“The Spectre Bridegroom”

While the review series on H. Beam Piper continues, I’m still be doing the usual postings on weird fiction being discusssed over at LibraryThing each week.

Except this, despite the title, isn’t really a piece of weird fiction. Sometimes the nominations work out that way, and, since I’m the one who nominated this one for discussion, I have to take the blame.

Still, it’s worth a look on its own merits.

Review: “The Spectre Bridegroom”, Washington Irving, 1848.

This witty story seems to be Irving’s takeoff on the weird romantic tales of E. T. A. Hoffman.

The story is pretty simple.

It opens with a portrait of desolation: the abandoned castle of the Baron Von Landshort.

The baron doesn’t live there anymore. He’s a “dry branch of the great family of Katzenellenbogen”, and he lives in a far more affordable house in the valley. He has a lot of relatives who mooch off him at feast time and special occasions.

He has one daughter, very beautiful. In the first of many humorous asides, she’s even educated – at least enough to write her name without misspelling it. She is watched over by two aunts, “great flirts and coquettes in their younger days” but

vigilant guardians and strict censors of the conduct of their niece; for there is no duenna so rigidly prudent and inexorably decorous as a superannuated coquette.

We are told, apropos of what will happen later, that the Baron is a

marvellous and a firm believer in all those supernatural tales with which every mountain and valley in Germany abounds. The faith of his guests exceeded even his own: they listened to every tale of wonder with open eyes and mouth, and never failed to be astonished, even though repeated for the hundredth time.

A marriage is arranged for the daughter and the young Count Von Altenburg, and a wedding feast prepared for the future couple at the Baron’s home. It will be their first meeting.

Travelling with Altenburg to the wedding is his friend, a noted chivalric figure named Herman Von Starkenfaust. However, traveling through the forest of Odenwald, they are attacked by bandits, and the Count is mortally wounded.

The wedding party returns to Wurtzburg. The Count makes a request.

With his dying breath he entreated his friend to repair instantly to the castle of Landshort and explain the fatal cause of his not keeping his appointment with his bride. Though not the most ardent of lovers, he was one of the most punctilious of men, and appeared earnestly solicitous that his mission should be speedily and courteously executed.

And so Herman does. But they are so happy at Landshort to see him, and he is so entranced with the daughter, he just can’t break the festivities by delivering his message though his “singular and unseasonable gravity” is noticed at the feast.

Finally, Herman just says he just can’t hang around. He has to sleep somewhere else tonight.

Of course, the Baron is astounded. What can keep him from his marriage tomorrow? Herman replies

‘No! no!’ replied the stranger, with tenfold solemnity, ‘my engagement is with no bride—the worms! the worms expect me! I am a dead man—I have been slain by robbers—my body lies at Wurtzburg—at midnight I am to be buried—the grave is waiting for me—I must keep my appointment!’

The relatives are all upset when the Baron tells them this.

The next day the news of the Count’s death is delivered to Landshort. The daughter and everyone else is dismayed. A ghost was at their house.

Two nights later, after one of the aunts, “one of the best tellers of ghost-stories in Germany”, tells the daughter a ghost story, the spectral bridegroom shows up outside her window playing music.

The aunt is terrified. The daughter finds it endearing. The aunt will no longer sleep in the room, but the daugther will and swears the aunt to secrecy.

(Spoilers ahead)

An unspecified time later, the daughter disappears. The aunt relates the story. Only one conclusion is possible. The spectral bridegroom carried his bride off.

The mystery is soon solved when Herman announces his intent to marry the Baron’s daugther. There is one problem, though. The Starkenfausts are hereditary enemies of the Baron’s family. However, several of his old friends assure him

that every stratagem was excusable in love, and that the cavalier was entitled to especial privilege, having lately served as a trooper.

The Baron consents and the story ends thus:

The poor relations overwhelmed this new member of the family with loving-kindness; he was so gallant, so generous—and so rich. The aunts, it is true, were somewhat scandalized that their system of strict seclusion and passive obedience should be so badly exemplified, but attributed it all to their negligence in not having the windows grated. One of them was particularly mortified at having her marvellous story marred, and that the only spectre she had ever seen should turn out a counterfeit; but the niece seemed perfectly happy at having found him substantial flesh and blood. And so the story ends.

In terms of being a weird story, it’s, at best, a non-supernatural gothic, but, as you can tell from the quotes, it’s a humorous story.

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