Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, November 14, 2023



"The Family Portraits" by Johann August Apel  (supposedly first published in 1805, although no record of this has been found; first known appearance in Cicaden [German] as "Die Bilder der Arnen," 1810; included in Fantasmagoriana:  ou recueil d'histoire, d'apparitions, de spectres. revenants, fantomes, etc. [French]. edited by Jean-Baptiste Benoit Eyries, 1812, as by A. Apel; earliest known English translation (by Sarah  Elizabeth Utterson) in her uncredited anthology Tales of the Dead, 1813. as "The Family Portraits," no author given; the story has also been published (uncredited) as "A Ghost Story," in The Stanley Tales:  Original and Select (Volume 5), edited by Ambrose Marten, 1826. and (anonymously) as "The Accursed Portrait," in More Great Tales of Horror, edited by "Marjorie Bowen," 1935; more recently it has been reprinted (either anonymously or as by Johann Auguast Apel) in Tales of the Dead:  Ghost Stories of the Villa Diodati, edited by Terry Hale (1992), Fantasmagoriana:  (Tales of the Dead), edited by A. J. Day (2005), Mary Shelley Horror Stories, edited by Laura Bulbeck (2018), and Ghost Stories:  Classic Tales of Horror and Suspense, edited by Leslie S. Klinger & Lisa Morton (2019); "Die Bilder de Ahnen" can be translated as "The Paintings of the Ancestors")

Eyries' anonymously-edited Fantasmagoriana was the volume which inspired Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Polidari, and Claire Clarmont to try thier repsective hands at writing ghost stories during their 1816 sojourn at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland.  Polidoris "The Vampire" and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein went on to shape the Gothic horror genre; Utterson's transl;ation in Tales of the Dead was a specific influence on Mary Shelley.  The story's inclusion in two of the earliest and most important anthologies of German romanticism -- the Eyries and the Utterson -- have cemented "The Family Portriats" place in literary history.

Apel (1771-1816) was a short story writer, playwritght, librettist, and jurist.  His best known story, "Der Freischultz" (or "The Fatal Huntsman") drew on a folktale bout a marksman who made a deal with the devil for seven bullets that never missed; the first six would be aimed by the marksman and the seventh by the devil himself; it was the basis of a popular 1821 opera, Der Freischultz.  Apel's repitation lies in four short story collections:   Cicaden (1810-1811), Gespensterbuch (with Freidrich Laun, 1810-1815), Wunderbuch (in two volumes, with Laun, 1815-1816), and Zeitlosen (1817).  All four are of interest to anyone curious about the links between folklore, German romanticism, and the development of both modern fantasy and Gothic literature.

"The Famly Portraits" is really a simple tale, no more than an anecdote.  It's the Fall of 1737, and Colonel D____  is visting his friend Mr. N____ at his estate in the north of England.  There are many people staying at the house, and, since Colonel D____ happened to arrive late, he was assigned a newly opened bed chamber, one that had been closed for years.  Prior to retiring, the guests amused themselves by the warm fire, telling ghosts stories:  "the harmless, drowsy, and good-natured recreation of retailing wonderful narratives, in which, if any ill is spoken, it is generally against such as are well able to bear it, namely, the enemy of mankind, and persons who, having committed atrocious crimes, are supposed after death to haunt the same spots to which their deeds have attached dismal recollections."  These stories were beginning to have an effect.  "The rustling of withered leaves, casually stirred by the wind, os always a melancholy sound, and on this occasion lent its aid to the superstitious impressions which were gaining force by each successive recital of prodigies."  But when one member of the family began to tell of a ceertain famkjily tradition, he was cut short by Mr.  N____, who evidently did not want that particular tale told.

Soon the party broke up and Colonel D____ was led to his chambers -- a rather cold and desolate room.  Soon the Colonel was half asleep and the ashes of his fire were dyhing down, when a woman dressed i clothing of an older age entered his room and moved toward his bed.  As her head moved closer to his, he noted her appearance "where some of the worst passions of the living were blended with the cadaverous appearance of the dead."  He awoke the next morning, not knowing what happened to tha apparition nor how or when he had fallen asleep.   He decided not to stay any longer at his friend's house.  When questioned by Mr. N____, the Colonel did not relate his experience; rather, he made up another excuse.  Before leaving, Mr. N____ gave his friend a brief tour of the home.  When they entered the portrait gallery, the Colonel, staring at one picture, said, "May I never leave this spot, if that is not she."   The woman in the portrait was reputed to haunt the room where Colonel D____ had spent the night...the room where she had died long ago in a tale of murder and incest.

That's it.  Fairly weak tea and an overly familiar story for the modern reader.  The reaction to the tale in the early 19th century was a bit more sensational, however, as it followed the popular, chilling novels The Monk, The Castle of Otranto, and The Mysteries of Udolpho.  

"The Family Portraits," despite its familiarity, is still worth a read. 


  1. Refinements (and independently-struck-upon variations) will come, but it is interesting to read certain variations, particularly, as you note, when the now-obscure variattion migh've been widely influential, sparking better work by others. It is also notable how infrequently Clairmont's presence at and participation in the horror-story-writing salon is cited. Polidori having an eventual bestseller being his bad taste for Butting In, after all.

  2. That does sound like a good story, Jerry, even though I don't usually like stories about ghosts and hauntings.