Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffmann

struwwelpeter-by-heinrich-hoffmann coverGenre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Dover Publications
Published: 1995
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by Louis Maistros

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Being a kid in late the nineteenth century must have been a nerve-wracking business.

Not only did tots have to deal with the unabridged version of the Brothers Grimm (believe me, we got the sanitized version) but they also had to deal with Dr. Seuss From Hell Himself, the good doctor Heinrich Hoffman and his none too cuddly stack of nursery rhymes, “Struwwelpeter” or “Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks” (changed here for the Feral House edition to “Fearful Stories and Vile Pictures to Instruct Good Little Folks”).

Thanks to the fine folks at Feral House, being a kid can be a nail biting experience once more. In fact, Feral has managed not only to resurrect but to mutate, modernize and canonize this creepy little 150 year old tome.

The accomplishment here is roughly three parts glorious and two parts dubious. Hoffman’s nursery rhymes are of definite historic importance, having made a huge impact on the works of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey to name the obvious — there is even a Broadway musical based on the stories. But the verses themselves have been eclipsed by those of Hoffman’s disciples – both Dahl and Gorey possessed a witty humor that Hoffman, a sober minded director of a mental facility by profession, probably would not have come close to grasping.

For those not familiar with Struwwelpeter, the premise is similar to that of Grimm, only instead of straight out prose the form is verse of the sing-songy nursery rhyme variety. Like Grimm, the tales are meant to point out the most common character flaws of small children and then attach ungodly awful mythological punishments to them. Suck your thumb? Here comes the scissor man to shear it clean off. Mean to your dog? Don’t forget dogs bite. Have a craving for sweets? Here comes a swarm of bees to sting your face a million times or so. Enjoy sliding down banisters? Somehow, doing so will result in your head, arms and legs being violently separated from your body. You get the idea. Be good — or else.

Ironically, what works least in the Feral House edition is also its reason for being. The book came about due to the publishers desire to print artist Sarita Vendetta’s modern day horror interpretations of Hoffman’s verses. Vendetta’s illustrations are brilliantly executed and successfully disturbing, but they lack the quaint humor and subtlety of the simple rhythms that permeate Hoffman’s verse. Comes off as a bit pretentious, sort of a David Lynch production of Marilyn Manson in Wonderland.

On the up side, there are a few points that make this volume worth having. The most obvious is the reprint of the English first edition. Although continuously in print in one form or another since its inception, a hearty round of applause is due Feral House for presenting Hoffman’s tales in their unabridged entirety, a feat that hasn’t been tried in a long while. The only other edition currently available is a severely edited version from Dover Press.

Jack Zipe’s 21 page introduction is another plus. Zipes treats us to an entertaining and well researched account of the book’s history, taking us from Hoffman’s strict upbringing and rebellious youth to the first appearance of the peculiar handwritten first version of Struwwelpeter that Hoffman gave his young son as a Christmas gift in 1844. From there, Zipes tells of the book’s evolution into an international phenomenon with all attendant praise, controversy, parodies and influences on contemporary authors. Zipes’ documentation is thorough, succinct and enlightening.

Another bonus is the inclusion of the WW2 era British parody, “Struwwelhitler” by Robert and Phillip Spence, a disturbing but hilarious portrayal of Adolph Hitler as an unruly child. Though the subject is deadly serious, it’s hard not to snicker at lines like, “Piecrust never could be brittler/ than the word of Adolph Hitler”. In the parody of Hoffman’s “The Story of Cruel Frederick” (replacing “Frederick” with “Adolph”) we find ourselves fending off cold shivers with rhymes like:

When patient Fritz in abject mood
Complained that he was short of food
“Be off!” cried Adolph, “Greedy scamp!
To Dachau Concentration Camp!”

What’s most fascinating about the Feral House edition is the questions it brings to mind and a few of the answers that it manages to supply. Most notably, Zipes manages to neutralize some of the controversy that the story has conjured over the last century and a half by arguing that this type of “threatening” fun was commonplace when it was originally released; useful to parents and actually enjoyed by the children that it supposedly victimized. This argument rings true when one considers the other popular kids’ books of the day, including Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Pinocchio and a host of other books that doled out stern warnings and dire consequences for poor behavior.

And yes, kids loved a good scare back then just as they do today. This idea isn’t hard to digest when we think of the modern preteen rush to soak up all types of morbid fun from Count Chocula cereal to blood driven computer games to the fascination with violent gangster rap exhibited by preadolescent suburban white kids.

When confronted by critics who question whether his creation reflects love for children or contempt for them, Hoffman defends himself by explaining that visually oriented horrors like Struwwelpeter tend to be the most effective way for a child to learn. From his autobiography (as quoted in the introduction by Zipes):

“The child learns simply only through the eye, and it only understands that which it sees. It does not know anything whatsoever to do with moral prescripts. The warnings — Don’t get dirty! Be careful with matches and leave them alone! Behave yourself! — are empty words for the child. But the portrayal of the dirty slob, the burning dress, the inattentive child who has an accident — these scenes explain themselves just through the looking that also brings about the teaching.”

Whatever your stance on proper parenting, the folks at Feral House have made it plain via a large warning on the back cover that this particular edition ain’t for kiddies.

Overall, the Feral House edition of Struwwelpeter provides a generally rewarding experience for the enthusiast of dark literature. Any adult looking for a little old fashioned dark fun – along with an intriguing dose of history – should find this volume quite entertaining.

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