The story was one of six which Poe sent to the Philadelphia newspaper the Saturday Courier as entries in a writing competition. Although none of the stories that Poe submitted won the competition, "Metzengerstein" was published in the newspaper anyway. It appeared in the January 14, 1832 issue of the Saturday Courier without Poe's name attached to it. It was published again in the January 1836 issue of the magazine Southern Literary Messenger as "Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German". German horror fiction was very popular in the United States in the 1830s. The story's subtitle was obviously added in order to capitalize on that fact. The final time that "Metzengerstein" was published during Poe's lifetime was as part of the 1840 anthology Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. The subtitle "A Tale in Imitation of the German" was dropped for the story's 1840 publication.
"Metzengerstein" is set in Hungary at an unspecified point in the past when belief in reincarnation was widespread. The story's title character, Baron Frederick Metzengerstein, is the last surviving member of his family. For centuries, the Metzengerstein family has been feuding with the Berlifitzing family. Although it cannot be proven, Frederick, who is a very wicked young man, is suspected of setting fire to the stables of Castle Berlifitzing. The elderly Baron Wilhelm Von Berlifitzing dies in the fire. Immediately afterwards, Frederick acquires a huge fiery-colored horse. It is implied that the horse is the reincarnation of Baron Wilhelm Von Berlifitzing. The story opens with a Latin quote from Martin Luther which can be translated as, "Living, I have been your plague. Dying, I will be your death."
Opinion is divided as to whether or not "Metzengerstein" is supposed to be taken seriously. Some argue that it is a parody of the kind of horror fiction that had already been popular for almost a century before the time of Poe's writing. The fact that three of the other five stories that Poe submitted for the Saturday Courier writing competition are intended to be humorous lends some support to this idea. The story was, however, revised by Poe before its 1836 and 1840 publications and its more outlandish elements were removed. "Metzengerstein" also makes use of several elements which would later appear in Poe's serious horror stories. These include a crumbling old building (as used in "The Fall of the House of Usher"), an extremely wealthy character (as used in "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Ligeia"), a character who suddenly becomes strangely fascinated by a work of art (as used in "The Oval Portrait"), hideous teeth (as used in "Hop-Frog"), vivid colors (as used in "The Masque of the Red Death") and death by fire (as used in "Hop-Frog").
Readers should be aware that "Metzengerstein" contains some Latin and French phrases which are left untranslated by Poe.
In a certain region of Hungary at a certain time in the past which the narrator refuses to specify, it is widely believed that people can be reincarnated as animals. Two noble families live in the region, the Berlifitzing family and the Metzengerstein family. They live very near to each other. It is possible to see into the windows of Palace Metzengerstein from Castle Berlifitzing. The Metzengersteins are a slightly older family and are slightly wealthier and more powerful than the Berlifitzings. The two families have been feuding for centuries. The cause of their quarrel appears to be an old prophecy which states, "A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.'
The head of the Berlifitzing family is the elderly Baron Wilhelm Von Berlifitzing. Although he is very old, Wilhelm still hunts every day and has a deep love for his horses.
There is only one surviving member of the Metzengerstein family. Both of Frederick Metzengerstein's parents die young. He inherits the title Baron Metzengerstein and all of the land and wealth that come with the title while he is still an adolescent boy. On inheriting the title, Frederick immediately begins acting in a cruel and depraved manner. When a fire breaks out at the stables of Castle Berlifitzing, Frederick is suspected of having started it.
