"Sidonia the Sorceress" and "The Amber Witch" (which is included in the second volume) are unusual examples of Victorian supernatural horror. The stories are set in the Duchy of Pomerania during the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, a time of great political and social turmoil in Northern Europe, culminating in the appallingly vicious "Thirty Years War", which also coincided with the height of the virulent mass psychosis of the Witchcraft Persecutions.
And it's witchcraft and the dire fate of those unlucky individuals who were accused of practicing it which primarily drive the plots of both these tales, although "The Amber Witch" also describes some of the terrible hardships of the Thirty Years War. Since "The Amber Witch" (which was actually Meinhold's first work in this vein) is by far the better-known of the two, I'll devote the rest of this review to "Sidonia the Sorceress", which was published nine years later, in 1847,
Meinhold employs much the same literary device here that he used in "The Amber Witch", making Sidonia's chronicler a (near) contemporary: a cleric commissioned by Bogislaw XIV, the last Duke of Pomerania, to compile a history of the witch Sidonia von Bork, whose curse supposedly doomed the ducal line. (Bogislaw and his unlucky brothers are actual historical figures.) The narrator is a fervent believer in witchcraft and Satanic powers, who never exhibits the slightest skepticism towards the fantastic events he's recording for his patron, or that Sidonia's "confession" was extracted from a demented old woman by torture. This lends an intriguing ambiguity to the narrative, when you consider the true author of this tale was a highly educated Lutheran pastor, whose audience was firmly rooted in the age of Reason.
"Sidonia the Sorceress" does in fact read like an early 17th Century chronicle -- which is both its strength and its weakness. Episodic and at times a bit rambling, it's an artful evocation of the extravagant piety and childish credulity which so often characterized the era, Whether his fictional narrator is describing the pomp and magnificence of the Pomeranian nobility, the squalid lives of robbers and peasants, or relating supernatural apparitions and the absurdly legalistic, state-sanctioned lunacy of the witch-finder, Meinhold knew his source material. The incidents of witchcraft and details of its prosecution could have come straight out of Reginald Scot's "Discovery of Witchcraft" or Heinrich Kramer's infamous "Malleus Maleficarum" -- the "Hammer of the Witches" (1486) -- a legal manual for the detection and prosecution of witches and warlocks, which vies with "Mein Kampf" for the dishonor of being the most demented, evil book ever published. There's even a sub-plot which demonstrates the real author's evident familiarity with ritual magic of the white variety.
Meinhold's attempt to mimic both the style and delusional atmosphere of an earlier time actually works to his advantage, helping him avoid some of the melodrama and cliches of the typical Victorian Gothic romance.
Which isn't to say that a modern reader won't find "Sidonia" heavy going in places, particularly as the story gets off to a rather slow start. But the reader who sticks with it will be rewarded with some superbly weird and gruesome scenes, as well as gaining some authentic insight into a time when "civilized" Christians truly believed looks could kill, that curses could destroy a family and every misfortune was the fault of witches working Satan's evil will with the aid of their demonic familiars.
I'd even go so far as to say this reader found a disturbing resonance between the time Meinhold depicts and these first decades of the 21st Century, which even vile bureaucratic euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" cannot fully obscure.
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