Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “The Adventure of the German Student”

The second installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic (a blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition). “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” explores further Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is not the only Washington Irving story that deals in decapitation. There is another, much more horrific tale in which a beheaded revenant plays a central role: “The Adventure of the German Student” (from Irving’s 1824 book Tales of a Traveller).

The piece is one of the interlocking “Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman” that comprise the book’s first part. Laid up by a winter storm at the family mansion of their host (an old bachelor Baronet named Sir John), the members of a hunting party pass the evening by trading ghost stories. “The Adventure of the German Student” is the fourth story shared, by “an old gentleman one side of whose face was no match for the other. The eyelid drooped and hung down like an unhinged window shutter. Indeed, the whole side of his head was dilapidated, and seemed like the wing of a house shut up and haunted. I’ll warrant [says the nervous gentleman] that side was well stuffed with ghost stories.” The old gentleman with the “haunted head” points out that the previous tales (which included one of his own, “The Adventure of My Uncle”) that evening “had rather a burlesque tendency,” but promises that this next offering “is of a very grave and singular nature.” And then proceeds to deliver one harrowing narrative.

His tale is steeped in Gothic themes and atmosphere. The title character, an intellectual over-reacher who “had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students,” brings to mind Victor Frankenstein (just as Shelley’s modern Prometheus descends into graverobbing to procure the materials for his workshop of filthy creation, Irving’s German student haunts “the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner,  a g[h]oul, feeding in the charnel house of decayed literature.”). He also anticipates Poe: similar to Roderick Usher, the German student suffers from a “mental malady” and is convinced “that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition.”

Walking the streets of Paris one terribly tempestuous night during “the height of the reign of terror,” the German student spots the “horrible engine”–the guillotine–and a female figure slumped at the foot of the scaffold. She is soaking wet, drenched in woe, and dressed in all black (the “broad, black band around her neck, clasped by diamonds” suggests a person of wealth/station deposed by the Revolution). The German student immediately takes pity on her, and is astonished to discover that her face is an exact match of the “transcendent beauty” that has been appearing in his dreams. He takes the woman back to his apartment, where he is “so fascinated by her charms, there seemed to be such a spell upon his thoughts and senses, that he could not tear himself from her presence.” Defying convention and common sense, he promptly proposes an informal betrothal: “I pledge myself to you for ever.” But the next morning, the German student finds his bride “lying with her head hanging over the bed, and one arm thrown over it.” Attempting to rouse her, he realizes she is a “pallid and ghastly” corpse. Frantic, the German student “alarm[s] the house,” and when the summoned police officer arrives on the scene, he wants to know what this woman’s body is doing there, because “she was guillotined yesterday!”  He proves his claim by undoing the figure’s black collar, which causes her head to fall away from her body and roll onto the floor.

As if such macabre development weren’t horrid enough, the German student quickly grasps its dark implication: “The fiend! The fiend has gained possession of me!” he shrieks. “I am lost for ever!” He is inconsolable, “possessed with the frightful belief that an evil spirit had reanimated the dead body to ensnare him. He went distracted,” the narrative abruptly concludes, “and died in a madhouse.” A grim and sinister tale to be sure, yet one that then attempts to rebound from its recounted horrors. Asked about the veracity of his story, the old gentleman with the haunted head replies, “A fact not to be doubted. I had it from the best authority. The student told it to me himself. I saw him in a madhouse at Paris.” In one stroke, the gentleman with the haunted head comically undercuts his own reliability as a narrator at tale’s end (what was he doing at the madhouse–just visiting, or sharing a room?). Still, this frame (which rarely appears when “The Adventure of the German Student” is anthologized) does not mitigate the unnerving quality of the preceding tale, the most shocking (and seriously Gothic) one Irving ever wrote.


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