodore the Elder, as the family lawyer, has been carefully monitoring these events, and becomes suspicious that Daniel had a hand in Wolfgang’s death.

He verifies these suspicions when he catches the old steward sleepwalking – reenacting the murder (trying to unlock the bricked up door and attempting to saddle Hubert Sr.’s horse) and is given a formal confession from Daniel in professional confidence as a lawyer.

Unaware of this messy intrigue, Roderick II marries the beautiful noblewoman Seraphina and moves to the castle, using it as his winter headquarters. One night, he stumbles onto Daniel’s nighttime sleepwalking ritual, and accidentally utters his grandfather’s exact last words ("Daniel! Daniel! What are you doing at this hour?").

At the sound of those words, the old man immediately falls dead from guilt and horror, but his ghost almost immediately returns to continue its mission to soothe his conscience. Disturbed by Daniel’s continued haunting of R—sitten and fearful of his wife’s hysterical reaction to the ghost, Roderick II leaves the castle in the hands of Theodore the Elder, only visiting for his annual hunt. His nephew, of course, knows the rest.

What he doesn’t know are the contents of the letter that caused his uncle’s stroke: the dying man tearfully informs him that Serphina has been killed in a brutal sleighing accident: “the beautiful lady—has fallen a victim to the dark destiny, the grim, mysterious power which has established itself in that old ancestral castle.”