E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Uncanny, Reality-Bending Horror Stories — Oldstyle Tales’ Macabre Masters
“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.
Like Poe – his greatest protégé – Hoffmann has been slandered by history, caricatured (even as he caricatured so many others) as a drunken lecher, prone to womanizing, hallucinations, and crippling self-loathing. It should be noted that this is an oversimplification of a very complex man – but just barely. Hoffmann’s proclivity to public displays of emotion truly haunted him wherever he went. Early in his life – in an episode that inspired “The Walled-Up Door,” while he was running high off of Goethe’s “Young Werther” (about a manic-depressive poet who commits suicide after falling in love with his best friend’s wife and humiliating himself after a violent declaration of love), he was fired from a job as a music instructor to a married woman when his obvious lust for the woman began to shock her family. This would not be the last time such an event would take place, nor the most seminal. In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars – an era of political chaos, rabid nationalism, and collective misery in Europe – Hoffmann married a Polish-Prussian woman and was delighted by the birth of a daughter, his only child. When the war reached Prussia, political turmoil caused the family to separate, and when the French overtook Warsaw, Hoffmann lost his job as a government official. Around this time Hoffmann learned that his two year old daughter had died; it would be a lost relationship that haunted him throughout his life and work.
When the Hoffmanns reunited in Bamberg, they took in his wife’s young niece, who lived with them for several years, leaving at the age of twelve – another loss that reenacted the death of his daughter. But the worst romantic experience of his life – one which would relentlessly be depicted in his fiction – was on its way. In the midst of his sorrow he began to tutor a girl about the same age as he niece, the bright and impressionable Julia Mark. Like so many of his future characters, he became enamored by the girl’s singing voice and fostered a profoundly inappropriate attachment to the girl. Her parents were concerned about his fawning obsession, but things boiled to a head when he publicly upbraided her young fiancé several years later. Now sixteen and nubile, Hoffmann had grown deeply devoted to Julia, and became disgusted when she was set up for an arranged marriage with another teenager – a fat, lazy, drunken, aristocrat whom Hoffmann considered vulgar and piggish. While on a picnic with the family, Hoffmann humiliated her inebriated fiancé after he fell over with drink, declaring the marriage doomed and the groom a shame. It was too much for the Marks, who immediately fired the smitten tutor, but he was right: the pair would marry that year and divorce between Julia was twenty. But it was too late: Julia would be sullied and corrupted by her revolting husband, and Hoffmann had become the object of public scandal yet again. Depressed, miserable, and uninspired, Hoffmann fought through what biographers agree to be the worst years of his life, culminating in an epiphany in 1814: he would turn from the highly academic, structured world of music to the more liberated genre of literature. Spiritually resurrected by the change, he penned what many consider to be his masterpiece, the farcical fantasy “The Golden Flower Pot” which follows the mounting humiliations of the Student Anselmus as he searches the streets of modern Germany for his love, Serpentina (a metaphysical being who transforms into the form of a snake), while dodging the machinations of an evil apple monger (whose secret identity is that of a powerful witch).
Hoffmann’s first novella was a crowning achievement, and the start of a successful – if not controversial – literary career. He seemed to relive the humiliation of his preposterous romances in his stories, which frequently feature either a scandalously inappropriate attraction (e.g., between father and daughter, a grown man and a life-size robot, or an impulsive single man and happily married woman) or an unrequited May-December obsession (which sometimes flirt with pedophilic subtexts). In stories like “The Lost Reflection,” “Nutcracker and Mouse-King,” “The Walled-Up Door,” “Automatons,” “Councilor Krespel,” “The Gnome-King’s Bride,” “The Mines of Falun,” “The Vampire,” “The Deserted House,” “The Sandman,” “The Fermata,” “Doppelgängers,” and “Magnetism,” enthusiastic, artsy-types prone to extreme emotions and impulsive outbursts are humiliated by their disastrous attachment to an unavailable girl: a seductive demon, eight year old goddaughter, married baroness, engaged stranger, bastard daughter, sexually awakening daughter, female spirit of the mines, vampiric pregnant wife, geriatric madwoman, mechanical sex-doll, two heartless coquettes, friend’s wife, and engaged patient – respectively. Sometimes it is the woman who suffers the more crushing fate (“Magnetism,” “Doppelgängers,” “Automatons,” etc.), but usually it is the wildly inappropriate male whose ill-advised fantasy leads to a psychological breakdown, spiritual trauma, or physical death. Adultery, incest, pedophilia, and sexual fetishes factor prominently in Hoffmann’s tales (hence Goethe and Scott’s shocked rejection of his art) but never as programs for a life-well-lived: unlike the Marquis de Sade, Hoffmann was nothing if not masochistic, and his unconsummated and unrequited romances – almost always ending in either death or madness – became hallmarks of his style. He did not praise or exemplify lifestyles of lust and abuse, but played them out to what he saw the natural course to be: self-destruction by way of the unnatural worship of a deeply flawed (and always misguided) attraction.
