22. The Sandman
This is day Twenty-two of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.
When I turned to today’s story, I glanced at the name and the author and it meant nothing to me. I don’t even remember how I chose this story. I decided to do no research and simply dive into the thing blind.
I don’t know what I expected… but I didn’t expect this. From the archaic language and style I realized that it was a classic story, written a long time ago. But man, that bugger was strange. It was an odd bird even by modern standards.
There are two themes going on at the same time, tightly interwoven. The first is a standard science-fiction meme – the idea of a mad scientist making the perfect woman. The second, more subtle and horrifying, has to do with childhood fears echoing down the halls of time, affecting a person’s entire life… it has to do with evil, with the mystery of a secretive father, and with the theft of a child’s eyes.
So I finished and did some research on the author. The story was older than I realized, E.T.A. Hoffman lived and wrote in the early 19th century – this story about a mechanical person is way before its time. I should have recognized the name and would have if I had thought about it. He is famous for several reasons. Three of his stories (including this one) were adapted by Offenbach into the well-known opera Tales of Hoffmann. Another one of his stories was a very odd and disturbing yarn about a young girl and her enchanted toys doing battle with an army of rodents. This was cleaned up a bit by Alexandre Dumas, père. Tchaikovsky used the watered-down version as the basis of a famous ballet – maybe the most famous of all. The Hoffmann story was called, of course, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
Hoffmann was the master of several forms of art – in addition to his writing – fiction and non-fiction – he wrote some very influential music and could even draw a line or two.
He was so influential in his time – more people have seen the works derived from his ideas than read the originals. Freud wrote a famous essay – The Uncanny – based upon today’s short story.
The theme of the automaton “ideal woman” created by science is seen again and again, from Fritz Lange’s Metropolis to Weird Science. Blade Runner is especially descended from The Sandman – think of the importance of the eyes.
There is some really odd qualities to the story. Pay attention to the parts that simply don’t make any sense. For example, in the story of Nathaniel’s childhood terror – what do you make about the statement where The Sandman, “seized me so roughly that my joints cracked, and screwed off my hands and feet, afterwards putting them back again, one after the other.” What is up with the telescope? What is its terrible power?
Now I’m going to have to read it again.
It occurred to him, however, in the end to make his gloomy foreboding, that Coppelius would destroy his happiness, the subject of a poem. He represented himself and Clara as united by true love, but occasionally threatened by a black hand, which appeared to dart into their lives, to snatch away some new joy just as it was born. Finally, as they were standing at the altar, the hideous Coppelius appeared and touched Clara’s lovely eyes. They flashed into Nathaniel’s heart, like bleeding sparks, scorching and burning, as Coppelius caught him, and flung him into a flaming, fiery circle, which flew round with the swiftness of a storm, carrying him along with it, amid its roaring. The roar is like that of the hurricane, when it fiercely lashes the foaming waves, which rise up, like black giants with white heads, for the furious combat. But through the wild tumult he hears Clara’s voice: ‘Can’t you see me then? Coppelius has deceived you. Those, indeed, were not my eyes which so burned in your breast – they were glowing drops of your own heart’s blood. I have my eyes still – only look at them!’ Nathaniel reflects: ‘That is Clara, and I am hers for ever!’ Then it seems to him as though this thought has forcibly entered the fiery circle, which stands still, while the noise dully ceases in the dark abyss. Nathaniel looks into Clara’s eyes, but it is death that looks kindly upon him from her eyes.
—-The Sandman, E.T.A. Hoffmann