In 1812, the French geographer Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès anonymously published a collection called Fantasmagoriana, his translations of eight German supernatural tales. Some four years later, Fantasmagoriana found its way into the hands of a group of young people on holiday in a Swiss villa during an unusually cold, wet, summer. With little else to do, they read Fantasmagoriana to pass the time. Among that group were Mary Shelly and John Polidori, who in the course of that summer wrote, respectively, Frankenstein and the The Vampyre, two influential works that shaped the genres of Gothic literature, horror, and in the case of Frankenstein, science fiction as well.

Castle overlooking a river
Castle Overlooking a River, Maxime Lalanne. Source: WikiArt

In 1813, an Englishwoman named Sara Elizabeth Utterson translated five of the tales from Fantasmagoriana into English; she published these five tales, along with an additional story of her own, as Tales of the Dead. And on a cold, gloomy, foggy San Francisco August afternoon (“the coldest winter…”, as Mark Twain wrote), having discovered this little treasure, I curled up under a blanket and started to read.

Tales of the Dead is not just interesting for its influence on Frankenstein and The Vampyre; it’s enjoyable reading on its own, for fans of gothic tales and old-fashioned ghost stories. Fairy tale and folktale lovers will probably enjoy some of the stories here, too.

The first story, “The Family Portraits,” is classic Gothic. A young German count is on his way to the capital to meet up with the woman that his mother wants him to marry (though he himself isn’t so hot on the idea). He stops at an inn for the night. While exploring the village near the inn, he happens upon a chateau where a small party is in swing. The host of the party invites the count to join, and soon he finds himself among a group of people telling “true” ghost stories to pass the time. An attractive young woman tells the story of a sinister portrait; it turns out that the count has a spooky portrait story of his own. Complications and coincidences abound.

Classic gothic isn’t my preferred genre, but this was kinda fun. The story has it all: mouldering ruins, restless ghosts, family secrets, family curses — even a nun. I got a bit dizzy trying to untangle the baroque family interconnections that slowly emerge as the narrative progresses; if you feel the same way after reading it, Wikipedia has a handy diagram of the relevant family tree. But don’t peek until after you read the story!

The Fated Hour
Illustration for “The Fated Hour” from The Penny Story Teller, 1832. Source: Wikipedia

In “The Fated Hour,” Florentina tells the story of her late beloved sister, Seraphina. Seraphina was a strange, abstracted child, so abstracted that her parents thought she was intellectually impaired. Instead, Seraphina’s tutor discovers that she is incredibly brilliant. She is also utterly uninterested in the usual feminine accomplishments of the time (languages, dancing, fashion), but is passionately interested in astronomy. And astrology. She is also prone to certain supernatural experiences.

The character of Seraphina was interesting; the supernatural events of the story seemed a bit pointless. I’m sure that if I were actually to live through the experiences that Florentina recounts, it would be sad and spooky indeed, but as a narrative I found it less satisfying than other stories in the collection.

However, with “The Death’s Head” things begin to pick up again. The son of an affluent schoolmaster leaves his German home, returning some years later under the name Colzolaro, the manager of a troupe of traveling acrobats. Colzolaro’s late father disinherited him, leaving everything to a distant female relation. Colzolaro has come back to contest the will. In the meantime, Colonel Kielholm engages Colzolaro to perform a little ventriloquism trick as a dinner party entertainment, where Colzolaro pretends to converse with a skull, or death’s head.

The outcome of “The Death’s Head” is predictable, but it’s enjoyable in the way reading a fairy tale or listening to a beloved campfire ghost story is. The fact that you can guess what will happen is part of the story’s charm.

Death it is i who makes you serious let us embrace each other plate 20 1896
Death: It is I who makes you serious; let us embrace each other, Odilon Redon (1896). Source: WikiArt

“The Death Bride” was my favorite piece in the anthology. It starts with the framing story of a mysterious “Italian” marquis summering in an unnamed resort town. The marquis is popular for his entertaining and allegedly true, though rather improbable, stories. One sultry evening he diverts a bored group of dinner-party goers with a tale (and a parallel tale within that tale) of infidelity, betrayal and the Death-Bride!

I really enjoyed this one. The marquis gives his audience (and us) the setup for a classic love tragedy, along with a haunted house, doppelgangers, and details of what has the feel of a genuine folklore personage (of the ghostly seductress type). The figure of the Italian marquis is intriguing on his own, and he seems to have some interesting skills, and maybe even powers. I wouldn’t have minded more stories about this mysterious man.

“The Storm” was not from the original Fantasmagoriana, but was written by Utterson as an allegedly true incident that was recounted to her by “a female friend of very deserved literary celebrity.” It’s really only a fragment of a story; one could argue that this reinforces the claim that the anecdote really happened, since real life rarely ties everything up neatly. But as a narrative, its lack of a resolution or even a hint of an explanation is unsatisfying. I thought it was the weakest piece in the anthology.

The Spectre Barber
Engraving for “The Spectre Barber” by John Fischer and Allen Robert Branston, 1823. Source: Wikipedia

The last story, “The Spectre-Barber,” is delightful. The son of a wealthy merchant squanders all his inheritance and ends up living in poverty. He falls in love with the beautiful spinner Meta who lives across the street, and sets out on a journey to make his fortune so that he can come back and marry her.

“The Spectre-Barber” feels a lot like a fairy tale, about a poor but honest young man on a quest. He wins his fortune and his true love through his frankness, kind heart and good actions. And a little supernatural help. The original title of this tale was something like “Silent Love” (“Stumme Leibe” in German; “L’Amour Muet” in French), because Francis and Meta must carry on their courtship without words (through Francis’s luteplaying, and meanful stares at church), so that Meta’s disapproving mother doesn’t find out. Utterson cut out a lot of the purely romance-related scenes (and much of the original author’s satirical commentary), leaving the passages about the eponymous ghost barber as a larger part of the remaining narrative. There is a translation of the original story here. I think I prefer the abridged version.

You can find Tales of the Dead online at the Internet Archive or at Wikisource. I’ve gotten a bit curious about the other stories from Fantasmagoriana that Utterson omitted, and there is now a full translation of all eight stories, edited by A. J. Day. Day’s edition of course omits “The Storm,” which is no big loss, and supposedly retains the abridged version of “The Spectre-Barber,” which is fine with me.

However you choose to read it, Tales of the Dead/Fantasmagoriana is worth checking out if you like the Gothic or ghost stories, or if you’d like to read what Mary Shelley read before writing her masterpiece. I especially recommend “The Death Bride” and “The Spectre-Barber;” “The Family Portraits” is a fun ride as well.

Enjoy!


Featured Image: Winter by Caspar David Friedrich (1807-1808). Source: WikiArt

2 thoughts on “Tales of the Dead

  1. These tales sound fascinating. I read this somewhat carefully, though — I’d like to get the book and read them myself, so I skimmed the synopses to avoid spoilers. Looking forward to it, so thanks!

    1. I enjoyed Tales of The Dead, and I ordered A.J. Day’s full translation of Fantasmagoriana with the additional stories, which I’m looking forward to reading when it arrives. Hope you enjoy them as well!

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