Welcome one and all to the macabre, the strange, the horrifying, the murderous. In the days leading up to Halloween I will be featuring one new Penny Dreadful a night to share and… dissect.
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Tonight’s troubling tale is “The Adventure of The German Student” by Washington Irving. Playing upon the “student descending into madness” aesthetic, Irving sets this piece in the dark and bloody revolution-riddled streets of Paris.
A young German man is transplanted to France by his friends, worried he was keeping himself too secluded. Unfortunately for the young man, that’s all his friends seem to have done.
Though his friends move him to Paris because they were afraid for his sanity, they appear to abandon him shortly after. The student (named Gottfried Wolfgang) holes himself up even harder after his move to France because, of course, there is a freaking revolution going on.
So, Wolfgang passes his days in terrifying, Victorian-style solitary confinement; his friends, after forcing him to leave his home, have completely disappeared; and Paris is in perpetual metaphysical darkness.
Wolfgang starts having dreams. And this is the part I can’t understand– when you reach the end of this post you’ll realize you’ve heard a version of this story before. It’s a common one. But the dreams (in the versions I’ve heard) are never part of the tale.
He dreams about an intensely beautiful girl with raven black hair and a necklace across her fair skin. But he doesn’t just dream about her once. He is haunted by this girl he never met. Irving describes it as, “last[ing] so long that it became one of those fixed ideas which haunt the minds of melancholy men, and are at times mistaken for madness.”
On his walk home “late one stormy night” (because of course it’s late and stormy) Wolfgang passes a guillotine and it makes him physically ill. Guillotines were constantly in use during the revolution and always covered in fresh blood. But sitting by the guillotine is a girl.
Yeah, it’s the girl Wolfgang dreamed about. She looks sad and tells Wolfgang that she has no one left in the world. Wolfgang confides that he is also friendless because again, his friends are assholes. Seriously. Where did they even go? Irving never mentions these mythical friends again.
In the end, Wolfgang offers his apartment to the girl, (m’lady) because the revolution has left her homeless.
Here’s the kicker: I don’t know if Irving was ever a “youth” but Wolfgang immediately confesses his love to the raven-haired girl and proposes to her essentially through sex. In Irving’s words, “Among other rubbish of the old times, the forms and ceremonies of marriage began to be considered superfluous bonds for honorable minds…. Wolfgang was too much of a theorist not to be tainted by the liberal doctrines of the day.”
So these two younglings look at each other, and without saying a word they know that sex = marriage and that they should get married right now.
Because that’s how we whippersnappers do it. Hot-cha.
The morning after Wolfgang’s creepy escapades, he leaves his “bride” (m’lady) to sleep so that he can find a bigger apartment for the two of them. You know, after having been married through the sacred and holy bonds of “the nasty.”
Upon return, Wolfgang discovers that the girl is dead.
He flies into a frantic state and rouses the entire apartment building. When the police arrive, they realize they already know the girl.
She was guillotined the day before.
The officer pulls off her necklace and her whole head falls off.
Heard that one before?
The version I had always been told just involved a creepy little girl with a scarf around her neck. There was no French Revolution or guillotine or creepy dreams. Irving’s version signals that there is something darker going on than the dismemberment of a girl.
Why did Wolfgang have prophetic dreams? That was never explained. The story ends with Wolfgang babbling about some evil spirit haunting him, and that it probably re-animated the corpse to torture him. That’s not explained either.
I learned in my eco-criticism class that the scariest thing to human beings is “the unknown.” In the less-scary versions of this story, we’re just dealing with the headless ghost-girl, but in Irving’s version, there’s war and dark forces, dreams that resemble reality and reality that resembles dreams. In other words, you don’t know quite what you’re dealing with– even if you think you do.
The moral of this story is: if you squint hard enough, this version contains necrophilia.
Happy Halloween, everybody!
Stay tuned tomorrow night for “Sawney Beane: The Man Eater,” but for now I want to read about the scariest stories you have ever read.