I found this surprisingly–but delightfully–blood-thirsty tale at the Internet Archive, in the Christmas 1909 issue of a magazine called The Scrap Book. Of course, I dug in, hoping for some good winter tales. And “Spukenswald” is fun! It’s a Grand Guignol romp that’s got all the fixings: a haunted castle, a magic talisman, a mysterious lady, a young man on a quest, wizards, revenants, robbers, even cannibals! But it’s also not terribly wintry, so I decided to share it it now, rather than waiting until December.
Although The Scrap Book presents the story as an anonymous “Ghost Story Translated from the German,” it’s actually an American-authored pastiche/spoof of the German gothic literature so popular in the early 19th century. Plus, it has some interesting connections to that great author of American gothic, Edgar Allan Poe.
“Spukenswald,” subtitled “A tale from the German of Reinhalt von Schwartzschreiber” originally appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine and American Monthly Review, Volume 4 (May 1839), with the by-line “By L. A. Wilmer, Phila[delphia].” Now, doesn’t “Reinhalt von Schwartzschreiber” just smell like a made-up name? According to Google Translate, Schwartzschreiber means something like black letter or black scribe, which seems too on-point to be real. I think it’s a safe assumption that Wilmer is the author, not translator, of this gory little tale.
Lambert Alexander Wilmer was a friend and colleague of Edgar Allan Poe, one who supported Poe in his early career, and defended Poe’s reputation after his tragic death. The Gentleman’s Magazine and American Monthly Review, also known as Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (after its founder and first editor, W.E. Burton), is primarily known today because Edgar Allan Poe edited the magazine from 1839-1840. Poe joined the staff in May of 1839, though he had been contributing to the magazine since January of that year.
It’s not clear to me whether Poe or Burton selected “Spukenswald” for Gentleman’s Magazine, since it appeared while Poe was on staff, but before he was officially announced as editor (in June). But the story does have some of the satiric voice and pointed commentary that is present in much of Poe’s fiction — “Hop-Frog” and “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” come to mind. So I can imagine that it would have appealed to Poe’s sensibilities. And there are other connections between Wilmer, Poe, and German gothic as well.
As literary editor of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter (yes, that’s how it’s spelled), Wilmer may have seen an early version of Poe’s “Metzengerstein” (“A Tale in Imitation of the German”), first published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, January 1832; and again in the Southern Literary Messenger in January 1836, when Poe was editor. Wilmer also wrote a send-up of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, called “The Sorrows of Skwerter,” which appeared in a magazine called Atkinson’s Casket, October 1838. All of which shows that Wilmer and Poe had German literature on their radar–or in their crosshairs.
“Metzengerstein” reads to me like a pastiche; I haven’t read “Skwerter,” but it clearly must be a parody. “Spukenswald” I would put somewhere in between: an affectionate spoof, let’s say. Either way, it’s a fun read–I picture the reanimated skeletons at Spukenswald Castle as Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation. But you can judge for yourself:
This is a transcription of the original version from Gentleman’s Magazine; the version in The Scrap Book is shortened, and the last paragraph omitted, ending the story too abruptly.
If you are an enthusiast for the work of Edgar Allan Poe, or if you enjoy the translations of the German gothic and supernatural tales that I’ve been sharing on this blog and on Dark Tales Sleuth, you’ll probably get a kick out of “Spukenswald.” Check it out, and enjoy!
Bell, Richard. “In Werther’s Thrall: Suicide and the Power of Sentimental Reading in Early National America,” Early American Literature, Vol. 46, No 1, 2011, pp. 115, 120. [JSTOR link]
Campbell, Killis. “Marginalia on Longfellow, Lowell, and Poe,” Modern Language Notes, Vol. 42, No. 8, Dec. 1927, p. 518. [JSTOR link]
French, John C. “Poe and the Baltimore Saturday Visiter”, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 33, No. 5, May 1918. [JSTOR link, open access]
All images except W.A. Lambert from The Scrap Book Vol. 4 (December 1909). Source: Internet Archive