(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Despite the fantastic occurrences of its plot, “Eisenheim the Illusionist” is presented in the form of objective nonfiction, as a short biography of a mysterious character.

Little is known of the magician Eisenheim’s origins, other than that he is the product of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire and its appetite for stage magic. Son of a gifted cabinetmaker, Eisenheim uses his skill at cabinetmaking in constructing the devices that allow him to achieve his earliest illusions. His appetite for magic can be traced to a meeting with an itinerant magician, and he proves to be a slow developer who nevertheless is capable of prodigious bursts of creativity and talent.

Eisenheim’s early feats are disturbing variations on more traditional illusions, many of them involving a reflection or creation of life, such as the Mysterious Orange Tree, and the Phantom Portrait. The next stage of his career, during which he opens his own theater, the Eisenheimhaus (House of Eisenheim), sees more original creations, which reveal more clearly a thread of darkness already implicit in his earlier tricks: the Satanic Crystal and the Book of Demons. A frightening variation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin brings him to the attention of the police in the person of Walter Uhl, who henceforth keeps a close eye on Eisenheim.

The increasingly unsettling trend in Eisenheim’s career is confirmed in his rivalry with Benedetti, a rival magician whose attempts to...

(The entire section is 489 words.)