Alraune is one of the most fascinating and yet unpleasant and disturbing of fantasy novels. It was a popular success and has been filmed numerous times. With the exception of Hanns Heinz Ewers’ other work—The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1907) and Vampire (1921), also featuring Frank Braun—there is nothing quite like it. The closest works are Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against the Grain (1884) and Là Bas (1891) and Valery Bryusov’s The Fiery Angel (1908). One would be hard pressed to find a less pleasant cast of characters between two covers.
The disturbing quality stems from the author’s apparent gusto in portraying decadence, cruelty, and amorality. He seems to delight as much in Alraune’s conquests as does Professor ten Brinken. Ewers lovingly dwells upon the sensuality and the perversity of characters and events described, and he excels in exotic description. He, like his Alraune, toys with his reader. For example, the experiment that will result in her conception is much planned and discussed, but the scene itself is entirely passed over. Alraune’s death occupies very little space, though the author provides several pages of weirdly perverse comment.
Ewers’ technique here, as in his other novels, is to take a superstition, update it in sociological, scientific, or psychological terms, and all but explain it away, leaving only enough of the supernatural and the unexplainable to unsettle his reader. He seems to ask, “What if there really is something to the superstition for which our modern knowledge cannot account?” One may debunk the “mystery” from Alraune’s birth, sordid as it is, but how can one account for her ability even as a child to pick winning lottery tickets, locate long-buried treasure, and know which stocks will go up?
The experiment in artificial insemination fails to impress in times when the technique is fairly common, and the book overall is repulsive. Although Braun is meant to be the hero, Alraune is nearly the most sympathetic of the characters. Ewers’ attempts to make her seem soul-less make it nearly impossible to pity her in the way that they might the Frankenstein monster, for example. Ewers’ own life may make his work unattractive to some readers: He worked enthusiastically with the Nazis. A fascination with evil permeates his fiction.