The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Fatal Marksman" (1810)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Fatal Marksman” (original: “Der Freischütz”) was written by Johann August Apel and first appeared in Gespensterbuch (1810). Apel (1771-1816) was a poet and dramatist. He is best-known for “The Fatal Marksman,” due to the fame of Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 opera based on the story.
“The Fatal Marksman” is about a deal with the devil. Bertram, the old forester of Linden, has placed a requirement before his daughter Katharine: she must marry a hunter, for the family forest has been hunted by Bertram’s forefathers for generations, and Bertram wants Katharine to marry someone who can provide for Bertram and his wife Anne in their old age. But Katharine is in love with William, who is not a hunter. When William discovers why Bertram is opposed to his match with Katharine, William resolves to become a better hunter. He is at first successful, and Bertram is happy to endorse the match, but soon William begins missing everything he shoots at. This is a problem, because before William can marry Katharine he will have to pass a special shooting test, and the way he is shooting he will never pass it, nor will Bertram allow the marriage to go forward. William is mystified at his poor shooting, but one day he meets an old soldier with a wooden leg who tells him that his gun is cursed, and that the spell is so powerful that any other gun William picks up will misfire as badly as William’s own gun. The old soldier then gives William three bullets which fire magically, and with them William begins bringing down deer and rabbits and making Bertram happy again. But William only has three bullets and does not know what to do–he will use up all of his bullets before the day of the shooting test. Bertram mentions in passing that when he was younger he knew a hunter who had tried to cast magic bullets through a black magic ritual; the man had failed and died as a result of the ritual. William decides to reenact the ritual himself, and after some trouble and effort succeeds. He casts sixty-three bullets, sixty of which are enchanted and three which are guaranteed to go astray. When the ritual is complete a Satanic noble on a black horse appears and takes the three original bullets from William as a fee. During the shooting competition, however, William’s sole shot hits Katharine in the forehead, killing her. Anne and Bertram die soon after Katharine, and William spends his days in a madhouse.
“The Fatal Marksman” is a kunstmärchen. Apel loved literature and poetry from a young age, and when he began writing professionally he took advantage of the popular interest in Gothics and folklore to retell popular legends in story form. He claimed that “The Fatal Marksman” was based on a true story about a gamekeeper who made a deal with the Devil in exchange for a gun with unlimited range. Apel was not as talented a storyteller as Ludwig Tieck (see: “Fair-Haired Eckbert”) or Fouqué (see: “Undine”), so “The Fatal Marksman” is not as successful a kunstmärchen as their best work. “The Fatal Marksman” is certainly enjoyable, and William’s motivations are certainly understandable, but the story as a whole lacks the touch of poetry and psychological insight which the best kunstmärchen authors brought to their work. But as recycled folklore it is entertaining, and the ritual by which William casts the magic bullets is imaginative and enjoyably threatening.
One of the first English translators of “The Fatal Marksman” was Thomas De Quincey.
It is clear that De Quincey chose to translate this particular tale because he, who already saw himself as Satanic, could read himself into it. It belongs together with Confessions that he had just completed at the time, for here, masquerading in quasi-folkloric disguise, are the idea of someone being seared by grief and hounded by “diabolical” guilt to the point of self-destruction, and the idea of the wrecking of a life as a result of transgressive weakness.1
Moreover, Apel’s work, including “The Fatal Marksman,” was in the anthology which Byron, Shelley, and Polidori read that night at the Diodati which inspired Frankenstein and “The Vampyre.”
“The Fatal Marksman,” like much of Apel’s work, is enjoyable without being compelling. But by virtue of its appearance the first five-volume set of kunstmärchen (1811-1815) published in English Apel’s story was signally influential on the first and second generation of English supernatural writers in the nineteenth century.
Print: Johann August Apel, The Fatal Marksman. Redditch: Read Books Ltd., 2011.
 Patrick Bridgwater, De Quincey’s Gothic Masquerade (New York: Rodopi, 2004), 56.