While the stables of Castle Berlifitzing burn, Frederick sits in a room of Palace Metzengerstein. He looks at the tapestries on the room's wall which depict his ancestors. He becomes interested in a portion of one of the tapestries which depicts one of his ancestors killing a Muslim ancestor of the Berlifitzings. Frederick becomes especially interested in the Muslim's horse. It is an enormous and unnaturally colored animal which is standing still in the foreground of the scene with its neck arched protectively over the dead body of its master. Frederick finds his sudden interest in the horse disturbing. He decides to look away from it for a moment. When he looks at the tapestry again, Frederick is horrified to see that the horse has moved. Its head is now pointing directly at Frederick's ancestor. It is angrily baring its disgusting teeth which look like tombstones. Its eyes now appear to be fiery red and to have a human-like expression in them. The frightened Frederick decides to leave the room. As he does so, the light from the burning stables of Castle Berlifitzing casts his shadow onto the tapestry. Frederick sees that his shadow exactly covers the figure of his ancestor who killed the Muslim ancestor of the Berlifitzings.
Frederick goes outside. He sees three stable hands struggling to control an enormous horse of a fiery color. Frederick notices that it looks exactly like the horse that he saw in the tapestry. He asks the stable hands whose horse it is. They reply that it now belongs to Frederick because nobody else has claimed it. The stable hands saw the horse running away from the burning stables of Castle Berlifitzing. It has the letters W.V.B., which the stable hands assumed stood for Wilhelm Von Berlifitzing, branded on its forehead. When the stable hands tried to return the horse to Castle Berlifitzing, however, everybody there said that they had never seen the animal before. In spite of the horse's obviously wild nature, Frederick decides to keep the animal with the hope of training it.
A page arrives. He informs Frederick that a portion of one of the tapestries in the room that he has just left has suddenly disappeared. Frederick orders the page to lock the door of that room and to give him the key.
Shortly afterwards, Frederick is informed that Baron Wilhelm Von Berlifitzing has died. The elderly baron ran into the burning stables to try to rescue some of his favorite horses.
Frederick stops leaving his estate and shuns all company, apart from that of the enormous fiery-colored horse. Frederick spends almost all of every day riding the horse, even on days when the weather is bad and when he is feeling ill. Although all the rest of Frederick's horses have names, the fiery-colored animal remains nameless. It is kept in a stable which is separate from that of all the other horses. Nobody ever attends to it apart from Frederick himself. The three stable hands who first saw the horse, although they used ropes and chains to try to control it, do not think that any of them laid a hand on the animal.
One of Frederick's pages says that Frederick is afraid of the horse. The page says that Frederick always shudders when he gets on the horse and looks as if he has achieved a victory when he finally gets off it. The page's opinions are considered to be of no consequence, however, because he is small and deformed.
Frederick wakes up one stormy night. He runs downstairs to get on the fiery-colored horse. The servants become concerned when Frederick does not return after several hours. While Frederick is away, a fire breaks out at Palace Metzengerstein. It soon becomes obvious that the fire will destroy the building completely. Many people gather to watch it burn. The fiery-colored horse returns with Frederick on its back. Frederick is obviously desperately trying to stop the animal but cannot do so. He screams. The horse runs into the burning building. The storm stops. A cloud of smoke in the shape of an enormous horse settles over the building.
"Metzengerstein" is one of three short stories by Edgar Allan Poe that were adapted for the 1968 French-Italian movie Histoires extraordinaires (released in the United States as Edgar Allan Poe's Spirits of the Dead and in the United Kingdom as Tales of Mystery). In the segment based on "Metzengerstein" (directed by Roger Vadim), the young male Baron Frederick Metzengerstein of Poe's original story becomes the young female Countess Frederique Metzengerstein. Countess Frederique (played by Jane Fonda) falls in love with the young Baron Wilhelm Von Berlifitzing (played by Jane Fonda's real life brother Peter Fonda). When Wilhelm rejects her, Frederique sets fire to his stables as an act of revenge.
The story provided the inspiration for Das Feuerpferd ("The Fire Horse"), a musical score for the piano written by the Romanian composer Joan Bolan in 1934.
A track called "Metzengerstein", which references the story, is included on the 2010 album Horror Masterpieces by the Italian extreme metal vocalist Alessandro Nunziati, known by the stage name Lord Vampyr.