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Frankenstein and Fantasmagoriana, Story 3: La Tête de mort

The third story in Fantasmagoriana is a personal favourite. While the influence of ‘La Tête de Mort’ on Shelley’s Frankenstein is minimal at best, there are several intertextual tidbits related to this story that are quite intriguing. Let’s explore the origins of the story first.

Provenance Paths and Variants

Interestingly, ‘La Tête de Mort’ is the first story in Fantasmagoriana translated from the main German source: Gespensterbuch. The story closes the first volume of Fantasmagoriana and is the third story in the second volume of Gespensterbuch and the one-volumed Tales of the Dead. The provenance path is:

Der Todtenkopf’ (1811) by Friedrich Schulze in Gespensterbuch
‘La Tête de Mort’ (1812) by Eyriès in Fantasmagoriana
The Death’s Head’ (1813) by Utterson in Tales of the Dead


Schulze’s original story numbers 35 pages; Eyriès’s French translation 37, and; Utterson’s English version is 26 pages in length.

Schulze-BildFriedrich Schulze (1770–1849; pseud. Friedrich Laun; English biography; German biography), was a prolific writer. The focal point of his “countless novels and short stories are the family conflicts of the elevated middle class and lower aristocracy” (see Killy, DBE, 269).   His writing also featured ghosts and legends. As noted in the plot summary below, his ‘Todenkopf’ / ‘La Tête de Mort’ regales of a family conflict where a middle-class son is haunted by his father’s ghost.

In the English translation, Utterson again adds an epigraph:

             ———‘What guilt
Can equal violations of the dead?
The dead how sacred!’———
Young’s Night Thoughts.

Death's Head-Epigraph

As with the Shakespearean epigraph to ‘The Family Portraits,’ Utterson frames the narrative for her readers within the context of a popular English work.   Thematically, it foreshadows the main action in Schulze’s story of exhuming the skull of the dead.


Edward_Young_Night-Thoughts_1743This epigraph is taken from ‘Night 3’ in The Complaint, and the Consolation; or, Night Thoughts (1742–45) a long poem by Edward Young (1681 – 1765) musing about death. A popular work for decades, it went through numerous editions (1750; 1773; William Blake’s illustrated version in 1795–97; Thomas Stothard’s illustrated version in 1798; 1822); to cite but a few. Some of the illustrations for Night Thoughts—most notably the frontispiece to the 1773 edition included here—visually evoke the spirit of Fantasmagoriana.

Night Thoughts-1773-closeupPlot of the Story

The French and English translations are faithful to the themes and plot. ‘The Death’s Head’ is a ‘fun’ ghost story to read and the reader is herewith warned of spoilers!

The plot centres around two main characters: colonel Kielholm and Calzolaro. Kielholm has recently purchased a mansion and become a new landlord to his tenants. Surveying an inn on his property and observing the guests, a carriage of rope-dancers arrives. One of the troop is Calzolaro, who we learn was born in the village under the name Schurster. His father, the old schoolmaster Schurster, has recently died and left his entire fortune to a ‘distant female relation.’ Calzolaro is in town to contest his father’s will.

The falling out between the schoolmaster and his son concerns his chosen profession. Schurster senior had wished his son to follow in his footsteps as an educator. In turn, Calzolaro feels illtreated especially upon hearing how his father had spoken of him ‘with great bitterness.’ This only strengthens Calzolaro’s resolve to take action against the will.

Calzolaro offers Kielholm a demonstration of his abilities, stating specifically that ‘I reserve myself to give you, before we take our leave, some entertaining experiments in electricity and magnetism.’ Kielholm expresses an interest in ventriloquism and the two agree to stage a dialogue between an ‘actor and a death’s head’ to play a trick on the guests of the inn. All is arranged at midnight—including a real skull dug-up by the sexton!—as Calzolaro places the death’s head at the point of his sword and starts conversing with it.

