16 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is SUPER EFFING CREEPY, and is by Phillip Koyoumjian on Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider, newly translated by Susan Bernofsky, who god only knows how didn’t need therapy after translating this, and out from New York Review Books, who will be responsible for my nightmares tonight. (I love you all.)

Just from reading the intro paragraph to Phillip’s review I want to both read this book and promptly burn it to, as my grandmother would say, “Get the fusel out.”1 I’m a fan of high literary heebie-jeebies, and a fan of knowing all-things-entomology is the source of 99.9% of movies and books of things that scare the shit out of us—and HOLY HELL does this book sound awesomely horrific—but spiderbugs and evil infestations strike a conflicted cord. Ain’t no amount of Mason jars and notecards going to stop this mess… But oh, how good this book sounds.

Here’s a bit of Phillip’s review:

Framed by a “contemporary” (i.e. nineteenth century) christening feast in the same village, the story of the spiders narrated by an old man is prompted by a comment about an incongruously dark post in his home. He carries his audience centuries back to a time when a cruel knight imposed impossible burdens upon the villagers. Desperate, they debate whether or not to accept a deal from Satan in which they exchange an unbaptized child for his assistance. One villager makes the decision for them by agreeing to Satan’s terms, albeit believing she can outwit him. What follows is the town’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of a soul and keep tethered the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.

The Black Spider, while a chillingly satisfying horror story, could be found in the Old Testament. God’s people, subjugated by a cruel ruler, acquiesce to the temptations of evil and lose their trust and fear in God (and of course all of this is instigated by a woman). The people are punished; only the faithful are preserved. A priest finally rids the land of evil, and the villagers and their descendants resume their piety and holiness. But then they lapse, and the evil is unleashed again, and again the evil is contained, although this time by a repentant layman (initially misguided, of course, by women). Thus it serves (or served) as a warning of the perils of sin and virtue of redemption, this time in the Alps rather than along the Jordan. That the author of this work was a pastor is probably more than coincidental.

For the rest of the review, go here.

fn.1 While the definition of fusel is this, my grandmother uses it to mean “all things that are bad.” You can get the fusel (as is appropriate) out of wine, out of foods, out of yourself (by taking hot baths), but you cannot—absolutely cannot—get it out of children. That’s locked in there until they grow up.

16 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

In The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne —here newly translated by Susan Bernofsky), Jeremias Gotthelf—the pseudonym of Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius—spins a morality tale of evil in a Swiss hamlet. Originally published in 1842, The Black Spider illustrates with terrifying vividness a village tormented by deadly spiders over several generations. This is more than just a story of gratuitous horror: it presents the cause of this terrible affliction and the villagers’ (periodic) deliverance from it as lessons in sin and redemption.

Framed by a “contemporary” (i.e. nineteenth century) christening feast in the same village, the story of the spiders narrated by an old man is prompted by a comment about an incongruously dark post in his home. He carries his audience centuries back to a time when a cruel knight imposed impossible burdens upon the villagers. Desperate, they debate whether or not to accept a deal from Satan in which they exchange an unbaptized child for his assistance. One villager makes the decision for them by agreeing to Satan’s terms, albeit believing she can outwit him. What follows is the town’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of a soul and keep tethered the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.

The Black Spider, while a chillingly satisfying horror story, could be found in the Old Testament. God’s people, subjugated by a cruel ruler, acquiesce to the temptations of evil and lose their trust and fear in God (and of course all of this is instigated by a woman). The people are punished; only the faithful are preserved. A priest finally rids the land of evil, and the villagers and their descendants resume their piety and holiness. But then they lapse, and the evil is unleashed again, and again the evil is contained, although this time by a repentant layman (initially misguided, of course, by women). Thus it serves (or served) as a warning of the perils of sin and virtue of redemption, this time in the Alps rather than along the Jordan. That the author of this work was a pastor is probably more than coincidental.

The villagers are flat and more or less archetypes (the fallen woman, the good priest, the evil lord), but character development is not essential to experiencing Gotthelf’s horrifying evocation of paranoia and fear. He deftly illustrates the terror the spiders wreak among the villagers, not least when the spider on Christine’s face unleashes its full wrath:

. . . Christine felt as if her face was bursting open and glowing coals were being birthed from it, quickening into life and swarming across her face and all her limbs, and everything within her face had sprung to life, a fiery swarming all across her body. In the lightning’s pallid glow she saw, long-legged and venomous, innumerable black spiderlings scurrying down her limbs and out into the night, and as the vanished they were followed, long-legged and venomous, by innumerable others.

This ought to serve as a warning to any arachnophobes: Gotthelf does spares no detail in his description of the hairy, spindly legs of spiders creeping up the necks of the villagers or the spiders’ beady eyes watching them in their sleep.

The Black Spider is a delightfully creepy tale of a town plagued not by some weird monster or flesh-eating plague, but by the very real (albeit not ubiquitous) venomous spider. As an admonition against sin and a call to faithfulness it may be of more interest to some than to others. However, as a horror story, it ought to terrify every reader and make him wonder if the feeling on the back of his neck are hairs standing up in fear, or tiny hairy legs crawling upward toward his head.

16 May 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I think it was two summers ago that I was last in Chicago for the annual Goethe Institut Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize Extravaganza. (I love these gatherings. The award ceremony, the people involved with German literature, the panels, etc. It always seems to be a beautiful couple days weather-wise as well, which makes the whole series of events even cooler. Hopefully I can get invited back sometime . . .)

Anyway, at that last Extravaganza, Susan Bernofsky was telling me that she was translating the creepiest book that she’d ever worked on—something called The Black Spider. I suspect that most everyone reading this (not including Michael Orthofer, because Michael knows about everything) is unfamiliar with this classic of world literature, about which Thomas Mann claimed, “there is scarcely a work in world literature that I admire more.” That won’t be the case this fall.

Here’s the description from NYRB:

It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.

And although this has been translated into English in the past, it’s never been translated by Susan Bernofsky. So even if you are familiar with it, I’d still recommend checking out this version, since, Susan Bernofsky.

29 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Over at World Books, Bill Marx has a very thoughtful review of two Swiss horror books: The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson and published by Bitter Lemon (a Best Translated Book nominee) and The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by H. M. Waidson and published by Oneworld Classics.

The spanking new The Vampire of Ropraz asserts that, when faced with irrational violence, the forces of ignorance and fear predominate. The classic The Black Spider (which was first published in 1842; this is a reprint of the 1958 English edition) revolves around a reneged deal with the Devil, who wants, but doesn’t get, an unbaptized child as payment for his services. The betrayal unleashes the title monster, who can be stopped by goodness, if it is free of moral corruption and hypocrisy. The latter turns out to be a tall order. But at least there’s some Paradise around to counterbalance Gotthelf’s Hell.

Interestingly, both of these books root their avenging vision of mayhem in the brutal mistreatment of children. Gotthelf appears to wish for a God “Who would avenge Himself terribly for all the injustice that is done to poor children who cannot defend themselves.” In a strange way, the Devil is doing the Lord’s work by punishing the sadists among the low- and upper classes.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Vampire of Ropraz, and although The Black Spider doesn’t sound like my sort of book, it does come with a ringing endorsement by Thomas Mann, who claimed it is “like almost no other piece of world literature.”

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