“The Mines of Falun” by E.T.A. Hoffmann

[metacommentary on the practice of metacommentary on gimmicky spoiler warning]


Hoffmann comes much earlier than anyone else I’ve looked at so far, not just in terms of chronology but in terms of his place in the discourse of horror, or what would become the discourse of horror.  I became aware of Hoffmann as a figure to look at from the role he has inadvertently played in horror criticism; one of the key founding works for psychoanalytic criticism of horror is Freud’s essay on the uncanny or the unheimlich, which he identifies in an analysis of Hoffmann’s work, specifically the short story “The Sandman,” which follows a character’s frequent encounter with a mysterious figure named Coppelius that has haunted him.

One thing you notice right away reading “The Sandman” is how the events have a sort of dual causal logic, what Freud identified as a sort of atavistic reversion to animism, in that every event can be explained either rationally or through the logic of the supernatural.  This is true of several of the Hoffmann stories in this collection, and seems to me to be one of the key contributions of the Romantic movement to horror, along with of course the ghosts, vampires, mad scientists, castles, moody atmosphere, sympathetic setting, and about a million other details—it’s pretty clear that contemporary horror is, among other things, an outgrowth of what started with German and English Romantics like Hoffmann and Coleridge.

I see this as a very important contribution to horror because it acts as a sort of back door into suspension of disbelief.  By showing how all the supernatural events can easily be explained by modern physics, the two become causally equated, so that we could just as easily say that the rational world we live in could be explained by the supernatural.  Look at, for example, a film like Night of the Living Dead next to I Walked with a ZombieNight of the Living Dead is much more explicit in that it clearly explains to us that the dead are rising, eating the living, etc.  On the other hand, the events of I Walked with a Zombie could be explained by either an entirely secular rational account or by the belief in voodoo.  Night may be more terrifying, but Zombie has a different effect, creating an eerie sensation that the world might not be as we think it is—the sensation of the unheimlich.  Now let’s look at how Hoffmann employs this in one of his stories.


The story here is pretty simple.  We start with a crew at a festival, of which one member, Elis Fröbom, is sitting apart and being morose.  After failed attempts by the crew to arouse his attention, an old miner appears and talks to him.  It turns out Elis’ whole motivation was built around making money for his family, the last of whom has now died off, leaving him in depression.  The miner replies by telling him of the glories of mining, describing rapturously the underground world of wealth and stone.  He dreams of a crystal world within which there is a Queen that he promises himself to, and although feeling silly about it the next day he decides to follow the miner’s directions, and head off to the mines of Falun.  When Elis first arrives, the mine he had so rapturously pictured instead seems horrible:

“In the abyss there were stones—slag, or burned-out ores—lying around in a wild jumble, and sulfurous gases rose steadily from the depths as if a hellish brew were boiling, the vapors of which were poisoning all of nature’s green delights.”

Horrified, he runs away and decides that after a night he will make the journey back.  But stopping off at a marketplace, he is impressed by the communal spirit of the miners, and when they jovially question him, he announces his intention to become a miner.  Soon he has befriended the chief official, Pehrson Dahlsjö, and become enamored with his daughter, Ulla Dahlsjö.  With the memory of the old miner guiding him, he becomes very successful.

His life seems to be headed in a great direction, but one day while mining, seemingly alone, the old miner shows up and mocks him for his love for Ulla and his lack of commitment to the underground world before scrambling away.  When Elis tells Pehrson about this, Pehrson explains that Elis has encountered Torbern, a legendary miner from more than a hundred years ago, who was devoted to the earth and disappeared in a cave-in caused by the greedy over-extension of other miners.

Soon Ulla agrees to marry him, but Torbern continues to appear, quarreling with Elis over his infidelity to the Queen underground.  Elis sways between the influences of Ulla and Torbern, but on the day he is to marry Ulla he decides to quickly go underground looking for “the cherry red sparkling almadine … on which is inscribed the chart of our life.  You must receive it from me as a wedding present.”  But while everyone is preparing for the wedding and Elis is down in the mine, a cave-in destroys the excavation.  Ulla and Pehrson are crushed.

Fifty years later, miners working at the site uncover the corpse of a youth in sulfuric acid deep underground.  Just then an old woman—Ulla—arrives and explains that his is Elis, and she heard fifty years ago from Torbern that she would once again see him.  She hugs his body, which crumbles to dust just as she expires.

What I love about this story is how it plays with the sense of a firm reality and the magical.  Nothing happens that couldn’t be attributed to a combination of folklore and delusions, yet the underground kingdom of the Queen has a real presence and influence on the story, so that everything has a kind of double existence.  Elis’ struggle between the secular and fantastic is portrayed as a struggle between two loves, a theme that pops up more than once in Hoffmann’s work.  Hoffmann also does a nice job of keeping the story from focusing too much on the ultimately self-indulgent Elis, so that for me the real tragedy of the story is in what happens to Ulla.  There’s also something genuinely chilling in the cold need of Torbern, who won’t be satisfied until Elis is dead.

Hoffmann sits right on the border of the horror genre.  In his range of fiction, from proto-detective story to gothic ghost story to modern fairy tale, he reminds me very much of Poe, lacking only that extra touch of the macabre and grotesque that makes most identify Poe as the starting point for the horror genre.  Obviously, Hoffmann’s tales can’t really be judged by the same standards as contemporary horror like Brite and Suzuki, suffering occasionally from unnecessary verbosity and often from those early Romantic heroes that feel too much and think too little, but they were still fun to read.  I give “The Mines of Falun” an 8/10 and a general recommendation on Hoffmann as an author.  I’m working with the collection of his tales from Continuum’s German Library collection with those gorgeous red covers that are ridiculously photosensitive, and the translation was pretty good.  My only complaint is how few stories there were—it worked well for my one-a-day program, but in the long run I would have preferred a more comprehensive collection as this one had only seven tales.

As previously mentioned, I’ll be taking the weekend off to catch up on reading, but I’ll be back Monday with Joe R. Lansdale.  Based on what I’ve read so far of his collection, I think it’s safe to say it will sure be interesting.

All quotations from E.T.A. Hoffmann: Tales, Copyright The Continuum Publishing Company 1982.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.


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