Suddenly, Calzolaro falls unconscious on the floor. Upon recovery, Calzolaro asks the astonished audience if ‘his father’s shadow had disappeared,’ yet the crowd has not seen anything. Kielholm confesses to the staged jest. Calzolaro, however, insists that his dead father’s head had spoken to him and he immediately resolves to drop his law-suit over the inheritance. Doubtful if the father’s apparition truly appeared, Kielhom investigates and finds the sexton in a trance-like state of death. At the stroke of one he awakens stating that the schoolmaster Schurster has been restored to rest as it was indeed his skull that he had dug-up and that had been reinterred by his wife at one o’ clock.

Repentent, Calzolaro adopts his father’s profession and becomes a schoolmaster. The distant female-relation offers him half of the inheritance and upon meeting, they fall in love and marry. The story ends with both newlyweds hearing a blessing in the voice of Calzolaro’s late father.

Influence on Shelley’s Frankenstein

As noted in the introduction, the influence of ‘La Tête de Mort’ on Frankenstein is minimal at best. The main plot device of conversing with the dead is the only element that might have a faint relation to the novel. In preparation of staging the conversation with the death’s head, Calzolaro tells Kielholm:

You have as yet seen very trifling proofs of our abilities. But do not fancy that I am an idle spectator, and merely stand by to criticize :–I, as well as each individual of my troop, have a sphere of action; and I reserve myself to give you, before we take our leave, some entertaining experiments in electricity and magnetism.’ (Tales of the Dead, 101).

And as read by the Byron-Shelley circle in French:

«Vous n’avez vu jusqu’à présent presque aucune preuve de mon adresse; mais ne croyez pas que je me tienne constamment auprès de mes gens sans rien faire, et simplement pour critiquer. J’ai, comme eux, ma sphère d’activité; et je me réserve, avant noire départ, de vous faire passer quelques momens agréables aves des expériences d’électricité et de magnétisme.» (Fantasmagoriana, 242).

The wandering traveller knowledgeable of ‘experiments in electricity and magnetism’ echo the appearance of the natural philosopher who informs Victor Frankenstein of ‘electricity and galvanism.’

Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity. On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and, excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me. All that he said threw greatly into the shade Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, the lords of my imagination, but by some fatality the overthrow of these men disinclined me to pursue my accustomed studies.’ (Frankenstein, Chapter 2, 28).

The Byron–Shelley circle encountered numerous sources that inspired their discussions about electricity and galvanism. Clearly, the dialogue of this minor passage is part of this intellectual milieu and it is Mary Shelley’s imagination that transformed this discussion into the unique creation of life in her novel.   ‘La Tête de Mort’ is an entertaining story, but without any direct influence on Shelley’s Frankenstein.

GalvanismLastly, an interesting aside about how the story explains the inclusion of the frontispiece to volume 2 of Gespensterbuch—an illustration that was not reproduced in the French and English editions. The frontispiece details the dialogue with the death’s head. A man dressed in a toga is illustrated in conversation with a skull at the end of his sword. The passage in Tales of the Dead reads:

Calzolaro entered. A long beard had so effectually altered his youthful appearance, that though several of the spectators had previously seen him, they could not possibly recognize him under this disguise. And his Oriental costume added so much to the deceit, that his entrance had an excellent effect’ (Tales of the Dead, 108).

He then drew from its scabbard a sword which hung in his girdle, plunged it in the smoke issuing from the incense, and making frightful contortions of his face and limbs, pretended to endeavour to cleave the head, which, however, he did not touch. At last he took the head up on the point of his sword, held it up in the air before him, and advanced toward the spectators a little moved.’ (Tales of the Dead, 110–111).

While the bearded disguise of Calzolaro does not visibly resemble the clean-shaven figure illustrated in the Gespensterbuch frontispiece, thematically, the illustration captures the main scene of the story quite accurately.

Unfortunately, due to copyright reasons, this rare and interesting frontispiece is not reproduced here, but is included as Figure 9 in this article in the journal Romanticism.

The next blog will examine the fourth Fantasmagoriana story which again has ‘death’ in the title. This time it is not the ‘Death’s Head,’ but the ‘Death’s Bride’ / ‘La Morte Fiancée’ / ‘Die Todtenbraut’ that we will examine.

Stay alive until then 🙂 .


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