“Metzengerstein” by Edgar Allan Poe

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Time for a throwback to a classic short story by Edgar Allan Poe. “Metzengerstein” was Poe’s very first published short story. He sent it as his entry for a contest held by the Saturday Courier magazine in Philadelphia. It wasn’t chosen as the winner, but the magazine still published it a few months later. It might not be as well-read as his other stories we are more used to these days, but it still has the foundations of many of his later Gothic tales of death beyond the grave and noble families with old roots whose lives are crumbling.

The Metzengerstein and the Berlifitzings are two rival families in Hungary. They have been bitter enemies for longer than anyone can tell. Of course, the story starts off with a doomed prophecy,

“A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.”

The prose that Poe employs is in the style of its Gothic predecessors, mostly notably German tales, which inspired him to give it the often removed subtitle: A Tale In Imitation of the German. The language is of course quite adorned, but this is the feel Poe was going for.

The tale is filled with mystery, but an astute reader will see where Poe is giving a knowing wink. The final surviving Metzengerstein, upon receiving the family fortune, begins to become a grotesque character. He is possibly a villain who has killed a rival Berlifitzing, whose spirit returns in the form of a mysterious white horse (a horse, who perhaps might have only just been on a large tapestry in the Metzengerstein house). Demon horses and castles catching fire are par for the course in “Metzengerstein” (the above illustration was included in a 1909 edition).

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I think readers who are familiar with Gothic fiction and appreciate a good Poe story will enjoy this one. I read it in an edition I own with gilded page edges, which I keep close to my bed in case of a night-time Edgar Allan Poe urge (we all get them, right?). The collection features many of his lesser known works, but I proffer the idea that many of them are known, yet, are not as widely read as others are these days.

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4 comments

  1. The nighttime Edgar Allan Poe urge which is familiar to me as well! However, “Metzengerstein” is probably one of few short stories by Poe that I am not fond of. I think it is because of his yet-unpolished style. “MS. Found in a Bottle” is the one I like from this very early Poe.
    By the way, I still remember about Dale Bailey’s story you recommended. The artwork is phenomenal! I will read as soon as I find the time!

    1. It is not a favorite of mine either. I was actually going to chose a different one, but I had yet to read Metzengerstein, so I opted for something new. With that said, I thought it was an interesting story to look at when taken in to consideration with hindsight of his life and oeuvre. You can see the building blocks and also a strong hand when it comes to satirizing Gothic works.

      I hope you like the Bailey story. I’m curious to hear what you think.

      1. Except for Fall of the House of Usher, I’m not too fond of Poe’s “Arabesque” period works in general, but this was actually less florid than many of them. It also doesn’t quite feel like Poe, except a few touches, like the odd misshappen little page (an early Hop-Frog?). You can really see him working past his influences, searching for his true voice.

      2. I agree. It definitely doesn’t feel like Poe at all (except for when Metzengerstein looks at the castle’s tapestry and sees the horse–reminded me of The Fall of the House of Usher).
        I have a feeling that people reading this story in the Saturday Courier at that time would have enjoyed the poking fun at Gothic lit, even if we today think it’s a bit creaky.

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