‘The Hearts of Kings’ by Hanns Heinz Ewers

So who is Hanns Heinz Ewers? I had certainly never heard of him until a few years ago and, reading about his life, he sounds as though he was quite a complex character.

Hanns Heinz Ewers (3 November 1871 – 12 June 1943) was, and still is, a controversial figure and until relatively recently his work has been extremely difficult to find (so that possibly the reason I’d not previously heard of him!).

The controversy is not necessarily related to his writings, which due to their content could be seen as controversial, but largely due to his association with the Nazi party. Apparently he was attracted by it’s nationalism but disagreed with it’s antisemitism. His differences of opinion with element of the party line, combined with his homosexuality and other ‘issues’, got him banned from the Nazi Party at one point, although he managed to successfully petition to be re-accepted!

Obviously, some people find it difficult to separate a writer from the written word and I understand why they it might be difficult to read his work knowing about his affiliations. That, of course, is a matter of opinion. Personally, if the work is of a high enough standard and does not preach or promote extreme political or racial points of view without challenging them, then I have no problem with reading it. ‘The Hearts of Kings’ is a case in point – it is extreme in terms of it’s subject matter, but not extremist in terms of ideology.

His most famous work is a novel called ‘Alraune‘, which is essentially a re-working of the Frankenstein story. It concerns a woman without morals, born of an unholy union, who some critics of the horror genre have called the ultimate Femme Fatale. It has been filmed a couple of times, most recently in a 1952 German version. Interestingly Ewers wrote the screenplay to 1913 film called ‘The Student of Prague‘ (partly based on ‘Faust’ and partly on Poe’s short story ‘William Wilson’). It was hugely popular on it’s release, but it is extremely difficult to find a decent print of now, which is a shame as I’d love to see it. It has been recognised as the first German art film and a significant influence on the Expressionist films that came out of Weimar cinema during the silent era (probably the most famous example being the astounding ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari‘)

Published in 1922, ‘The Hearts of Kings’ fits perfectly with post first world war Germany and the decadence which came to define the Weimar Republic. It is a very short story (a mere 44 pages) and is suffused with a decadent, almost voluptuous atmosphere, far from the more visceral nature of modern horror – and all the better for it! Essentially it is about a crazed artist who invites the Prince Royal Ferdinand Philippe d’Orléans to view and buy a series of paintings about his ancestors. When he visit the artist he discovers his family’s horrific legacy.

I do not want to give too much of the story away (well it is a very short story), but suffice to say, if you like the works of Edgar Allan Poe, then this would definitely be your sort of thing. Ewers has, by the way, been described as the German Poe (he also published a critical essay on Poe in 1916).

The copy I have of ‘The Hearts of Kings’ is a limited edition book published by ‘The Ajna Offensive‘ and is available through their website in the US (or from the UK based ‘Side Real Press‘, being the sole distributor in Europe).

It is quite expensive for such a short work, but there are a number of reasons why it is worth getting. Not only is it a cloth-bound limited edition hardback publication, it is also a rare taste of the rare talent that was Hanns Heinz Ewers. In terms of a monetary investment (as opposed to a literary, cultural or aesthetic one) it is interesting to note that copies of the book are already available on Abebooks for nearly four times their initial price, even though it has not yet sold out at the publishers! To add to the quality of the publication, replete with marbled end-papers, the original illustrations by Stefan Eggeler have been lovingly reproduced in all their gruesome detail. Here’s some information about them from the ‘Side Real Press’ site and some examples below:-

Originally published as a limited edition in 1922 as ‘Die Herzen der Könige’ this macabre tale by Ewers (newly translated by Markus Wolff) was complimented by the equally disturbing and wonderful etchings of Stefan Eggeler (1894-1969).  Both were created by artists at the height of their powers. Further information on both Ewers and Eggeler can be found HERE and HERE.
      The original edition (now quite rare) was printed on very poor paper and much trouble has been taken (in collaboration with the Eggeler estate) to render the tonalities of the illustrations accurately.

Having just looked at the Side Real Press website I found that Hanns Heinz Ewers ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice‘ (first published in 1910) is currently at the printers and will be available for sale later this year. This book was Ewers first novel and the first of three about a character called Frank Braun (a thinly veiled Ewers). The second novel, published in 1911, was the aforementioned ‘Alraune‘, which has already been published by Side Real Press and demands significant amounts of money on the second hand sites (I wish I’d known about it when it came out in 2010). By the way they also published a collection of his short stories (in 2009) which also commands high prices (if you can find it!).

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