The summer furnaces are ablazin’. The sun is hotter than hell. Patience is waning, tempers flaring, everybody snapping. Perfect time for a yarn about a good ole family feud, don’tcha think?
Fact and fiction’s filled with them.
Let’s start with that prime example of fraternal devotion, Cain bashing in his brother, Abel’s skull in the very first chapter of the Bible and then move on to those oil magnet brethren, J.R. and Bobby Ewing, for whom the metropolis of Dallas, and even the entire state of Texas, wasn’t big enough to hold them without them fussin’ and fightin’. Sisters have their problems too, just ask Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, famous Hollywood thespian siblings who haven’t spoken a word to each other in almost forty years, or how about “Baby” Jane Hudson and her sororal devotion to her wheelchair-bound relation, Blanche, which comprised duct tape to the mouth, an occasional toss down the stairs, and lunches of rat, lettuce, and tomato on white toast sandwiches. And let’s not forget those crowned cousins, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, a political—and ancestral—rivalry that got way out of hand until poor Mary went and lost her head, completely.
Oh, well… Fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters; grandmas, grandpas, and all those aunts and uncles all squabbling over something or other. Seems that familiarity—and sometimes simply being family—sure does breed contempt. Before you know it the whole neighborhood’s going at it tooth and nail—the Montagues and the Capulets clashing over Romeo and Juliet’s severe case of puppy love in mediaeval Verona; the Atreides and the Harkonnens battling it out in outer space over some silly spice; the interrelated Carrington and Colby clans bearing international ill will in high-style in the mile-high city of Denver, Colorado; the Corleones and the Tattaglias each holding up their end of a long-held Italian vendetta; the Jets and the Sharks staging terpsichorean territorial skirmishes for the streets of Manhattan; Heathcliff waging war against the Lintons from the manor of Wuthering Heights on the misty Yorkshire moors; and the Hatfields and the McCoys coming to blows over every dang thing.
Thus it was between the famous Berlifitzing and Metzengerstein dynasties, two proud and illustrious Hungarian houses, who have been at each other’s throats for centuries. And it just so happens that these two houses’ family manses share bordering properties, so I guess we can forget about any type of good neighbor policy. All this animosity is compounded by an ancient prophecy, which states: A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.
Now the Bs are simply furious over this, since even Fate seems to be conspiring against them, favoring the Ms, and old Count Wilhelm von Berlifitzing can be seen all but foaming at the mouth astride one of his magnificent horses—those equines the only passion in his life, apart from his detestation of his next-door neighbors, of course. And during every one of his rides, Count Wilhelm is pursued, followed, and taunted at a distance by the mere presence of another horseman, the young Baron Frederick von Metzengerstein. The titled teen is the current head of the Metzengerstein line, and what a piece of goods he is!
Debauched, decadent, and depraved, the brat fritters away his time indulging himself, and becoming quite chummy with each and every one of the Seven Deadly Sins. You remember them, surely—Greed, Lust, Anger, Sloth, Pride, Envy, and Gluttony? They’re kind of like the anti-Disney Seven Dwarves—except we could probably add Dopey and Grumpy, too, to the list of Frederick’s catalogue of corruption.
Young Freddie’s hatred of old Willie explodes one day—literally. Word is brought to the Metzengersteins that the Berlifitzing stables are afire, rumor already rife that Freddie himself is the arsonist responsible. Responsible or not, Freddie’s reveling in every minute of the catastrophe, watching the conflagration from the tallest tower. Well-satisfied, Freddie muses on this fortuitous turn of events while studying the intricacies of an antique tapestry, one which depicts an enormous stallion, its rider about to strike a fatal blow on a rival fallen at the horse’s hooves (recall that prophecy written above, dear reader). Spellbound, Freddie swears he sees the needle-stitched steed move; it looks up and turns its great head, displaying is hideous teeth, the inferno kindling in its eyes.
At precisely the same moment, a massive horse, the color of flame, materializes in the courtyard below, its ferocity soothed by Frederick’s hand alone. The animal is said to be the sole survivor of the Berlifitzing fire, a blaze that consumed not only the stables and all within, but Count Wilhelm as well, who perished attempting to save his beloved thoroughbreds.
Fractious Freddie grows obsessed with his mysterious four-footed visitor. He ignores his duties, he ignores his debaucheries, all in favor of spending his time with the seemingly untamable beast, grooming it, mucking out its pen, and then saddling it up for rides out that last until the witching hours. Folks claim Freddie’s attachment “became, in the eyes of all reasonable men, a hideous and unnatural fervor. In the glare of noon—at the dead hour of night—in sickness or in health—in calm or in tempest—the young Metzengerstein seemed riveted to the saddle of that colossal horse, whose intractable audacities so well accorded with his own spirit.” The horse was, in fact, to Freddie, a living, breathing symbol of the triumph of the Metzengersteins over the Berlifitzings.
But the fickle Fates will have their way, and one stormy night, while Freddie is out upon his monstrous mount, the Metzengerstein palace catches light, the glow of the flames silhouetted against the blackened horizon. Panic ensues, the fire is too strong, uncontainable, nothing can be saved. Then Frederick appears, his charger driven on at a fantastic speed straight into the inferno. The storm subsides, all is dead calm, when there comes from the smoldering castle a burst of blinding white flame, and the ensuing smoke cloud billowing from the ruins takes the shape of—a gigantic horse.
Metzengerstein was the first tale of terror ever to be published by a young American writer named Edgar Allan Poe. It was printed in January 1832, without his name attached, in The Philadelphia Saturday Courier. Four years later, it was to be found in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger, with Poe finally given his credit due.
The story begins with an apt quote from the sixteenth-century religious reformationist, Martin Luther: Pestis eram vivus - moriens tua mors ero - My life has been a plague to you; my death will be your death
It also incorporates the subject of possible metempsychosis, the passing of the soul at death into another body either human or animal. Is Count Wilhelm von Berlifitzing’s spirit inhabiting that horrendous horse? Or is it all coincidence, and Baron Frederick von Metzengerstein meets his demise á cheval simply as a result of his own guilty conscience (reference, please, Poe’s classic The Tell-Tale Heart)?
For all of its suspenseful storyline and macabre imagery, Metzengerstein has been filmed only once. Directed by Roger Vadim, the tale is the first of three of Poe’s works in Histoires extraordinaires (aka Spirits of the Dead), a 1968 anthology that also includes shorts helmed by Louis Malle and Federico Fellini. In it, the shapely, scantily-clad Jane Fonda (then Vadim’s wife) assays the gender-bending role of Federica von Metzengerstein, who gratifies her aberrant desires in pure eye-popping pop art fashion, all the while scorning, but at the same time being attracted to, the quiet, introspective Wilhelm Berlifitzing, played by none other than Jane’s own real-life brother, Peter. A pinch of the incestuous added to Poe’s already perverse concoction?
Winston Churchill is ascribed to have said: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
Somehow I don’t think Baron Frederick von Metzengerstein would agree.
|"Metzengerstein" by Byam Shaw, 1909|