Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, December 19, 2023


 "The Spectre-Barber (A Tale of the Sixteenth Century.)" by Johann Karl August Musaus (slightly abridged, taken from Tales of the Dead, 1813, edited anonymously by Sarah Elizabeth Brown Utterson; originally published in German as "Stumme Libe," 1782; reprinted in Musaus's collection Volksmarchen der Deutschen; Viertes Theil, 1788; French translation as "L'amour muet," in Fantasmagoriana: ou recoil d'histoires, d'appiritions, de spectres, revenants, fantomes, etc., 1812, translated by Jean-Baptiste Benoit Eyries; also reprinted as "The Dumb Lover" [1826] and "Dumb Love" [1827])

Musaus (1735-1787) was known best for his Volksmarchen der Deutschen, a collection of German folk stories rewritten as satires.  The stories of Musaus were part of an early renaissance of folk tales, brought about by a rise of romanticism and Romantic nationalism, and had a strongi influence on the writings of Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and others.  Eyries' Fantasmagoriana, which collected eight stories -- this one by Musaus, two by Johann August Apel, four by "F. Laun" (Fredreich August Schulze), and one by "H. Clauren" (Johann Gottlieb Samuel Carl Huen) -- became a seminal collection in the history of the fantasy and supernatural genres, as did Utterson's Tales of the Dead, which translated five of the stories from Fantasmagoriana, along with a sixth story written anonymously by Utterson and based on a tale once told her by a friend.  Fantasmagoriana was the book which was read by Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley, Clair Claimont, and John Polidari in that famous summer of 1816 and which inspired them to each try to write a ghost story -- resulting in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Polidari's The Vampire, and Shelley's "Fragment of a Novel" -- one of the first stories in English to include a vampire.

Since this story was based on a folk tale, don't look for strict logic.  Indeed. much of the plot involves the wishful and magical thinking that is part and parcel of many children's tales, but told with a certain edge.  Frederick, the protagonist, undergoes a series of adventures and unfortunate drawbacks while circumnavigating his way to the story's happy  conclusion.

Frederick is the son and only child of Melchior, a wealthy merchant in Bremen.  Freerick is young man of personal advantages and goodness of heart.  But when Melchior dies suddenly without a will, Frederick is overwhelmed by his new riches and becomes a profligate, spending money wildly without any thought.  Soon he has burned through his father's inheritance and is forced to live in poverty in an apartment in the most remote part of the city.  Across the street from him lives an inpoverished widow and her beautiful daughter, Meta.  The widow hopes that the daughter's beauty will gain her a rich husband who will lift the two women out of poverty.  Frederick views Meta from his window and falls in love.  Meta's mother, noting this, tells Meta to stay away from the window and to avoid the young man across the street.  Frederick's only view of Meta is on the street when she returns once a day from mass.  Knowing the mother objects to Frederick's watching Meta. he stays away from the window; instead, he arranges a mirror by the window and, through this, is able to view the woman he has fallen in love with.  Hidden in his room, Fredrick begins to play romantic music on his lyre to draw the attention of Meta.  Through his music, she soon falls in love with this man she has never met.  Federick knows that, in his straightened condition, he will never be able to have the woman he wants.  He determines to gain enough wealth to win her hand and her mother's approval.

Going through his father's old records he learns that a number of persons were indebted to him and had never paid off their debts.  He leaves Bremen to journey to the city of Anvers to collect on these debts, many of which were held by persons who are now very wealthy.  Hungry, cold, and drenched by a violent storm, he is led to a castle where (he is told) the owner, the chevalier Bronkhorst, is noted for receiving guests and treating them lavishly.  But the chevalier supposedly has one little quirk:  he also flagellates his guests.  Federick is warmly welcomed by Bronkhorst and is  well fed and given a comfprtable apartment for the night.  In the morning, Bronkhorst gives him a pouch of money before sending him off -- without any flagellation.  Frederick is told not to believe everything he hears.  

He then arrives at Anvers to collect the debts owed his father, but is repulsed.  Each and every debtor denies the debt.  Some produce forged documents that claim Frederick's father actually owed them money, rather than the reverse.  Frederick is thrown into debtor's prison, where he lanquished for three months.  When he is released, all of his belongings have been taken from him and he is given twenty-four hours to leave the city and never return.

Now broke and disheartened, he wonders if he should sail to the new world and try to win his fortune there.  One evening, an rapacious innkeeper refuses him a scrap of bread or shelter, but tells him he can spend the night in an abandoned castle nearby.  The castle is rumored to be haunted, but the innkeeper, lying, tells him that there is nothing to fear; the innkeeper himself has never seen any evidence of a haunting and, since he lives nearby, would be able to go to Frederick's assistance should anything happen.  The castle is a well-appointed one, and Frederick lays down for the night.  He is awoken by a knocking on the barred door of his chamber.  The door bursts open and a large bearded figure in a red robe enters.  The figure is carrtying an open razor and a shaving kit.  It gestures Frederik to a nearby chair.  When Frederick sits, the spectre barber begins to cut his hair and to shave him.  In minute, all hair from Frederick's head is gone.  The ghostly figure then rises to leave, hesitates, and looks back quizzically at Frederick.  Frederick detects what the spectre wants and motions it to the chair he had just occupied.  Frederick the shears the hair off the figure's head, leaving it completely bald and without a beard.  It is then that the spectre finally speaks.

It thanks Frederick, who has removed a centuries-old curse.  The spectre had been the castle barber and to please the evil lord of the catle, he would shave the heads of the castle's guest completely.  The barber's master thought this was very funny, although his victims were often very upset.  One day, the barber played this trick on a visiting monk, who cursed him.  The barber would spend eternity cutting the hair of any guests at the castle until one of the guests, unbidden, would do the same for him, leaving him completely hairless.  Now that Frederick had broken the curse, the barber could now got to his eternal rest.  To thank Frederick, the apparition told him to remain until his hair had grown back, then return to Bremen.  On a certain day on the bridge over the Wessen, Frederick would meet a friend who would instruct him how to gain a fortune.

Three  months pass and Frederick is at the bridge, which is occupied only by beggars.  The long dy goes by with no friend approaching with tidings of a great fortune.  He is about to give up in disgust, when a one-legged beger approaches him...

The treasure is a hidden wealth that his own father had hidden.  Frederick uses the money to establish himself in business, growing it rapidly become a financial success, and marry Meta.  He has a long and happy life, forsaking his previous dissolute ways, and becomes a model citizen -- ending the tale with a happy fairy tale ending.  A young man of noble virtues, having been led astray by instant wealth, has now returned to the straight and narrow and has reaped his just reward.  The prodigal son meets the German marchen.

There is more to the story, of course, but the tale is essentially the embodiment of the magical thinking of childhood.  Remember, however, that the faity tales and folk tales of old were not often sweetness and light.  Behind the scenes may lay some very dark happenings.

Both Tales of the Dead and Fantasmagoriana are available to be read online, as well as many other stories by Musaus and the other German Romantics.


  1. "Behind the scenes may lay some very dark happenings." Truer words were never written! Today's "Fairy Tales" have been sanitized and Sugar-Coated. But the grim Reality remains the same...

  2. Thanks, I was not aware of Musaus but will check this out. Located the Tales of the Dead anthology at ISFdb: Musaus has a few stories listed there but his work does not seem to have been widely reprinted.