“Nothing had a more deadly effect on Clara than tedium…”
I love Gothic literature but whether it be Frankenstein, Dracula or The Woman in Black, they all have a tendency to spend more time describing the sighs of a lovelorn woman or the agonies of a tortured mind than they do any actual action. While some of this can be accurately described as tension building, a lot of it is just waffle. The solution? Condense all the ingredients of Gothic literature into a short story…
I had never heard of German author Estimated Time of Arrival Hoffman, or E.T.A. Hoffman as he is actually known, until reading his wonderful short story The Sandman but I will be seeking out his other work with interest. The Sandman starts off as an epistolary tale which finds the tortured scholar Nathanael writing a pair of letters that describe his horrific childhood confrontation with The Sandman; an evil and grotesque master of the dark arts who Nathanael believes killed his father. The action is then picked up by the narrator who goes on to explain what happened next to Nathanael, his lover Clara and her brother Lothar.
The short story format lends itself beautifully to Gothic fiction with Hoffman’s violent and nightmarish imagery coming thick and fast. It is fascinating how many tropes from this story are still en vogue today. The unreliable narrator, the mystery of evil, an obsession with dark arts, these are all common threads that bind together the modern horror landscape. There is something eerily satisfying to know that the what scared us in the 19th century, is just as frightening today.
The Sandman is a genuinely chilling story about insanity, obsession and the nature of evil. By writing about such universal themes, Hoffman has hit on that most rare of things, a story that is truly timeless.