Demon lovers – a variant of the “Death and the Maiden” motif – are a standard trope in European folklore. These stories tell of beautiful, vulnerable women spirited away by lustful ghosts, demons, or vampires. Kidnapped bodily, they suffer the fate of the first victim of a demon lover – Persephone, who was abducted by Hades in Greek mythology – and are dragged, body and soul, into the underworld to serve as concubine to their kidnapper.
The trope served as a colorful metaphor for the exterminating powers of unchecked lust (a young woman could literally be made away with by a venereal disease, a violent seducer, a botched abortion, or a tumultuous pregnancy), and became a popular sexual allegory in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Britain it was famously adopted by Edith Nesbit (“John Charrington’s Wedding,” “Man-Size in Marble”) and J. Sheridan Le Fanu (“Schalken the Painter,” “Ultor de Lacy,” “Laura Silver Bell”), but its deepest roots are in Germany, where tales of maidens carried off by lustful ghosts thrived.
The most popular of these tales was that of G. A. Burger’s Gothic ballad, “Lenore.” Written in 1773, the German masterpiece tells of the eponymous heroine who impatiently demands that God reunite her with her lover, William, who is away with the Army. Rejecting her mother’s scoldings, she continues to blaspheme God for His unfairness, and is elated when a stranger resembling William suddenly appears at her door with a saddled, black horse, offering to ride away with her into the night. At first thrilled, she grows concerned at the horse’s breakneck pace, the eerie moonlit landscape, and the fierce silence of her lover. At this point, Lenore famously demands why they are riding so fast only to be told “the dead travel fast” (a quote Bram Stoker lifted for “Dracula”).
As daylight approaches, they finally arrive at the promised marriage bed: a cemetery where William’s body rests, having been killed in battle. The “William” on horseback reveals himself to be Death – a skeleton flourishing a scythe and an hour glass – and Lenore is shut away in William’s moldering grave. This ballad was crucially important to the Romantic movement, the Gothic movement, and their later hybrid, Dark Romanticism.
Poe, of course, would borrow the name of the kidnapped maiden for “The Raven” and “Lenore,” and the motif of death visiting young people would repeatedly appear in the works of Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville, and Longfellow. For Irving, whose sometimes-fiancée Matilda Hoffman had died from tuberculosis at age 17, the trope was all too real, and sometimes manifested brutally in his fiction (e.g., “German Student,” “The Broken Heart”). In the following tale, however, he manages to play if up with all the theatrics and panache that he could muster.
The setting of our tale is a Gothic castle overlooking the banks of the Rhine during the Late Middle Ages. It is owned by the temperamental Baron Von Landshort, a poor but proud noble, who cherishes his time-honored family fueds with many of the local clans, but has found himself increasingly eager to marry his beautiful young daughter – his only child – to a wealthy suitor, in hopes of redeeming his dying family line. The Baron loves to host lavish dinners for his extended family – all poor relations eager to take advantage of his generosity – where they delight in telling ghost stories that raise the hairs on the backs of their necks and chill their blood.
Finally, after much searching, the Baron arranges a marriage with the well-borne Count Von Altenburg (whose name – Old Mountain – suggests an impressive, aristocratic pedigree), who travels from Bavaria to meet his new bride. Accompanying him is his friend Herman Von Starkenfaust, whose family lives in the area and have harbored a feud with the Von Landshorts.
The two friends ride on ahead of their servants and soldiers to make better time, but are attacked by a gang of robbers as they pass through the notorious forest of Odenwald. Although the servants arrive in time to fight off the brigands, Von Altenburg is mortally wounded. In spite of his agony, his thoughts are with his waiting bride, and he urges Herman to ride ahead and explain to her “the fatal cause” for his missed appointment with her. Herman considers this, but is too afraid to face Von Landshort due to the feud between their families.
Meanwhile, Von Landshort is hosting his poor relations at a raucous wedding banquet, where they anticipate the arrival of the bridegroom (they had planned to wait for the wedding, but when Von Altenburg proves exceedingly late, the host approves the commencement of the festivities). Suddenly, at the height of the revelry, a single horseman clatters up to the castle on a fearsome, black charger. The servants escort the stranger to the banquet where his pale, gloomy countenance raises eyebrows, and he silently sits down beside his blushing bride without saying a word or taking a bite of food.
