Halloween Month begins! In addition to covering all of my usual topics I spend each October sprinkling in neglected horror movies, stories and novels.
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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185 responses to “GOTHIC HORROR: ISABELLA OF EGYPT (1812)”
is this boring or is it scary
It approaches genuinely disturbing territory when the Mandragore first comes along. After that it’s more like Dar Shadows – not scary but with monsters in it.
Gothic horror is for pussies.
So interesting! And so many odd things – golems, bareskinners, mandragores,jewish warlocks, gypsy witches, omg!
I agree! It could make a very good tv movie with some trimming and some tightening of the storyline.
Interesting story! I like these rare things you find!
I think the Bearskinner kicks butt.
I agree. In some versions a person has found just one piece of the Bearskinner’s treasure and uses it to pay the undead man to do one particular deed for them – usually a murder or such.
So awesome to see such a old and lost story.
I tried buying this based on your review but copies cost a fortune!
Thanks for the kind words!
Such odd monsters.
You said it!
Awesme! Never heard of this one.
I’m always happy to spread the word.
Love it ! A gypsy queen!
You should read the story!
Excellent! I am always looking for forgotten books from back then.
I’m always glad to spread the word.
U find the most obscure shit!
Very interesting but this book is so expensive!
I know how you feel. English translations of it are not cheap.
That bearskinner sounds awesome but he needs a scarier name.
I agree. Maybe the revenant or something.
Love that Bearskinner! I want an undead slave.
Ha! I see what you mean.
Awesome monsters! Never read about a female Golem before.
It’s definitely a story worth checking out.
That Mandragore sounds like the scariest creature in the story.
It starts out that way, yeah.
Very nice review. I’d love to read it if I could find it!
Thanks! I hope you can find one .
Greate article. Never heard of that book before.
Thank you for this review! I have got to find this book!
Thanks! I love to spread the word about these things.
Nobody ever heard of this book.
Ridiculous and untrue statement.
Gothic horror is for women only.
That’s a silly statement.
That bearskinner sounds creepy.
You should crowdfund a movie version of this.
Wow! Now that’s a wild thought!
Really super! If this book didn’t cost so much I would read it!
Goth sites would probably love to read this article!
Too boring a story.
I don’t think it’s boring.
Very interesting! If I can find this book Ill check it out!
I hope you enjoy it!
I disagree. I thought this novel was too rambling.
I understand. It depends on the individual reader.
Nobody cares about these stupid old books.
Your mother said she does.
Good day very nice web site!! I love gothic horror stories!!
Excellent review of this!
You’ve done better novels. This sounds too aimless.
I understand how you could feel that way.
He wasn’t Prince in 1812 dude.
I know. The novel was written in 1812 but the story is set much earlier.
I tried to get through this book once but it was too much of a challenge. Congratulations on making it.
Awesome monsters dude!
Hola! I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from
Kingwood Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the great work!
Only pussies like gothic horror.
What a deep, intellectual insight.
That title is all wrong for a book like this.
I agree. Even something like Queen of the Gypsies would be more appropriate.
I want an undead slave like the Bearskinner!
Ha! You’re probably not alone.
Very interesting! You piqued my curiosity about this book but it costs too much.
It’s pretty interesting, yeah!
I think Cornelius t-shirts would sell!
Ha! Maybe so!
Magnificent! They should have made this movie after Coppola’s Dracula was big in the 90s
That would have been a good time!
Was this King Charles real?
Yes and in later life he did abdicate early and go to live in a religious retreat. The author of this story was pretending that the memory of the horrific events of this story are what caused him to do so.
This would make a cool stop motion animation film.
That’s an interesting take on it.
This book costs 2 much!
I know how you feel.
Never heard of this one before and I’ve read a bunch all the way back to Castle of Otronto.
I’m glad I could introduce you to this one.
omg – never heard of these monsters before thannx!
Interesting bunch of monsters.
I agree with that!
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I like your idea that the title Queen of the Gypsies would work better.
Thanks for saying so.
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Cornelius as Chucky and the cornfield kid! You had me right there!
Ha! Glad to hear it!
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The book is a mess. You made it sound more appealing than it deserves.
Thanks. The wasted potential in the book is sad.
Interesting bunch of monsters.
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You made me want to see a cable show about this. Something like Carnival Row.
Thank you. I understand.
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