When I studied German 40 million years ago, I read many good stories, but this one shocked me with its utterly modern approach to parallel universes, doubles, reptile women, and the power of imagination to transform a dull existence in what was then modern day Dresden into something very strange indeed. If you want to understand why Hoffmann had such a huge influence on 19th Century fiction, then read this: not a fossil, but a fast-moving work of brilliance.
2) "Les Escales de la haute nuit," by Marcel Brion. When I read this back in the 1990s, I was convinced that it was, by far, the most vivid "dream" story I had ever seen; reading it again a few months ago, I felt the same way. When a night train stops in a town of buildings that are merely facades, a restless man wanders with a garrulous stranger and a living doll from one eerie landscape to another.
As a fine example of visual writing, it compares with anything by J. G. Ballard or William Sansom, but it also moves rapidly, like a story by Hoffmann. Brion paced his emphases; he understood the need to balance detailed passages with fast, simple paragraphs, and the result is a clear, light touch that never feels too thin or too heavy. If the story is like a painting, it's a painting that moves.
L’homme s’endormit. A son tour, la poupée, cessant de grogner et de renifler, glissa dans un sommeil épais. Je restais éveillé, seul dans ce wagon, seul dans ce monde, regardé par cette lune épouvantée qui venait demander du secours contre le garrot des nuages.
The man fell asleep. In its turn, the doll ceased to grumble and sniffle, and slipped into a thick sleep. I remained awake, alone in the compartment, alone in this world, watched by the frightened moon that cried for help against the noose of the clouds. [My rough translation.]
3) "The Colossus of Ylourgne," by Clark Ashton Smith. I could fill a list of favourites with stories by Smith, but I'll hold myself back. This one deals with a mass resurrection of the dead in medieval France, and a mad plan for vengeance against the world.
Smith's ability to put the reader there, right there, in the settings and circumstances of his plot, has rarely been better, and the story moves rapidly, vividly, from setpiece to setpiece until it reaches a giant monster climax. Widescreen Technicolor fantasy? Why not?
So, all that night, and throughout the day that followed, Gaspard du Nord, with the dried slime of the oubliette on his briar-shredded raiment, plunged like a madman through the towering woods that were haunted by robbers and werewolves. The westward-falling moon flickered in his eyes betwixt the gnarled, somber boles as he ran; and the dawn overtook him with the pale shafts of its searching arrows. The moon poured over him its white sultriness, like furnace-heated metal sublimed into light; and the clotted filth that clung to his tatters was again turned into slime by his own sweat. But still he pursued his nightmare-harried way, while a vague, seemingly hopeless plan took form in his mind.
4) "The Coming of the White Worm," by Clark Ashton Smith. When a mobile glacier threatens to freeze the world, its monstrous inhabitant offers one man a choice between death or death-in-life. Once again, Smith pours on the visual details to create a waking dream, and the results are unforgettably grotesque.
In all the world there was naught that could be likened for its foulness to Rlim Shaikorth. Something he had of the semblance of a fat white worm; but his bulk was beyond that of the sea-elephant. His half-coiled tail was thick as the middle folds of his body; and his front reared upward from the dais in the form of a white round disk, and upon it were imprinted vaguely the lineaments of a visage belonging neither to beast of the earth nor ocean-creature. And amid the visage a mouth curved uncleanly from side to side of the disk, opening and shutting incessantly on a pale and tongueless and toothless maw. The eye-sockets of Rlim Shaikorth were close together between his shallow nostrils; and the sockets were eyeless, but in them appeared from moment to moment globules of a blood-colored matter having the form of eyeballs; and ever the globules broke and dripped down before the dais. And from the ice-floor of the dome there ascended two masses like stalagmites, purple and dark as frozen gore, which had been made by the ceaseless dripping of the globules.
5) "The Tree," by Walter de la Mare. The most vivid and troubling fantasy I've read in years, this one is far more quiet than the others I've listed, but will not let me go. It nags at me. Is it about the inability of human beings to accept the everyday marvels of life? Is it about the curse of an artistic perception that can destroy even as it creates? Perhaps it is, and more. All I can say with assurance is that every time I read it, the story grows, both on the page, and within my skull.
These were not eyes -- in that abominable countenance. Speck-pupilled, greenish-grey, unfocused, under their protuberant mat of eyebrow, they remained still as a salt and stagnant sea. And in their uplifted depths, stretching out into endless distances, the Fruit Merchant had seen regions of a country whence neither for love nor money he could ever harvest one fruit, one pip, one cankered bud. And blossoming there beside a glassy stream in the mid-distance of far-mountained sward -- a tree.