Now that the party can truly take off, Von Landshort encourages his favorite pastime of ghost stories, and the famous tale of Leonora and her demon lover is shared. This seems to provoke the already unsocialble bridegroom who stands up and bids farewell to his bride and her guests. Von Landshort protests in vain that the bridal chamber has been prepared for him, but he retorts that he “must lay [his] head in a different chamber tonight.” Von Landshort is stunned and follows after him: where is this chamber? The bridegroom then explains it all – he has been slain in Odenwald Forest, and his corpse is already laying in state at Wurtzburg cathedral – before slipping out and clattering away on his black horse. The guests are shocked and the bride – who had been smitten by her betrothed’s sad, handsome face, quietly weeps.
The following morning confirms this report, and the Baron’s daughter retires to her room, deeply depressed and closely monitored by her two maiden aunts. The next evening, the daughter is woken up by strange music and walks to her window where she sees her dead bridegroom mounted outside her window in the moonlight. The two aunts hear her scream and rush in just in time to see the ghost before fainting. When she comes to, the specter is gone, and she refuses to spend the night in her niece’s room ever again. The girl, however, refuses to leave: even in death she loves her bridegroom, and for a week she waits for his nocturnal visits.
The aunt agrees to let this be their secret (her niece is afraid that her father will prevent her from looking upon her phantom lover if he learns of her vigils) for a week, until one morning the young lady is missing from her room. The household is suddenly a flurry of chaos as the servants rush out to search for their mistress. Having been told about his daughter’s obsession with her ghost, and recalling the Legend of Leonora, Von Landshort is horrified: his daughter has surely either been lured to her death or been spirited away to the underworld, where he expects she will raise a ghoulish brood of goblin grandchildren for him.
Von Landshort begins to lead the search party out, but they are stunned to encounter the missing bride escorted by her phantom lover – who now appears to be a living man of flesh and blood. Both are beaming with happiness. The spectre bridegroom is, of course, none other than Herman Von Starkenfaust, and he had – after a week of secret meetings – finally convinced his beloved to elope with him. They have returned from their secret wedding to ask for Von Landshort’s blessing. Apparently, when Herman had arrived with the sad news of Von Altenburg’s death, the bombastic Von Landshort hadn’t allowed him to get a word in edgewise, and he used the timing of the story of Leonora as an excuse to abscond without further embarrassment. However, he and the Baron’s daughter had become smitten with one another, and he returned the following evening to woo her for himself.
When the nosy maiden-aunt saw him, she fainted, allowing the two a moment alone to talk, which – due to the aunt’s superstitious fear – grew into seven evenings together. The only barrier, of course, was the father’s obsession with his family feuds. Relieved to have his daughter back and shamed by his own pride and arrogance, Von Landshort forgave them and the poor relations reassembled as the family celebrated the union. After all, the bridegroom proved to be a handsome, dashing cavalier, and the Von Starkenfaust family was very honorable – and very, very rich.
In typical Irving fashion, “The Spectre Bridegroom” uses dramatic irony to shine a spotlight on what the writer considered stupid human weaknesses, and ends his story on a happy note intended to encourage his readers to relax a little. The choleric baron learns to forgive meaningless family feuds (life, after all, is clearly too short), the maiden aunts learn that their prudishness did little or no good for their ward, and that young love is probably safest when it is least regulated and least discouraged, and even the melancholy Starkenfaust learns to lighten up and live life while he can (as Irving points out, upon his return with his new bride, his once dark eyes are now “riot with joy”).
As in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving uses a Gothic farce to bring wayward lovers together. In the former story, they are separated by the interference of an outsider (and Katrina’s fickle appearance of indecision of course) – an obstacle cleared away by Brom’s dramatic chasing off of his adversary in a blaze of supernatural pretense. In “The Spectre Bridegroom,” this is all far less dramatic, but both lovers share common weapons and hindrances: like Brom, the hyper-masculine Starkenfaust uses local supernatural lore to frighten his adversaries (in this case a prejudiced father and prudish aunts) into welcoming him with open arms. Like Brom, also, he makes his appearance on a threatening coal-black steed (an archetypal symbol of sexual aggression and appetite), and uses the bait-and-switch technique to assure his acceptance (the baron and maiden aunts are extremely happy to have him after realizing that he is not a demon lover – an achievement that would have likely not been possible without deception).
Although Irving’s story ends in a typical cheery mood, it is not without its darkness, however, as he seems to be warning overly protective parents – and aunts – to cherish their children instead of smothering them. Especially when we consider the withering fate of frail, wispy, Matilda Hoffman (with whom Irving was making eye contact when she expired), we can appreciate the seriousness with which Irving took these lessons.