The Sandman by E. T. A. Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The antiquated language and over-wrought prose on offer here will likely turn off some readers. I don’t necessarily prefer this sort of writing, and I don’t care to read it terribly often (despite my enchantment with classic horror and speculative fiction). However, part of me enjoys these elements at the same time as finding them hard to tolerate when I am not in the mood for them. Rather a contradiction, but there you have it. There’s something about the way this taste of antiquity takes me back in history, so that I can experience life as those who lived during these times experienced it.
Nathanael is a broken man. The horrific events of his past have destroyed him in the most fundamental of ways. He is not free to be a happy, joy-filled man, content with the love of a good woman and the friendships of those around him. He is haunted by the dark memories and the malevolent figure of Coppelius, who murdered his father. This figure became intertwined in the imaginings of a childhood dark fable about the Sandman, who will punish bad children who don’t go to bed in a timely fashion.
Years later, the memory of that diabolical man taints everything, even his relationship with Clara, his beloved. Nathanael goes back to University and starts falling in love with Olimpia, the daughter of his physics professor. She is literally the perfect woman: an exquisitely correct danger, a pianist without flaw, and beautifully mannered. She listens carefully to everything he says, not dismissing him as Clara does when he goes off on a melancholy bent. He adores and is obsessed with her, even though his friends and acquaintances find her repellent in her lack of animation. Unfortunately, his beloved is not as she seems.
The Sandman is a study in psychological horror. Like many good horror stories, this one is laced with ambiguity. Is the malevolent figure continuing to haunt Nathanael, or has he lost his sanity, stricken by hallucinations and mental malaise; his mind broken by those terrifying events in his childhood? I wasn’t quite sure because there was evidence to suggest that it was not completely a figment of Nathanael’s imagination.
The Sandman is an important short story because it is one of the first works of fiction to include an artificial human, the precursor to the robot of later fiction and scientific reality today. I have wanted to read this story for a while, and I enjoyed it more than not. Despite the author’s penchant for using five words when one would suffice, and the somewhat disjointed narrative structure, I found myself becoming very enthralled as I read this story. Mr. Hoffman shows a vivid imagination, and his prose caused me to become involved in the story to a level in which I was quite worried about how the story would conclude. Although this won’t be to all tastes, I recommend that admirers of classic fantasy and horrors read this one at least one, because it does have something of merit to offer to the literary world.
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