So at last I have reached the end of Horrid Mysteries, several times I’ve threatened to give up on it, but exhibiting my usual never say die spirit I have forced my way through all four volumes. And that’s not totally fair, because actually it does have an interesting plot and a number of dramatic scenes, but unfortunately these are interspersed with a little too much moralising and philosophising which tend to make the book as a whole drag.
Since the original was published in German written by Karl Grosse (self-styled Marquis of Grosse), we are dealing here with a translation; I’ve been reading the original Peter Will translation, first published by Minerva in 1797. Will was a prolific translator from German, and I have read somewhere that his translations are characterised by unwieldy grammar (probably some English-German crossbreed) and the tendency to make up words, again possible anglicising German words for which he couldn’t find a ready translation. So maybe we can lay the responsibility for some of the tedious prose at his door rather than Grosse’s.
My other problem has been in keeping track of the characters, the novel is in the form of a first person narrative, although at some times the character is speaking directly to the reader, at other times recounting his story to a third person. The style of calling characters Baron G____ or Count S_______ and travelling to places such as D_______ fail, for me at least, to help fix names, characters and places firmly in the memory during a rambling account.
At its core the novel deals with the account of the narrator who, following the supposed death of his wife sells his soul, or in some way signs up, with a secret society, on the lines of the Illuminati, who are intent in taking over the world. He goes through a form of marriage with one of their members Rosalia, promising to forsake all other women for her. Unfortunately, once he leaves the confines of their castle he finds this promise surprisingly difficult to keep, and he goes through a succession of sexual and romantic encounters.
In context we need to take into account that The Order of the Illuminati was established in Bavaria in 1776, a movement made up of freethinkers and modelled on Freemasonry. Many intellectuals and progressive politicians were members, and just as Don Carlos in Horrid Mysteries, the membership undertook vows of secrecy and pledged obedience to their superiors. The Bavarian Government banned all such secret societies in 1784, although the movement spread outwards into other European countries. Clearly these were the forerunners of any number of conspiracy theory and new world order societies that remain in popular culture today. The subject matter was fresh in readers’ minds in the 1790s and belief in such societies and suspicion about their activities may have been widespread.
The secret society, rather than concentrating on world domination appear more interest in ensuring that his vows to Rosalia are kept intact, and the relationships he forms are constantly disrupted either by the woman’s sudden demise or interfering love rivals. In this way the whole purpose of the secret society, and consequently the main premise of the novel becomes lost, and really it becomes no more than a sequence of set piece scenes of either sex, violence, horror or all three merged into one. As such, much of the imagery and ideas are fine, but one never really understands, nor maybe cares where it is leading.
Don Carlos, the narrator, finally lost my support when, after all the liaisons he had formed with his friends wives and lovers, he accuses his (third?) wife Adelheid of infidelity and has her committed to a convent. A false accusation, although events had been engineered by the secret society to make him believe it true, but whatever the case, the extreme double standards he applied between her conduct and his own were unbelievable, although I suppose when we take into account the period in which the novel was written his ideas and practices are probably much closer to fact than we may care to imagine. It perhaps becomes a salutary lesson on the differences in the behaviour that we expect now and that which was acceptable in the past.
The Critical Review of December 1797 attacked the book saying that more gross and absurd nonsense was surely never put together under the name of adventures, and pointed out that some of the incidents of The Victim of Magical Delusion (Tschink, translated by Will, 1795) are almost literally copied in Horrid Mysteries.
Horrid Mysteries may have been plucked at random from the German schauerroman school of fiction by Jane Austen for inclusion in her list of horrid novels in Northanger Abbey, maybe because the title fitted her mood, or because a copy was lying around the house while she was writing. The schauerroman genre is claimed to have been a prime inspiration for any number of the nineteenth century romantic poets. Peacock parodied Shelley in Nightmare Abbey as the character Scythrop who slept with Horrid Mysteries under his pillow, and dreamed of venerable eleutherachs and ghastly confederates holding midnight conventions in subterranean caves. I won’t be joining him in this practice. I think most would agree that Horrid Mysteries is not a classic of its genre; I came to it purely through the exercise of the project of reading the Northanger seven. I have another German novel yet to come, The Necromancer by Karl Kahlert, but beyond that I think I need to seek out some of the more recognised classics of German horror by the likes of Tieck and Hoffman.