The work of German author Hanns Heinz Ewers depicts the grotesque, erotic, and philosophical in elegant language, often dosed with poisonous wit. Best known for his novel Alraune, the decadent and blackly humorous tale of an artificially birthed femme fatale, Ewers’s Romanticism would lead him to join the most deadly cult of German exceptionalism, the Nazi Party. This three-year-long affiliation would ultimately find the freethinking bisexual artist ousted from the group in 1934 with virtually all of his works banned, but this did not occur until after he had penned the propagandistic novel Riders in the German Night and had written a screenplay and biography of Nazi martyr Horst Wessel. As a result of these political beliefs, many scholars of the fantastique have been hesitant to champion Ewers’s horror writing. He is a complex figure; the same man who joined the Nazi Party also had a fascination with occult theory that led him to develop the concept of a “cultural nation” that transcended geographical boundaries by spiritually uniting creative thinkers. Recent years have seen a reassessment of Ewers’s writing in the English-speaking world. Through independent publishing services, translators have made the author’s short stories, novels, and essays available to adventurous readers. One of the most jewel-like of these new editions is Ajna Bound’s 2015 hardbound volume of Ewers’s 1922 short story The Hearts of Kings, published alongside the etchings by Stefan Eggeler that accompanied the text in its original printing.
The Hearts of Kings was first published nearly a decade after the height of Ewers’s popularity. Ewers had traveled to the United States following the outbreak of World War I in order to drum up pro-German sentiment in the then-neutral nation. His propaganda work landed him in prison, the experience forever altering his idea of the cultural nation to reflect a more traditionally nationalist perspective. Upon his return to Germany in 1920, the writer found himself the object of suspicion and contempt for not having faced active duty during the war. His years-long absence from Germany’s literary world combined with this hostile reception made his comeback an uphill battle that found the writer no less dedicated to spinning scandalous yarns.
Straddling the genres of horror, decadence, and political satire, The Hearts of Kings distills many of Ewers’s ideas into a slim but potent volume. Set in 1841, the story details the encounter between an heir to the French royal line and a mysterious painter who claims to have made paintings of great personal value to the nobleman’s family. Over the course of the tale, Ewers describes the ghastly visions created by the painter, each of which is a gruesome allegorical representation of a French king, created in pigments ground from the ashes of that king’s heart. At first horrified by the nightmarish images, the nobleman ultimately comes to a very different conclusion regarding the artist’s work.
The story shares characteristics with the German Schauerroman, that country’s form of gothic fiction: a setting in the not-so-very-distant past, the theme of debauched nobility, and grisly imagery. Its tone, however, is far more acidic than the blood-gushing starts often favored in the German gothic. This is a decidedly post-Poe work, with a twist that isn’t so much shocking as it is ironic, in the mode of the conte cruel. The simultaneous contempt for and mythologizing of the royal bloodline reflects Ewers’s post-WWI outlook. The book was issued in Germany’s tumultuous Weimar Republic, a period that saw extremes of artistic expression, wild economic fluctuations, and political radicalism on both the left and right. That the climactic painting in The Heart of Kings depicts the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution can hardly be considered an accident. It is only through the work of an isolated, philosophical, and acerbic artist that the nobleman is able to understand his legacy; it’s not a huge leap to connect the painter at the center of this story to Ewers himself.
Ajna Bound’s decision to reprint The Hearts of Kings in this format is in part motivated by Stefan Eggeler’s stunning etchings. Created at the time of the work’s initial publication, these six misty grayscale images depict the paintings described within the text. It’s a clever choice to present the material this way, and the soft-focus atmospherics of Eggeler’s images depict revolting details while leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. Eggeler would go on to illustrate a second volume of Ewers’s stories in 1923, the collaboration between the elegant toxicity of the author’s prose and the artist’s suggestive ghoulishness proving to be one worth revisiting.
The book features a new translation by Markus Wolff, known to readers of this site for his work with musical entity Waldteufel as well as his contributions to the esoteric journal Tyr. Wolff captures the wonderful expressiveness of Ewers’s writing, vividly conveying its nasty imagery and cutting humor.
While resources like Archive.org and Project Gutenberg are invaluable for seekers of vintage media, there is an undeniable joy that comes from holding a thoughtfully crafted book. The cloth-bound and gilt covers of this edition of The Hearts of Kings honors its vintage, as do the marbled endpapers and deckled-edge pages. It’s a thoughtfully crafted presentation that will please collectors: a decadent book, decadently presented.
Article by: Tenebrous Kate
Publisher: Ajna Bound (United States)
Publication Date: March 2016
File Under: Fiction / Short Story / Horror