Literature in the 18th and 19th centuries was overwhelmed by Gothic and romantic tales of the strange; but even the most unusual proprietors can be hard to find in today’s market. Penguin Classics continually surprises with its releases of old, weird fiction, and its Tales of Hoffman collection presents a fascinating array of narratives and tones. Hoffmann's work ranges from melodramatic and fantastical to psychologically horrifying, but all of it exposes the reader to a strange, sometimes wondrous, always dangerous world.
Like the genre implies, most of Hoffman’s stories center around romances, either forbidden by law or impeded by an unjust villain. In “Mademoiselle de Scudery,” a woman must prove that a jeweler’s apprentice has been framed for murder so he can reunite with his love. “Doge and Dogaressa” is named for a cradle-robbing man and his bride, the latter of whom really adores an impoverished youth. “The Choosing of the Bride” is possibly the funniest of the bunch, with a playful sorcerer creating a metaphysical contest between his daughter’s suitors. Even the frightening “The Sandman” has a love story, albeit a tormented one. On the surface, these love stories are exactly what the reader would expect: innocent, wholesome, therefore guaranteed by fictional law to work out in the end. Sometimes they do. But Hoffman isn't necessarily interested in the satisfying outcome.
Beyond romance and adventure, Hoffman also infuses horror into his tales. Considering the conservative, straightforward nature of many Gothic stories, his surreal approach to the supernatural is astounding. In arguably his most famous story, “The Sandman,” a young man recalls his childhood trauma revolving around a titular demon—one that plucks out children’s eyes for nefarious purposes. The demon manifests as a real man, an evil one who kills his father and stalks the protagonist into adulthood. The story goes through several narrative stages, some frightening and some bizarre, but that central myth remains disturbing, especially because its psychological effects are so believable.
Several pieces in the collection revolve around the supernatural, even if they aren’t horrific. “The Entail” involves a moaning ghost who stalks the shadowy halls of a winter castle, while “The Mines at Falun” evokes a ghostly premonition deep in a mineshaft to forebode its character’s nightmarish fate. These evils don’t reach the bizarre height of the Sandman, but they are convincingly uncanny nonetheless. Hoffmann's natural and romantic stories are no less unsettling in their manner—full of suspense, certainly, but also enigmatic tragedy. And these tragedies are rarely cathartic in the way that would wrap them up neatly; no, Hoffman leaves his endings echoing.
While baroque and bizarre, full of melodrama as one would expect, the stories in this collection rarely end in comforting manners. “Councillor Krespel” begins like the others—a young man trying to free his love from a cruel tyrant—but it ends with the revelation that the tyrant had grave reasons for protecting the woman. The above-mentioned “The Sandman” concludes with a disturbing and glib fate for its protagonist, arguably influenced only by his deluded mind. In his way, Hoffmann appears to suggest that his surreal images and fantastical forces are simply an extension of humanity at its strangest. Sometimes strange also means lost—many of his characters can’t play the hero, no matter how much they fight.
Whether terrifying or amusing his readers, Hoffmann always works from a bizarre world, one that may have been personal. His life was infamously split in two: a lawyer by day, a satirist who eventually faced prosecution at night. Perhaps, without this schism in his world, he wouldn’t have given birth to the ones in his fiction. It may account for the withering conclusions as well, returning to his mundane world before the story can become too enchanting. There’s uncertainty in his strange endings, but a reminder as well: even fantasy worlds are bound by the mundane.