(cover picture courtesy of Mr. John Squires)
#7- The Sorcerer's Apprentice, by Hanns Ewers. The first of the Frank Braun trilogy. Braun hypnotizes a peasant girl into believing she has had a heavenly visitiation, the isolated village goes mad with religious frenzy, and Braun is in over his head.
-KEW's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels.
One of the most interesting and controversial writers on these lists has to be Hanns Ewers. A brilliant writer in the early 20th century, he turned to Nazism in the late 20's. But by the time Hitler and Co. had consolidated power in 1933, Ewers was proscribed and his writings were confiscated. He died in poverty during the next decade. As Karl Wagner said: "The question of who is the victim and the master was is a recurrent dilemma in Ewers' work, one which the Nazis finally solved for him."
Ewers' novels are difficult to find in English editions. I've been lucky to either find them in older libraries or reprints. This one was richly illustrated by Mahlon Blaine. His decedent style fits the book perfectly.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice is about Frank Braun, probably an alto ego for Ewers himself. He's a sophisticated German who travels the world, witnessing some of the most bizarre things imaginable. In Alraune, he's there for the birth of a woman without a soul, who causes damage to everyone around her. The Vampire finds him stuck in a hostile America during WW1. Here he decides to take a sabbatical to an isolated Italian mountain village to write. But the village is teeming with religious frenzy.
Braun arrives to this little collection of scrabble farmers to encounter a man who has recently returned from the United States after winning a big sum in a lottery. It seems "The American" had immigrated to the USA from the village of Val di Scodra thirty years previously. While in the States, he joined a Pentecostal church and became quite active in it. Now he's back in town again with plenty of money to finance his missionary activities. The villagers have abandoned the local catholic church and are now attending The American's frequent revivals. The catholic bishop for the area has decided to ignore the situation, least he create a bunch of martyrs.
Frank Braun finds this whole situation amusing. The only people who will have anything to do with him are the innkeeper, Raimondi, the local frontier guard, Aloys Drecker, Ramondi's daughter Teresa, and a hired-hand named Angelo. In the first week, Braun has his way with Teresa, whose father just adds her to the bill.
Soon, Braun is using his elementary knowledge of psychology and hypnotism to bend both Teresa and The American to his will. He conveniences The American that he's the prophet Elijah reborn. And just for kicks he then preaches to the man about the power of self-flagellation. Naturally, The American soon has his entire flock whipping themselves into a mass of blood to chase the devil out.
Very pleased with himself, Braun reflects on how he'll sell the mountain village as a holy spot for all the religious suckers in the world. It seems a good way to make money, so why shouldn't he get in on it? Besides, these rubes will do anything he says. Teresa he even adopts as a pet.
But one day Braun gets lost traveling through the mountains and doesn't return to the village for several weeks. When he shows up at the inn, he discovers Teresa is being worshiped as a saint by the villagers. She's received the stigmata and they are sure the Kingdom of Heaven is upon them. When Braun tries to excert his power over Teresa, he finds it useless. Now Teresa in in charge and she's not about to let Braun leave the village.
The book ends with a description of a blood ritual straight out of Leatherface Central. To go into it further would spoil the ending. Just let me say this is not a book to conclude on a full stomach. However, it is an excellent novel about the power of mass hysteria.