Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, August 17, 2021


"The Death's Head" by "F. Laun" (Friedrich August Schuler) (first published in German in 1811 as 'Die Todtenkopf"; translated into French in Fantasmagoriana:  ou Recueil d'Histoire d'Apparitions, de Spectres, Revenans, Fantomes, &c.  Traduit de l'Allemand, pas un Amateur, 1812, anonymously edited by Jean Baptiste Benit Eyries; then translated from the French in Tales of the Dead, 1813, anonymously edited by Mrs. Sarah Elizabeth Brown Utterson)

Utterson's Tales of the Dead is one of the very first horror anthologies to appear in English.  It contains five of the seven stories that  in the French edition of Fantasmagoriana, which, in turn translated its stlories from the original German tales, many of which were evidently based on folklore and legend.  Utterson also included one of her own stories, supposedly based on a legend told her.

Three of the six stories in Tales of the Dead were signed by F. Laun; a fourth story included in Fantasmagoriana was omitted from the Utterson volume.  Laun was a pseudonym for Friedrich August Schuler, born in Dresden, Electorate of Saxony, Holy Roman Empire, in 1710.  He was a popular and somewhat prolific novelist.  With Johann Apel, he edited Des Gespensterbunch ("The Ghost Book," in six volumes, 1811-1816).  Thomas de Quincy translated a number of his stories, saying "the unelaborative of Laun are mines of what is called Fun."

In "The Death's Head," Colonel Keilholm has recently purchased a large manor for himself and his family.  Relaxing on a stone bench in front of the mansion, he sees two odd wagons pulling up to the nearby inn.  One wagon is crowded with both adults and children who are obviously not related and who each has a discontented look of hatred on them.  From the back of the wagon comes a good-looking young man who introduces himself as Calzolaro, the leader of this troupe of rope-dancers.  Showing Keilholm the proper passports, he asks if he could camp on the property for a few days.  It turns out that Calozaro was the son of the recently deceased schoolmaster, Schurster.  Calozaro was to be in the village for a few days while he disputed his father's will.

The old schollmaster had hope that his only child would follow him in his profession and had educated and trained him to do so.  But Colozaro had fallen into a wrong crowd and soon began to have other ideas.  When he left the village to form his troupe, his father cut off all communication.  Over the years, Colozaro had realized his mistake but was too endebted to others to kleave the troupe.   His father's will, written with rancor, left his estate to a distant female relative with only a pittance for his son.  Colozaro intended to to have the will overturned.  The local priest, knowing what distress the son had caused the father, begged Colozaro to stop any such efforts, while the young woman who had inherited the estate offered to give Colozaro half.  Colozaro refused and vowed to gain the entire estate.

In the meantime, Colozaro's troupe put on a performance for the colonel and was well recieved.  Colozaro explained that each member of the troupe had a particular expertise, in fact, his was ventriloquism.  This interested the colonel and he asked if Colozaro would be willing to put on a display for his friends.  Seeking to make a jest at his friend's expense, the colonel suggested that Colozaro have a "conversation" with a death's head.  It could be done in a darkened room at midnight with all sorts of eerie trappings.  Colozaro agreed, if the colonel could get a real human skull for the ventriloquist's prop.

The colonel had the local sexton provide a skull from the graveyard.  At the performance, Colozaro, dressed in a gaudy oriental costume, lit some incense, walked around the skull three times while muttering strange incantations, and drew a sword from his side.  The audience, the colonel's friends and neighbors, took these actions in good humor, believing it all to be humbug.  Colozaro then lifted the skull up with the point of his sword and, before speaking, fell in a panicked swoon.  Recovering, he said that the skull had transformed into an image of his father, who the castigated him for his life.  No one else saw or heard this, but Colozaro swore it had happened.

The sexton admitted that the skull was that of the old schoolteacher, and cited an old superstition that if one held a dead parent's skull at midnight, it would talk to him.   The skull was immediately sent to the sexton's house for reburial.  The sexton's wife had done this at exactly one o'clock -- the time Colozaro had recovered from his spell.

There is nothing like hlding your father's skull at swordpoint and having it talk to you.  Colozaro vowed to give up his current career and abide by his father's wishes.  He dropped all idea of a lawsuit.  The heiress met with him and again offered to split the inheritence, but Colozano refused.  However, sparks began to fly between the two and soon they were wed.  At the wedding both heard the old schoolteacher's voice blessing the two.  The colonel arranged a position for Colozano -- now reverting his name back to Schurster and all was well.

Had this been a typical tale in Weird Tales or some other pulp. it have ended with Colozano fainting at the apparition, perhaps with some sort of added nastiness.  As a child of the 18th century, however, the happy ending was somewhat de rigeuer, with the requisite morale.  You can decide which approach would be better.


  1. I don't mind a happy ending now and then.

  2. I'm with Patti on happy endings. Diane watches HALLMARK movies BECAUSE of the guaranteed HAPPY ENDINGS!