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A forgotten gem

Das Gespensterbuch
('The Book of Ghosts')

Johann August Apel and Friedrich August Laun, editors

An Introduction

By Marina Warner

A certain dark and stormy night has become legendary in literary history: the evening in 1816 in the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva when Percy and Mary Shelley, Mary's stepsister Claire Clermont and their friend Lord Byron and his doctor William Polidori decided to vie with each other in writing a supernatural story. What is far less well-known is the book that they were themselves reading to one another as the storm raged over the lake. It was Das Gespensterbuch (The Book of Ghosts) by Johann August Apel and Friedrich Laun, first published in Leipzig in five volumes between 1811 and 1815; the first volume was immediately translated into French under the title Fantasmagoriana.

The Book of Ghosts stages several stories-within-stories, and this framing device inspired the English poets to take up the challenge that was to prove so astonishingly productive. The results were Polidori's pioneering vampire romance, The Vampyre, based on a fragment Byron contributed, and, unforgettably, Mary Shelley's masterpiece of visionary science fiction, Frankenstein. Shelley and his friends were reading the French edition, which includes only some of the tales from Apel and Laun, while the English translation, Tales of the Dead, by a Mrs Utterson (1813), selected even fewer - six stories (one of which she wrote herself). Since then the stories have remained elusive, editions and translations rare*.

I first heard about Das Gespensterbuch when I went to a production of Weber's Der Freischütz, an opera based on one of the tales (see next page). The pleasures and terrors of Gothic Romanticism are wonderfully gathered here: a diabolical pact, magic bullets which never miss their mark, a doomed bride, ominous dreams and macabre revenants. Like their contemporaries the Brothers Grimm and E.T.A.Hoffmann, with their collections of fairy tales, folk tales, ballads and bizarre inventions, Apel and Laun helped to define the tenor of the Romantic movement which has so much in common with our own doom-laden era. I am sure I'm not alone in my curiosity and desire to read more.

Marina Warner is a prize-winning writer of fiction, criticism and history; her works include novels and short stories as well as studies of female myths and symbols.

The Contents

By Philip Oltermann

Johann August Apel and Friedrich Laun's Gespensterbuch would appeal equally to amateur mystics of the time, keen to experiment with the latest spells and charms, and sceptics looking for ammunition with which to send up superstitious beliefs - at least that is what they claimed in their foreword to the original 1811 edition.

Der Freischütz, the first and most famous tale in this five-volume collection, is a piece of traditional folklore. Kätchen, daughter of the forester Bertram of Lindenhaun, has fallen in love with Wilhelm, a clerk. Despite his disapproval her father agrees to their marriage on condition that Wilhelm first proves his skill as a marksman. The youth takes up the challenge, with farcical results to begin with. Instead of hares and partridges all he brings back from his expeditions into the forest are crows and cats. Then, at the end of a particularly disastrous outing he meets a crippled soldier who gives him a handful of silver bullets. Overnight Wilhelm is transformed into a master marksman, bringing down the highest-flying birds and felling the most fleet-footed deer. But success goes to his head. Unable to control his enthusiasm he realises, on the eve of his wedding day, that he has used up all his bullets.

Trekking back into the forest he stops at a crossroads where, egged on by ghosts and spectres, he casts sixty-three more bullets. On the morrow, brimming with confidence, he fires his first shot - and Kätchen sinks to the floor, with a bullet between her eyes. Behind him he hears the old soldier cackling, 'Sixty bullets will mark, three will mock'. Driven to madness, he ends his life in a lunatic asylum.

Not all the stories in this collection are cast in this lurid vein. König Pfau, for example, is a tale of royal intrigue, lost relatives and evil princesses, with some wonderful, positively Alice-in-Wonderland-type characters in supporting roles. Das Ideal brings us the story of Prinz Herckerling, whose beloved has been cast into stone by a wicked fairy. But Apel and Laun had a good sense of humour. No sooner has Herckerling freed the girl from her spell than he discovers that she is, in fact, nothing but a right royal pain and starts organising a divorce.

Nor are all the episodes set in the distant past. Der verhängnisvolle Abend, Die Braut im Sarge and Die Verwandtschaft aus der Geisterwelt tell of deceased relatives coming back to haunt the living, with spooky portrait paintings, chiming clocks and sudden deaths featuring prominently. Others, like Zwei Neujahrsgeschichten or Die Bilder der Ahnen are constructed in the manner of The Canterbury Tales, with several guests at a party taking turns to tell their own stories of encounters with the living dead - until mysterious events start taking place at the party itself.

Philip Oltermann is a freelance writer and journalist.