Another prominent theme in Hoffmann’s fiction is the existence of parallel universes which actualize the truth hidden by hypocrisy and modesty. His protagonists are relatable – poor students, bored children, and alienated outsiders – who experience psychedelic adventures and hallucinogenic terrors all from the comfort of the regular world. Cheap toys lead children to easily accessible realms of wonder, bumbling salesmen take the form of demonic mesmerists, and sensible girls find their future husbands growing in their backyard gardens. He saw no need to tell about fairy tales set in “a land far, far away” or “once upon a time” because he saw the fantastical in the ordinary and recognized the bizarre and macabre in the bourgeois and mundane. His settings are relatable, but his plots probe the psychological in visionary ways that imply an expansive interpretation of the everyday – suggesting that profound, metaphysical currents are churning just beneath our feet, unnoticed by those who have become too distracted by the minutiae of the material world. It is hardly necessary to point out the way in which this motif revolutionized Western literature (especially children’s and Young Adult fiction), but a short discussion of this may help explore the way in which Hoffmann’s legacy is undervalued in today’s academy. In stories like “The Golden Flower Pot,” “The Sandman,” “Nutcracker,” “The Gnome-King’s Bride,” “The Stranger Child,” and “Councilor Krespel,” Hoffmann invests his characters with hidden identities, secret affiliations, and supernatural doubles – often times there is an entire alternate universe to which they belong, and usually it is one which satirizes the hypocrisies of the mortal realm. This motif, or genre of story, has since been dubbed “Down the Rabbit Hole,” an allusion to one of Hoffmann’s earliest disciples: Lewis Carrol’s “Through the Looking Glass” and “Alice in Wonderland” have undeniable roots in “Nutcracker,” “Flower Pot,” and “King’s Bride.”
The motif of a young person discovering and exploring a satirical parallel universe (one which teaches them to see beyond superficiality, and which trains them for an independent and critical-thinking adulthood) don’t stop there, of course: the entire canon of “The Wizard of Oz,” Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline,” “The Neverending Story,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Peter Pan,” the “Harry Potter” series, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Flatland,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” David Bowie’s “Labyrinth,” the “TRON” and “Matrix” films, and a whole host of Studio Ghibli films (“Spirited Away,” “Totoro,” “Ponyo,” “Return of the Cat,” etc.) are all directly descended from Hoffmann. While fairy tales (Perrault, Callot, Grimm, Andersen) often used this motif, it was almost always in the already magical world of “a land far, far away” and during the innately magical “once upon a time.” Along with a few predecessors like Dante (“Inferno”), Swift (“Gulliver’s Travels”), and Shakespeare (“Tempest,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream”) Hoffmann among the very first introduced the concept of slipping off from the regular, unmagical, modern world into a Doppelgänger universe where you encounter doubles of the people in your waking life – doubles who train you to see through artifice and hypocrisy. Alice, Dorothy, Harry Potter, Charlie, James, Neo, Marie, Anselmus, and Ännchen all return to their waking worlds armed with new insights and the confidence necessary to unmask the world’s falsehoods, navigate society’s pitfalls, and avoid mankind’s illusions. Hoffmann’s virtually unprecedented blend of realism and fantasy was among the very first examples of this now ubiquitous trope.
