THE DEVIL’S ELIXIRS – By E.T.A. Hoffmann. Halloween month continues at Balladeer’s Blog with a look at another neglected work of Gothic Horror. As I’ve mentioned in the past, horror stories from back then that feature supernatural menaces OTHER than vampires and ghosts hold a special appeal to me. The Devil’s Elixirs features a doppleganger.
Regular readers of Balladeer’s Blog will remember I’m a big fan of Hoffmann’s macabre stories and have even reviewed Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffmann, based on various short stories of the Austrian writer. The central character of the novel is Medardus, a Capuchin monk.
Medardus is unable to resist temptation and samples the Devil’s Elixirs, which the monks keep from the world at large because of the evil they bring out in people. The elixirs fill Medardus with overpowering lust and he directs those feelings toward Aurelie, a woman from an aristocratic family who has been stashed in the monastery by her family to keep her from her lover, a Count.
Unknown to either the monk or Aurelie she and Medardus are secretly half-siblings (you know how the convoluted Soap Opera elements of Gothic horror go). At any rate the Count disguises himself as a monk and infiltrates the monastery to rescue his beloved Aurelie. Medardus, resentful at this obstacle to his own lust for the princess, causes the Count to fall to his death from a high perch at the monastery while climbing up to the room Aurelie is secreted in.
With the princess’ lover dead her family have no more reason to keep her imprisoned at the monastery and she is freed. The still-tormented Medardus leaves the monastery himself to try to pursue a secular life. The Count wants revenge on his killer and begins haunting Medardus’ life as his doppleganger, the proverbial “evil twin” back before it was such an overused plot device.
To Medardus the doppleganger always looks like his real identity – the Count, but to everyone else he looks like Medardus. This enables the doppleganger to commit foul deeds that Medardus gets blamed for and thus sabotage the former monk’s life wherever he goes and whatever new identity he assumes.
Eventually the one-time monk, passing himself off as a Polish nobleman, woos and wins Aurelie, who does not recognize him after all this time. The doppleganger sabotages their wedding, forcing Medardus to flee. For a time the roles of the one-time monk and his doppleganger are reversed, with Medardus now pursuing his doppleganger as it roams the countryside committing further misdeeds with Medardus’ face.
* SPOILER *
Toward the story’s end Medardus returns to the monastery and resumes his life as a monk. Aurelie is also there and has decided to become a nun. Just before she takes her vows the doppleganger stabs her to death, then disappears forever. Naturally Medardus is imprisoned for the killing and is awaiting execution while writing out his story and confessing to his role in the Count’s death which until then was believed to be an accident. He dies of a fit of insane laughter, realizing no one would believe such a tale.
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