Keeping it spooky
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Keeping it spooky

The Three Dark Princes of German Horror

When a trip to the used book stores leads you to the discovery of the Gustav Meyrink, Hanns Heinz Ewers, Karl Hans Strobl.

A decrepit blue door is surrounded by a wall of used books.
Crédits to ninocare

Ok, so when this story starts, I’m in Paris, because I’m French and I live in the Parisian suburbs. So, I’m in this bookstore, right, finger taping every soft cover edition there is because I’m searching for a specific collection aptly named GORE! which have covers featuring blood, monsters and naked ladies. I’m not lying, this collection was published in the 80s-90s and has since disappeared. People wrote essay about it, too. Maybe I found one, for this particular paper we don’t care because I actually stumbled upon a collection named The Triumph of Mechanics by Karl Hans Strobl. Price: one euro. I don’t know the author but I’ve never read German horror fiction, and I’m in the horror section, right?

The summary teaches me that the book contains seven short stories. All taken from a collection that featured nine of them, originally but the editor decided to simply not publish the last two. That’s France for you. Still, according to the summary, this talks of decapitated head that would not die. Interesting. Anyway, this is some really old-fashioned marketing. Book dates back to 1979. In the foreword, I learn that the author, Strobl, lived through 1877 to 1946, that it’s sad that German horror is such widely unknown in France. And I do agree to that, publisher cites Gustav Meyrink alongside Ewers, Scheerbart, Storm, Peruz and the only one I know is Meyrink because I have two copies of the Golem but that ain’t the point.

I buy the book, get back home and put the damn thing on a shelf ’til it grows old and withers and become fluffy and I decide to actually read it.

In some odd colorful German expressionist style, a bunch of white rabbits are running toward the viewer in a distorted street
The illustration that cover the collection

Fast forwards to two weeks ago, I’ve got an appointment, an MRI, nothing to worry about, thank you all for asking. I take the book away from its protecting shelf, its layers of dust, its sedentary lifestyle. Take it to the doctor, read the last short story of the damn book because that’s how I roll, and also because it’s the one after which the collection is actually named. And yeah… This is readable, I guess. Strange stories of an American scientist confronting its toy-manufacturing parent company using rabbit robots. Huge fairy tale vibe in a way, would remind you of Grimm or Andersen but set in a modern setting, with this weird kind of cold humour you’d find in Kafka’s books, I guess.

The story is not that bad, but as is often the case reading old suspenseful short stories, there’s this weird feeling of déjà-vu, mainly because you most certainly did. Those tales may certainly have been surprising to their audience at the time but it’s like reading Walpole’s Castle of Otranto or Polidori’s The Vampyre. You will feel like you already read something similar, because those tales spawned other stories which you discovered before, what with at least fifty years separating their birth from yours.

Still, I like to share, it’s mostly the reason why I write on Medium every Fridays, and so I go online and search for the English text, so that I may share it on my new-born Twitter account. And there I find it, thing is, the text has actually a small biography on top of it.

First thing I learn is Strobl isn’t German but Austrian. Second thing I learn is that Ewers which is supposed to be some kind of role model for Strobl wrote a story named The Spider and I want to read a short story named The Spider. And then I see Strobl adopted national-socialist views…

Let me be clear here, there is nothing offensive throughout The Triumph of Mechanic but that is the sole thing I read from the guy. And I read offensive books, I read Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine whom racists always defend, in France, by saying: “Well, Céline certainly was anti-Semitic but there’s no prejudice against Jews in the books. Only in his essays, you see.” Yeah sure, the book doesn’t mention Jews, but I would challenge anyone to read the part which takes place in Africa with our modern eyes and not be irritated, — sickened? — by Céline’s depictions of black people. I’ve read Lovecraft’s racist poems, at one point I even tried to read the Turner Diaries. Hell, I’m someone who could tell you mein Kampf begins by “It has turned out fortunate for me to-day that destiny appointed
Braunau-on-the-Inn to be my birthplace.” for Hitler was Austrian and he couldn’t man up to the fact that he wasn’t born on German soil.

I know the world was racist, I know the world still is. I simply find it distressing that the foreword of 1979 French book doesn’t mention the Nazi views of its author. I mean it’s not like 30 years had passed and everybody was like: “Nazi author? Hm, yeah. That’s alright.”

Still, I learned a few things along the way. If you push hard enough, you’ll discover that Karl Hans Strobl is considered one of the three dark princes of German horror alongside, you got it, Gustav Meyrink and Hanns Heinz Ewers. See, Strobl was born in Moravia in Czech Republic and from a very young age, it appears to have been blatantly racist, engaging with Pro-German, anti-Czech activists. He appears to have been a war reporter during World War I, he even published an anthology, named Lemuria, during those dark times and later founded what is supposed to be the first magazine of supernatural short fiction Der Orchideengarten (which I can safely translate into the Garden of Orchids, even if my German has never been all that good) four years before Weird Tales. As WWII and Nazi Germany came along, he enrolled in the national-socialist party, gained the chair of head of the Vienna Nazi’s writers organisation. During 1945, the Red Army raided his villa and imprisoned him, making him repair roads and stuff. He was released one year later but died shortly thereafter.

