Classics Circuit: The Devil’s Elixir by ETA Hoffmann

Okay, so, I totally MEANT to have finished volume 1 of The Devil’s Elixir by today, but…then I got distracted by some reality shows and cat videos and stuff. So instead I’m just going to talk about the first 70% of volume 1 of The Devil’s Elixir.

Initial impression of volume 1 of The Devil’s Elixir:
1. Why are all these gothic novels so long and boring?1
2. I don’t know nearly enough about monks and Catholicism and so on as I probably need to in order to understand this book.
3. Lucky thing I have this dictionary in my Kindle, then.
4. This kind of reminds me of The Club Dumas.

Let me explain number four: The Club Dumas is two things. It is a) one of my favorite books ever, and b) a story about Satan and insane people who want to meet him/get power from him/etc.2 The Devil’s Elixir, meanwhile, is about various people who are lured into drinking the Devil’s, uh…elixir, which makes them powerful and also insane. Or they’re already insane, and the elixir is just some old wine that acts like a placebo to make them THINK they’re more powerful.

Oh, and then they all try to kill each other.

Basically this is what happens in TCD, except instead of old wine/elixir they’re lured into reading a book and then doing a devil-y ceremony.

Image of author ETA Hoffmann

ETA Hoffmann

Anyway, The Devil’s Elixir is pretty cool because you don’t know entirely if the narrator is actually possessed or if he’s just nuts. Or both. And you can’t tell which is which (at least, not during the first volume of the story) because there’s contradicting information regarding the elixir. The narrator, Medardus, gets put in charge of the monastery holy relics, which he’s told are almost certainly fake. The elixir is one of those relics, and he’s told that it, unlike every other relic, is probably real. It gives off an evil aura, or something.

Then some other people come to the monastery wanting to fiddle with the relics, and they, of course, drink some of the elixir. “Oh look at this wine,” etc. Then Medardus drinks it, and his insanity (and the Devil?) comes forth.

BUT! I think he was already a little bit insane before he drank that elixir. He became a monk solely because he thought the women he “loved”3 laughed at him. That’s kind of an over-the-top response, right? Or, if not, it’s at least a hint towards how emotionally mature Medardus is.4 Even though he’s told multiple times that he shouldn’t enter the monastery unless he was actually interested in, like, doing all the things monks do and not just because a woman “scorned” him, he does it anyway.

Okay, whatever. So: he drinks the elixir, he becomes better at preaching sermons5 and he ALSO starts projecting his feelings for that woman I talked about before onto an image of a saint. He literally starts thinking that his “lost love” is a saint, is in fact the saint that’s got her own altar thing in the monastery. He then also starts thinking he himself is a saint!

This is a type of delusion, right? I’m sure there’s a word for it, although I can’t remember what it is.

Eventually he hallucinates a woman6 coming and telling him she wants to do him and he goes completely off the bend.

Stuff happens, including him leaving the monastery and killing someone (although I can’t remember if it’s the same someone who fiddled with the relics before), finding a new woman (girl, really) to obsess over and project the saint thing onto (in a REALLY CREEPY WAY), killing two more people, and then running away to do it all over again.

Cover image of The Devil's Elixir by ETA Hoffmann

I really like this cover

When I talk about all this stuff I hope it sounds really exciting. It’s sort of exciting, in the way that psychological horror can be sometimes exciting, but most of it wasn’t. The Devil’s Elixir, after the first few chapters, moves pretty quickly, but it actually cuts out a lot of the truly exciting parts. The sex is cut out, which I guess is understandable, but there’s a bit with a duel and some poison and a lot of running around, and it was left out. Probably the most exciting scene in the whole book, and it’s left out! Ugh.

So right now I’m watching Medardus insinuate himself into yet another household, where he’s probably going to kill at least three people. There’s a young woman who’s a good candidate for his next obsession, but luckily(?) the girl from the previous household is a) still alive and b) extremely vulnerable, what with her father, step-mother, and brother dead. I’m sure Medardus is going to figure out some way to try and kidnap her or something, because he’s creepy like that and was already trying to figure out a way to do it back when he lived with her.7

So! Is The Devil’s Elixir a good book? Yes, it is. Do I wish it was a bit more exciting? Yeah, but the psychological stuff is interesting, like I said before. And for all that there’s not a lot of action-type stuff, there’s a good amount of murder, insanity, and other gothic-y things to keep things entertaining. The pacing is also a got faster than what you’d find in most other gothic novels, I think.

Footnotes

  1. Although apparently TDE is really a dark romantic book. Stupid subgenres.
  2. Although actually in TCD I think the devil is in girl format, but it’s never made very clear if she actually IS the devil or just the Whore of Babylon or whatever.
  3. More like “was obsessed with, and in a creepy way.”
  4. As in, not at all.
  5. Do monks “preach?” Oh, whatever.
  6. Dressed exactly as the saint he’s obsessed with is dressed, btw.
  7. Can I just say again? The sequence where he’s with whats-her-face is some of the creepiest stuff I’ve ever read. It reads like some sort of pedophile/rapist thing, where Medardus keeps saying that she looks at him with “take me away from here” eyes and she obviously IS NOT INTERESTED in him and oh god, it’s creepy. Creepy creepy creepy.
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13 Comments

  1. I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with these Gothic novels, I have to tell you. I’m having a similar experience with The Castle of Otronto (fortunately it’s really short).

    • I just want to know why all these gothic books are so wordy and slow. Is it because of how they were being paid by the wordcount? I’m assuming that’s it, but…I don’t know.

  2. I’m disappointed, because I’d always liked the idea of Hoffman, but I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that early gothic is not for me. Thank heavens that subsequent generations of authors took similar themes to more interesting places!

    • Agreed! I mean, sometimes you need slowness to build a mood, but when it’s slow and also boring it’s just annoying to have to slog through it.

  3. Sounds like your review is better than the book itself lol. Thanks for the cliff notes

    • Aw, it’s not THAT bad of a book. I mean, yes, I skimmed some parts. But the parts I didn’t skim were pretty good! They just weren’t…fantastic beyond all belief.

  4. I didn’t care for The Devil’s Elixir myself but I did like Hoffmann’s The Sandman – very weird. Hoffmann is the guy who wrote the original Nutcracker that is so popular at Christmas time and the original is also very good.

    • I’ve never read the original Nutcracker, I think! I’d like to, though, especially since it’s getting closer to Christmas now.

  5. This novel definitely isn’t for me! I think the likes of Udolpho sound tame and more entertaining. However, I like how excited you are over it! :D

    • Oh god, Udolpho is definitely more tame but it’s also more boring! I had to quit after about 11% in because nothing was happening, haha! I guess the older I get the less patience I have for slow books, which…is kind of a shame, sometimes.

  6. It sounds crazy. I must read it.

  7. This books sounds so exciting from your review, but I’ll have to prep myself for the slower parts if I ever get to it. I think I’m actually going to have nightmares about that cover though!

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