Related to this idea is a third prominent theme in Hoffmann’s writing: the balance between imagination and reality, and the perils of personal duplicity. Like his Doppelgänger universes, Hoffmann peoples his stories with literal Doppelgängers: physical duplications of his characters. Sometimes we are unsure if the Doppelgänger is real or imagined; sometimes the Other-Self is an actual human being – a sort of evil twin – and other times it is an implied similarity in an innocent bystander, or a figure in a dream, or a character in a story-within-a-story. Evil doubles have haunted literature since ancient mythology, but Hoffmann’s dark twins left a larger impression on the Western canon than any previous writer. In stories like “The Sandman,” “The Gnome-King’s Bride,” “The Walled-Up Door,” “Nutcracker,” “The Golden Flower-Pot,” “The Vampire,” “Mines of Falun,” “The Lost Reflection,” “The Stranger Child,” and more, Hoffmann juxtaposes mortal beings with seemingly (or overtly) supernatural personifications which magnify the mortals’ innate traits and character. Among the first writers to duplicate this trope were Edgar Allan Poe (“House of Usher,” “William Wilson,” “Metzengerstein,” “Black Cat,” etc.) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (“House of Seven Gables”), while the Late Victorians, like Stevenson (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Markheim”), Conan Doyle (“A Pastoral Horror”), Stoker (“Crooken Sands”), James (“The Jolly Corner”), Wells (“The Stolen Body”), Noyes (“The Midnight Express”), and Dickens (“To Be Read at Dusk”) reveled in Hoffmann’s archetype, using the idea of a metaphysical double to point out inconsistencies in their characters’ lives.
Whether battling an evil twin or a supernatural villain, Hoffmann’s protagonists are regularly traumatized by a failing grip on reality. Usually, this is the sharp double edge of the sword with which they have decoded the hypocrisies of the mortal world: while they are now empowered to identify fakeness and to celebrate the life of the imagination, they are often rocked by vertigo when forced to maintain their precarious balance between the soul-feeding life of the Mind and the life-preserving realm of the Body. Both, Hoffmann insists, must be nurtured to maintain a healthy existence: a life lived purely in the Body is soulless and robotic (hence his frequent use of automatons as a motif; Olimpia in “The Sandman” and the clockwork castle in “Nutcracker” are examples of this fate), but one lived entirely in the imagination is violently rootless and prone to insanity (the fates of Nathanael in “The Sandman” and Elis in “The Mines of Falun” illustrate the manic self-destruction that can result from an over-indulgence of imagination and a lack of physical connection).
While Hoffmann’s protagonists rarely avoid these pitfalls or orchestrate a successful harmony between the two realms, it is not at all unheard of. In “The Gnome-King’s Bride,” a father who dresses up as a wizard and is clueless to his daughter’s sexual maturation almost loses her to an anthropomorphic (and notably phallic) carrot who attempts to lure her to his subterranean kingdom with erotic sublimations. Her human suitor is also lost in the clouds: a ludicrous poet consumed with writing self-important verses and utterly unthreatened by the gnome’s appearance. Suddenly shocked by his barely contained lust for his nubile daughter, the father wakes up from his dress-up illusions, and unites with the wannabe poet to expose the carrot-gnome’s kingdom for what it is: a fungal land of decay, rot, and darkness. Shaken from her naïve attraction, the girl returns to her suitor, whose horrible poetry ends up vanquishing the gnome, alerting him to his lack of skill and turning him from a daydreamer into a lover. The father – awakened from his delusions by his incestuous impulses – hands his daughter over to the young man and prepares for his natural role as a grounded grandfather. Hoffmann’s masterpiece, “The Golden Flower Pot” also follows the airheaded daydreamer, Anselmus, as he recognizes the reality of the hidden world, while maintaining a grip on his physical needs. Nearly drowned, driven to suicide, and threatened with madness, Anselmus ultimately chooses the supernatural world of Atlantis over the sludgy streets of Napoleonic Germany, but brings bits of his middle-class background with him: he and his salamander lover, Serpentina, live in a humble cottage, raise a bustling family, and eschew pretentions in favor of a simple life. Ensconced in the world of imagination where anything is possible, he chooses a balanced existence which successfully acknowledges the reality of the parallel universe, while accepting only the indulgences which he needs to survive and thrive. This is also found in “The Stranger Child” and “Nutcracker” where the young protagonists successfully see behind adults’ hypocritical facades, challenging the social narratives which push them towards an unimaginative life of social climbing and sycophancy. Instead, both the siblings in “Child” and Marie in “Nutcracker” embrace their new-found insight without allowing it to blow them off into self-indulgent insanity (unlike poor, doomed Nathanael), and successfully manage a balance between personal authenticity and physical reality. They learn to love their imaginations and trust their instincts, without neglecting the social and physical demands of the living world.
