Doubleday 2002 (1982)
Exactly four decades ago this year  as a student teacher I took part in a college production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when I sang in the chorus and took a minor role as Prince Ottokar. First performed in 1821 this was a landmark opera sung in German, adapting native folksongs — the famous ‘Huntsmen’s Song’ has affinities with the traditional English tune ‘Strawberry Fair’, which may even have been influenced by Weber’s tune — and featuring supernatural Gothic horror.
The Gothic horror tradition was also purloined by Mary Shelley when she first composed Frankenstein while sojourning near Geneva in 1816, though the novel wasn’t published until 1818. One of the crucial scenes takes place on a glacier near Mont Blanc — coincidentally, we were holidaying one summer in Chamonix when our son was reading Frankenstein as a set text for school, within sight of the very same Mer de Glace glacier where Viktor Frankenstein is confronted by his monster.
These personal memories came flooding back when reading this early piece of fiction by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman.
Many of the elements of Der Freischütz reappear, but with the action of the novel set in the same year as Shelley’s composition and in the same region where she wrote and set much of her story I have no doubt that Frankenstein is also an influence, though unacknowledged. Originally written to be performed as a school play, Count Karlstein‘s original subtitle The Ride of the Demon Huntsman includes not just allusions to the Wild Hunt (to point up its supernatural credentials) but also features broad slapstick humour, cliffhangers and a cast of pantomime heroes, villains and extras to bear witness to its melodrama origins; all are familiar aspects of the many school musicals I too have been involved in over the years as a Head of Music.
And so to the story. It is October, the lead-up to that most witching time of year. Only this is not about Hallowe’en but the eve of All Souls Day, the day after All Saints. The evil Count of the title has made a pact with Zamiel (Samiel in German, after Samael the angel of death in Jewish tradition); this is the same Zamiel who is the Black Huntsman in Weber’s opera.
It’s the usual Faustian pact — one’s soul in return for power and good fortune in this world. But the contract runs out at midnight on November 1st 1816 and it’s curtains for the Count unless he can find one or more substitutes. At hand are his two nieces from England, Lucy and Charlotte, who like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey are (at the tender ages of twelve and ten respectively) obsessed with horror stories and forever imagining themselves as Gothic heroines. Will these two damsels in distress escape their real-life fate on that dread night, when Zamiel comes to redeem his claim at a hunting lodge?
Another theme that runs through the story is that of the freischütz, literally a “freeshooter” in German. In folklore this is a marksman with magic bullets, traditionally made of silver, which unerringly hit their marks — all bar one which is at the devil’s command. Johann August Apel (who also died in this fateful year of 1816) published his version as ‘Die Jägerbraut’, which appeared as the first tale in Volume I of Gespensterbuch, ‘The Book of Ghosts’. Der Freischütz was based on ‘Die Jägerbraut’ (‘The Huntsman’s Betrothed’) just as Count Karlstein was to be inspired by the opera, but Pullman adapts this tragic trope and, this being Switzerland, also explicitly borrows elements from the William Tell legend.
For young readers the rollercoaster ride of Pullman’s tale and the clear delineation of virtuous characters will be the main attractions, but there is further recompense for adults. The story is presented in 18th/19th-century fashion as ‘Narratives by Various Hands’, so that we can enjoy different perspectives on the action, though the bulk of it is told by the resourceful servant girl Hildi Kelmar. Diana Bryan’s silhouette caricatures of the characters also add a sense of period, while the humorous made-up names — Cadaverezzi, Rolipolio, Snitsch and Snivelwurst, for example — give the novel a sense of place without it taking itself too seriously. And who can resist a story offering adventures set in an old castle in an Alpine village, surrounded by wild landscapes with mountains and glaciers?
Repost of review first posted 2nd October 2013; Pullman’s second title in his The Book of Dust series, The Secret Commonwealth, is due out in a couple of months.