Filler content with mandrake root

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #20:-

ALRAUNE (Side Real Press hardback, 372pp, £30) by Hanns Heinz Ewers was originally published in 1911 and is regarded by many as a genre classic. Although it’s not usually my thing, I’ll take a moment to say how splendid this book is, an objet d’art in its own right, quite aside from any literary merit. There’s a distinctive embossed cover, while interiorly we get reproductions of Mahlon Blaine’s exquisite line drawings from the 1929 edition and an appendix of art nouveau style illustrations produced by Ewers’ wife for the 1911 edition. By way of supporting material there are introductions by Mark Samuels, who discusses Ewers’ life and career, and Tyler Davis, while translator Joe E. Bandel writes about the difficulties he faced in rendering the text into English. It’s obvious a lot of love and effort has gone into producing this volume and making it special, the wet dream of every book aficionado, and huge kudos to Side Real for going to such efforts in a climate where most limited editions have little going for them beyond a signed plate and a slipcase.

The initial premise for the story is rooted in folklore, the myth that semen spilled by hung men was responsible for the human shaped mandrake (alraune) root. The rapacious Professor ten Brinken is encouraged by nephew Frank Braun to assay an experiment along similar lines, and so a prostitute is impregnated with the sperm of an executed man. Kept prisoner during her pregnancy, the woman is then sent off to an asylum while ten Brinken raises the child as his own, and Alraune is everything that he desired. She drives men and women to distraction, is a heartless manipulator and her presence brings luck down on the house, so that everything ten Brinken touches turns to gold. But the woman is totally amoral, with no sense of gratitude, and so the Professor too is allowed to fall under her spell; distracted he fails to pay attention to his business dealings, with the result that he is faced with criminal charges and ruin. Alraune is handed over into the care of Frank Braun, and the miracle is that the two fall in love, and must choose to either separate or stay together and destroy each other, so opposed are their basic natures.

There are echoes of the Frankenstein story here, and also of de Sade’s relentlessly immoral characters, with their cupidity and unquenchable lust. Evil is rooted in the human character of ten Brinken, who wreaks havoc all around him and shows no mercy, bringing to mind no one so much as the monstrous Saint-Fond from Juliette, albeit without the endless philosophising. The quintessential femme fatale, Alraune is in many ways ten Brinken’s soul mate, at least as regards the chaos and suffering she causes. Her essential self is manifested in petty seductions, the ways in which she bends others to her will and leads them on in acts of cruelty, her total disregard for the feelings of anyone other than herself, except when pretending concern will help to trap them. And yet at the same time there is the feeling that Alraune is simply manifesting her nature and cannot act otherwise, unlike ten Brinken whose depredations are intentional and who therefore must be held accountable. One can conjecture that Alraune, given the circumstances of her conception, has no soul, and so is beyond human definitions of good and evil. The reader looks on, fascinated and appalled by the behaviour of these two twins of evil, and rejoicing when ten Brinken is overcome, especially as in his destruction the seeds of Alraune’s undoing are also sown, though that was far from being the Professor’s intention. Alraune has used love and now love will use her, but contrarily it leads to redemption of a kind, and the character shows nobility in sacrificing herself at the climax of this gaudy and decadent novel, one that seems every bit as fresh and relevant today as it surely did nearly a century ago when first written.

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