In total, Hoffmann penned some fifty tales which could be classified as speculative fiction: dark fantasies, weird fictions, horror stories, modern fairy tales, and science fiction. Of these I have selected thirteen to represent his best efforts, although some longer pieces (“The Devil’s Elixir”) and some repetitive stories (“Mesmerism,” “Doppelgängers”) are highly recommended but weren’t included here. Among the thirteen there developed three different classes of stories – classes which most of Hoffmann’s tales tend to fall into. The first, and the most delightfully indulgent, are the Gothic Tales. Influenced as he was by the British Gothic Novel and the Gothicism of Germany’s “Storm and Stress” writers (Goethe, Schiller, Tieck), it is hardly surprising that Hoffmann would indulge in the macabre and ghoulish. The best of these is “The Walled-Up Door” (“Das Majorat”), often published as “The Entail.” A haunted house story, it was a major influence on Poe’s “House of Usher,” and manages to remain hypnotic and chilling even today. The story follows a family curse started when the eccentric patriarch placed a legal requirement that the whole of his estate should pass to the eldest male heirs of the family. What ensues is a complex and wildly tangled history of murder, guilt, sleepwalking, scratching ghosts, wolves in the snow, adulterous attractions, and doomed love. It requires two or three good reads.
“The Vampire” (“Vampirismus”) is shockingly ghoulish even for Hoffmann: a man impulsively marries a strange young woman regardless of his hateful distaste for her grotesque, insane mother. He is willing to overlook her repulsive family, but when she turns up pregnant, Hoffmann takes pregnancy cravings to a whole new level when she is found sleepwalking to the graveyard with a healthy appetite. “A Ghost Story” – the preface to “Automatons” – is modelled off of “Monk” Lewis’ “The Monk” (wherein a girl dressed up as the baleful “Bloody Nun” has the misfortune to encounter the original), and tells of a plucky girl’s life-changing decision to pose as the infamous White Lady (a ghost associated with her family manor) and how the encounter with the real White Lady (or at least her perception of the ghost) causes her to rapidly mature, preparing her for a heartbreaking tragedy which will require the sympathy and patience of a grown woman. Lastly, “The Mines of Falun” (“Die Bergwerke zu Falun”) is a haunting ghost story about a sailor’s sudden decision to become a miner after his mother’s death. A classic momma’s boy, he initially makes the Oedipal choice to treat a local prostitute to the gifts he usually gave his mother before leaving town for the (notably vaginal) mineshafts of Falun. There he falls in love with a maternal spirit presiding over the caves and is guided by the ghost of an old miner who was said to meet the spirit before he disappeared years ago. The ending is chilling, dark, and ponderous.