So, there was this Ewers dude. The Spider guy? I deeply wanted to know what his story was about. An arachnid fiction written before or during World War II? Nobody’s preventing me from reading that. Alas, a quick wiki search will teach you that Hans Heinz Ewers also helped the Nazis. Okay, he didn’t go as far as say, Louis Ferdinand Céline who once denounced a doctor to the Nazi authorities so he could gain his job. Anyway, Ewers is notorious for his Frank Braun trilogy The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Elraune — I you try and read the summary of this book, I challenge you not to think of Species and Vampir, three books in which an alter-ego of himself creates a cult, creates a succubus and becomes a vampire in the last novel. He wrote in the magazine Der Eigene, which was the first gay journal in the world. Ewers travelled a lot and used this for inspiration for stories such as Blood or the Tomato Sauce, the latter being known as some kind of precursor to the splatterpunk genre. I’m going to put a link leading to Blood, the book, still for those that want to read it a few trigger warning, the eponymous novel is maybe the worst type of colonial fiction I’ve read in a while, and I may have to warn you that it’s a racist short story and sort of an apology to paedophilia and slave-possession. The White Maiden, the second short story may inform you that the crush fetish isn’t exactly a new paraphilia and well there is The Tomato Sauce which really is worth a read even if it contains animal cruelty, gore and extreme violence. For those up for any of it : CLICK HERE.

Eventually Ewers would go on to spend World War I in the United-States where he was believed to be spy and imprisoned because of it. Was it true? We still don’t know, what we do know is that he got Strobl’s Lemuria published and that he penned a biography of Horst Wessel, a Nazi-martyr whom he known during studies. Ironically, his work in horror and decadent fiction, alongside his views on homosexuality meant his books were banned by the Nazi regime, commencing by his biography of Wessel. He died in 1943.

In a way, Hanns Heinz Ewers is sort of a Emil Nolde, a decadent artist who thought his political view would lend him some influence in the Nazi power-sphere, never noticing that Hitler’s regime didn’t want to deal with that kind of art. And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? Strobl knew he had to drop the scary stories in order to get himself some favours.

You see, I’ve been meaning to write a short story about a witch for quite some time, and since I’m the kind of guy who research things deeply, I tend to amass book next to me. I knew I had read this story of people hanging themselves in a closed room in an inn, somewhere. And I shamefully admit that I thought Jean Ray was the author of the short story I read. Jean Ray, a Belgian author, having lived latter than Ewers, I assumed it was possible he could have plagiarized the Nazi’s work.

This wasn’t the case, looking back into my book. I could see that the story I thought about was l’Oeil Invisible ou l’Auberge des Trois PendusThe Invisible Eye which can be found in this online collection — and that it had been written by Erckmann-Chatrian. Erckmann-Chatrian was the pseudonym of Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian. They both lived in Meurthe, a department in the east of France, during the 1800s and are mostly famous for their depiction of the country-style daily life but also for their foray into the fantastic. Reading through their French Wikipedia page, you’ll see mentioned that Ewers plagiarized them when he wrote the Spider. I’m not sure I’ll go as far as using the word plagiarism. I mean, yeah, Ewers stole their whole premises but he made it totally anything else both by his style, using the diary first point of view and both ending do not concord. Still, it can be noted that Erckman Chatrian once wrote The Waters of Death, which also stars a spider. Anyway, both are a great reads. I once wrote a post about how inspiration and plagiarism can both be hard to dissociate. Another thing stated by Wikipedia is that Erckann-Chatrian had both problem with the censorship in France at the time, even though they were acclaimed by famous author suck as Victor Hugo or Emile Zola.

Do you know who had a few problems of censorship of his own ?

The last one of the dark princes of German Horror is Gustav Meyrink, who is notorious for having written the Golem. A sort of dream-like sequence of encounter and action which would certainly remind you of Kafka’s the Process and was first published in a serialized form through the expressionist magazine Die Weißen Blätter. Still, it may be Germany’s most famous horror masterpiece and even though The Brothers Grimm and Rabbi Leow had already written about it, it’s undeniable that Meyrink’s version is most well-known, selling as far as 200,000 in its first complete edition.

Gustav Meyrink was the bastard son born from the affair between an aristocrat and an actress. Still, his father paid for his studies, and biographs states that he hated his mother, so certain he was that she failed his first marriage and this was the reason he changed his name to Meyrink. Still, after his studies, he funded a bank, was accused of malversation and was prohibited from banking ever again, I’ve seen stated that this was all falsehood put upon him for both his defiance of the State in which he resided and his firm disapprobation of the new duelling laws — it appears Meyrink went as far as challenging an army regiment to a duel at some point.

Both his first divorce and the loss of his company led him to try and kill himself, but a letter prevented him from doing so, a tale he would later recount in a short story named The Pilot. The ex-con saw this as a sign and began research in the occult, Buddhism, Yoga and secret societies. It’s been said that Meyrink was once a Freemason, that was involved with a lot of occult group with which he never stayed very long.

In the end, Meyrink decided to write stories in German magazines which were in full bloom at the time and aside from short stories he published books such as Walpurgis Night or The Green Face, Meyrink is also notorious for having translated Dickens into German and having been one of Kafka’s model.

In 1931, his son, age 24, had a skiing accident and is left paraplegic. Saddened by this, the young man commit suicide on the 12th of July 1932. Six months later, Gustav Meyrink wakes up in his bed and take off his sheet, exposing his body to the cold wind which comes from an opened window. He was 64. Meyrink dies of this semi-suicide. On his grave is engraved: Vivo, meaning living.

Don’t forget to tune in 5 weeks to learn more about Jean Ray through an upcoming episode of FRENCH FRIGHTS. Next week, I’ll be talking about Eden Log, the best French scifi film you’ve never seen.

Also, you might be interested by the troubled history behind the Snowpiercer French comic-book which led to Bong Joon-ho’s movie and the TNT tv series or you’d prefer the tale of the Duel Project when two Japanese filmmakers challenging one another to make the best fighting movie ever filmed.

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Basile Lebret

Basile Lebret

I write about the history of artmaking, I don’t do reviews.