Isabella of Egypt is a very obscure 1812 Gothic Horror novella by Ludwig Achim Von Arnim. Under the more evocative title Alraune and the Golem it was to be filmed as a silent movie in 1919 but unfortunately it was never completed or is one of the countless silent films that have not survived to the present day (sources vary).
The story is set in the 16th Century and features the real-life Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but in his teen years, right before he assumed the throne first of Spain and later of the H.R. Empire. The novella is not a horror classic per se, but is very eerie and features an odd variety of horrific supernatural figures in Monster Rally fashion. The story takes a variety of twists and turns too detailed for a quick synopsis but here is a look at the main characters:
ISABELLA – The main character, a teenage Gypsy girl whose father was Gypsy royalty and after he is hanged she becomes Queen of all the Gypsies. (This novel adheres to the version of Gypsy mythology which states that they were descendants of the ancient Egyptians, hence the title Isabella of Egypt even though the story takes place in various German locations.)
Isabella’s beauty spellbinds various men including the youthful Charles. The monstrous Mandragore lusts after her as well and plans to force her into an unholy union.
BRAKA – An elderly Gypsy witch who simultaneously serves, advises and manipulates Isabella. She uses our beautiful heroine as part of a Gypsy plot to convince non-Gypsies that a mansion is haunted in order to keep the estate ownerless. This allows the Gypsies to continue using the estate as their camp and also leads to the young Charles encountering Isabella when she is masquerading as the mansion’s ghost.
Braka wants Isabella to use her romantic hold over Charles to make him officially recognize the Gypsy people when he succeeds to the throne. To travel in the same circles as Charles will require huge amounts of money that Isabella doesn’t have, leading to the creation of …
THE MANDRAGORE – Or the “Alraune” as some titles call it. Isabella’s creation of this figure – later named Cornelius – is the most effective portion of the tale. A Mandrake has taken root under the gallows where Isabella’s father was hanged because his tears fell there (the tears – or worse – of a hanged man are needed to cause Mandrakes to grow).
The depiction of the stormy night when our heroine sacrifices her late father’s dog in order to give life to the Mandragore is followed by the even eerier segments in which the Mandrake root grows into said Mandragore. In its early stages of development it’s like a monstrous, vile infant and must have seriously disturbed readers back then.
The creature has an extra pair of eyes in the back of its head, casually threatens to kill Isabella and is generally a combination of Chucky and the little boy who wishes people into the cornfield in that Twilight Zone episode. The Mandragore’s supernatural talent for locating buried treasure gives it a certain leverage over Isabella and Braka that makes them endure the dangers of keeping it alive. After all, without its ability to locate buried wealth they’d have no way of staying on the outskirts of Charles’ social circles. Slowly Cornelius takes over their lives.
If the rest of the story was as powerful as the chapter introducing the deadly and demanding Cornelius this story might have been a genuine classic and been much better known. Unfortunately Von Arnim squanders the air of tension by failing to properly follow up on it. English language translations of the tale do it no favors, either, by choosing wording that makes Cornelius almost comical instead of frightening. French translations better emphasize the horrific aspects of the character.
THE BEARSKINNER (Barenhauter) – An often neglected type of supernatural figure from European lore. Traditions regarding these beings vary but I’ll try to keep it brief: The Bearskinner is a mortal man (often a former soldier) who has grown to hate humanity. When approached by Satan he accepts a deal to live a period of his life (sometimes 10 years, sometimes longer) like an animal neither cleaning nor shaving himself and wearing nothing but a bearskin.
If the Bearskinner is able to endure the entire time period without breaking the agreement Satan pays him with incredible handsomeness and a self-replenishing fortune in jewels and coins. In some versions – including the one adhered to in this book – the Devil throws in a holy man’s beautiful daughter as a bride.
The bride in this book is the daughter of no less than the Pope, who, in keeping with Von Arnim’s Protestant view of Popes is depicted as a power-crazed lecher with numerous concubines.
In Bearskinner tales the bride’s sisters are always moved to commit suicide from jealousy over their sister gaining such a wealthy and handsome – when shaved – husband. The Devil gets the souls of the girls who take their own life.
The Bearskinner (I’ll refer to him by the German term Barenhauter from here on) also pays for his deal with Satan. After he dies anyone who comes into possession of all or part of his remaining wealth (remember it replenishes itself while the Barenhauter is alive so there is no way to spend all of it) has control over the Barenhauter. They can summon him from the grave in order to use him as an undead, unkillable slave/assassin in a perfectly preserved body incapable of feeling pain.
The Barenhauter is a thrall to his infernal treasure and the person enslaving him has him completely under their control as long as they pay him a certain amount of the treasure per day. It’s a bit similar to the authentic but seldom-used lore about Genies – whoever owns the bottle or chest or lamp containing the Genie’s mortal remains (be they ashes or bones or their melted-down bodily fats in the case of the lamp) is the Genie’s “master.”
At any rate this particular Barenhauter’s fortune was one of the buried treasures that the Mandragore named Cornelius unearthed for Isabella, Braka and their retinue. The Barenhauter then rose from his grave and arrived at their door to do their bidding as he’s been damned to do. Cornelius and the Barenhauter are often at each other’s throats, but the living dead man becomes a platonic friend to Isabella.
THE GOLEM – The Golem is, of course, the clay humanoid of Jewish legend, in this story’s case a female humanoid. When Charles mistakenly believes he has lost Isabella to the Mandragore forever during part of the usual Gothic Horror soap opera antics a Jewish sorceror is paid by Charles to steal Isabella’s reflection and use it to construct an anatomically correct clay duplicate of the beautiful Gypsy girl.
Charles takes the resulting female Golem as his lover but naturally it is no substitute for the real-life Isabella and is really just a greedy gold-digger after Charles’ wealth and future title. (That part of the Golem’s personality is attributed to its status as a Jewish creation, reflecting Von Arnim’s prejudice.) The young aristocrat finds himself increasingly creeped out by the knowledge of exactly what he’s sleeping with every night and he begins to fear for his life. Unknown to Charles, Isabella plots to destroy the Golem and renew her love affair with him.
CHARLES V – This historical figure is depicted as an impetuous teenager who falls madly in love with Isabella. Von Arnim presents Charles as being forever haunted by his love for the Gypsy Queen and by the horrors of his involvement with her, the She-Golem, the Mandragore and the Bearskinner. The narrative pretends the horrific events of this novella weighed so heavily on Charles’ mind and soul that they were what led to his (real-life) premature abdication and flight to a religious retreat for the rest of his life.
I don’t want to spoil the entire story for anyone. Suffice it to say it’s not a classic but it must have seemed mind-blowingly macabre to readers in 1812. The overall story and the variety of supernatural figures make this novella worth checking out for lovers of Gothic Horror.
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