The second category of story is the one which indebted L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carrol, J. K. Rowling, Hayao Miyazaki, C. S. Lewis, and Roald Dahl to him: dark fantasies and weird fairy tales. The prince of them all – as far as the court of public opinion is concerned – is “Nutcracker and the Mouse-King” (“Nußknacker und Mause-König”). Far darker, stranger, and even sadder than Tchaikovsky’s cheery libretto, it follows young Marie’s gradual induction into the hidden world of imagination, where the falsehoods and hypocrisies of the waking world are challenged. While Tchaikovsky’s Clara needs only to chuck a slipper at the rat-king before spending over half of the story indulging in Candyland, Hoffmann’s heroine endures a near-fatal injury, the sacrifice of all her toys, sweets, and fine clothes, and a steady rift between her and her family before Nutcracker can finally slay the Mouse-King and bring her to Candyland (which takes up less than 15% of the plot). A story about sincerity’s battle against corruption, the coming-of-age of a girl (leaving her sadder but wiser), and the necessary sacrifices required to be pure, it may lack Tchaikovsky’s charm and beauty, but packs a heavy philosophical wallop leaving us with much to ponder when the transformed nutcracker comes back for Marie (“or so they say”).
A similar plot is found in “The Stranger Child” (“Das Fremde Kind”): at Christmastime, two children are visited by the androgynous spirit of child who has been exiled from his supernatural kingdom by an evil fly-like entity (who, like the Mouse-King, symbolizes bureaucracy and corruption). When the children realize that their new, grotesque tutor is the very same villain in human shape, they must fight back to restore the Stranger Child to his throne and prevent Tutor Ink from claiming the mortal world as well. “The Gnome-King’s Bride” (“Die Königsbraut”), earlier described, is like “Nutcracker” in that it also depicts a girl’s maturation after being courted by a grotesque gnome, but in this case the suitor is more Mouse-King than Nutcracker, representing the corruption of bureaucracy and the perils of sycophancy. Hoffmann’s greatest literary achievement is probably also his first major work, also discussed earlier: “The Golden Flower Pot” (“Der Goldene Topf”) which follows the bumbling Student Anselmus’ elevation from social incompetent and impoverished intellectual to the self-actualized resident of Atlantis, wed to a fiery elemental.
The third class of story is difficult to describe, but typically involves Hoffmann’s darkest works: tales of devilry, deception, and Doppelgängers. These stories feature sinister father figures, seductive femme fatales, and wandering exiles shunned by society for their self-indulgent eccentricities. Chief among these, of course, is Hoffmann’s horror masterpiece: “The Sandman” (“Der Sandmann”). Adored by Freud as a parable of Oedipal rage and anxiety, it follows the virtually psychotic Nathanael as he tries to avoid a fate to which he has long resigned himself: as a victim of his father’s killer, the pseudo-mythological Sandman who has taken the human form of Coppelius, a murderous alchemist who robs people of their eyes (read: sanity, objectivity, reason – or, if Freud, read: testicles, virility). Encouraged by his Enlightenment-symbolizing girlfriend, Clara (literally: clarity), our doomed hero is instead drawn by the indulgence and emotion of Romanticism, ultimately cheating on Clara with the submissive Stepford Wife, Olimpia, who orgasmically agrees to all of his inane banter. The ending is cataclysmic, and the legacy is impossible to overstate.
“The Lost Reflection” (“Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht”) follows three men who have a similar problem: all have fallen in love with a strange woman and all are in danger of losing their grip on sanity among other things (one has lost his hat and coat, one his shadow, and one his reflection). A parable on the perils of unrequited love and romantic discontent, it implies that the woman – a beautiful seductress modelled on the by-then-divorced Julia Mark – who has unhinged the narrator is also responsible for the other two’s distress, and that she is being pimped out by her Sandman-like husband, a grotesque, impotent Italian. Inaccessible women also feature in “Automatons” (“Die Automate”) where a fortune telling machine predicts that a young man will fall in love with the stranger in the picture he carries only when it is too late, and that he may have her soul, but will never enjoy her body, and in “The Deserted House” (“Das Öde Haus”) wherein a similarly smitten youth falls in love with a pale hand resting on the window ledge of a decrepit house (obsessed, he finally breaks into the house and finds that his beloved is far from what he expected). One of the saddest and most lingering of Hoffmann’s tales is that of “Councilor Krespel” (“Rath Krespel”) and his daughter, Antonia. Krespel is a typical Hoffmann eccentric: wild, impulsive, and visionary. He tears apart beautiful violins to try to learn the secret of their beauty (ironically stifling their voices in the act). Threatened (like the father in “Gnome-King”) by his budding daughter’s sexual attraction to a young man, who loves to hear her virtuoso singing (which, like Christine Daae’s voice in “Phantom of the Opera,” has orgasmic undertones). When he learns that she suffers a heart condition which could be fatal, he forbids her from singing with her lover. We know how that usually works out, and when Krespel dreams of her wailing over a piano with a flushed face while her boyfriend fawns over each note, he is not surprised by what he finds in the morning.
Throughout his life Hoffmann was haunted by his perceived ability to look past the masks and posturing of a society which felt was as robotic and lifeless as a clockwork castle. Depression, mania, and humiliation hounded him as he struggled to maintain the harmony with the world he was forced to interface with, and the one which he considered to be genuine: in the false, automaton world he – like Anselmus and Nutcracker – was a grotesque, awkward outsider who failed to keep in step with the other robots, but he felt that in another world where the facades were stripped away and the truth was enacted, he would be elevated and celebrated as a man of character and vision. In his writings he played this out – sometimes humiliating his stand-in (like the lecherous Councilor Krespel, who loses his daughter, or the ludicrous Nathanael whose psychosis overwhelms his future happiness), and sometimes throwing it a bone (e.g., “Flower Pot,” “Gnome-King,” “Stranger Child,” “Nutcracker”) – though never without first wringing the Hoffmann-look-alike through the excruciating process of public shame and humiliation required for spiritual purification. He truly believed in the deeper meaning of materiality – that knights, ogres, ghouls, and princesses daydream in cubicles, grumble in traffic jams, and sigh in lonely apartments. If only they were willing to free themselves from their emptiness by realizing the falseness of daily life and achieving self-actualization. But this process was always perilous – insanity and suicide were dangers that Hoffmann felt were always near at hand if he indulged his imagination too much – and the rewards might not warrant the risks. His solution was to seek balance – between imagination and reality, between desire and restraint, between Self and Other, between Truth and Illusion – without either becoming a robot bound to a clockwork routine, or being blown away by the insane winds of untethered imagination.
His vision has continued with us for two centuries, manifesting in modern literature, cinema, and art. Something is “Hoffmannesque” if it flirts with the Uncanny Valley, if it barely maintains a harmony between wonder and horror, if it can neither be definitively described as realistic or dreamlike. German Expressionism is Hoffmannesque, as are the films of Tim Burton, David Lynch, and Christopher Nolan. We see Hoffmann in the weirdness of Agent Smith in “The Matrix,” the creepiness of Count Olof in “Series of Unfortunate Events,” and in the repulsive eroticism of “The Stepford Wives.” We recognize his creative moral genius in “The Twilight Zone” and feel his complex, systemic paranoia in “The X-Files.” We see his whimsy in “Harry Potter” and his horror in “Coraline,” while his psychological vertigo is present in “Inception” and his obsession in – well – “Psycho” and “Vertigo.” Although he may barely remain in the public consciousness (mostly for his role as the originator of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” – a libretto which, for all its undeniable loveliness and magic, loses the substance and poignancy of Hoffmann’s darker coming-of-age allegory), E. T. A. Hoffmann is an indelible part of modern culture and Western art. Schubert, Offenbach, and Tchaikovsky may have made tributes to him in the 19th century, but today – whether consciously or not – modern writers, directors, musicians, and artists are expanding his influence everyday. You can almost be certain that Hoffmann is near if you watch a movie or see an artwork which blend realism and fantasy in a way that catches your breath – there’s something otherworldly about it, yet it is relatable, almost as if you are sensing your own connection to a reality which you yourself cannot see. When you sense the movements behind the masks and the mind behind the machinery, when you feel the consciousness of the clockwork or experience the fear behind the familiar, you are in his uncanny domain. You are in the World of Hoffmann.
You can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Hoffmann’s best weird tales HERE