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.

10 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Phillip Koyoumjian on Stig Dagerman’s A Burnt Child, from Zephyr Press.

Phillip is a Rochester native with a background in European history and literature. He has an MS In Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois and is looking forward to beginning a PhD in Modern European History next fall.

Based on Phillip’s review, the book’s cover, and hell, even the title, this novel sounds kind of unnerving and creepy, but also quite awesome. Which, based on reactions to Dagerman’s Island of the Doomed, which our Book Clüb will be discussing this Thursday (and which I sadly forgot to read, but also really really want to read), it’s wholly fitting to Dagerman’s style. All manner of crazy things seem to go on, but fueled by the most basic and natural human emotions and reactions…

Anyway, here’s the beginning of Phillip’s review:

The recent reissuing of several of Stig Dagerman’s novels by University of Minnesota Press has rekindled interest in his works, which have until now been little-known outside Sweden. Just twenty-four when he wrote A Burnt Child (here newly translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz) in the summer of 1948, Dagerman was regarded at that time as one of Sweden’s most talented “Fyrtiotalisterna,” a handful of men of letters whose writings evoked the ennui that followed the Second World War. He produced plays, poetry, short stories, journalism, and novels before depression eventually deprived him of the will to write; he ended his own life not long after his thirty-first birthday. A Burnt Child, his penultimate novel, is a haunting expression of the angst many European intellectuals felt during this period.

Twenty-year-old philosophy student Bengt Lundin (whose name plays on the original Swedish title, Bränt barn) is confronted with his mother’s death and his father’s looming marriage to his mistress. Bengt struggles with anger toward his father and conflicting emotions toward his volatile late mother and unstable fiancée. Unforeseen by the myopic and arrogant Bengt is his burgeoning infatuation with his father’s mistress. Her femininity and sensuality are qualities his mother did not possess and his plain fiancée avoids, and Bengt allows his obsession with her to consume his life. While scornful of his father’s betrayal of his mother, and his mother’s betrayal of Bengt through her own affair, he betrays his own father and fiancée with Gun. After he realizes that he cannot make Gun love him exclusively, he succumbs to jealousy and attempts suicide. He eventually reconciles himself (to some degree) with reality, although he does not abandon his increasingly oedipal love for Gun.

For the rest of the review, go here.

10 December 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The recent reissuing of several of Stig Dagerman’s novels by University of Minnesota Press has rekindled interest in his works, which have until now been little-known outside Sweden. Just twenty-four when he wrote A Burnt Child (here newly translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz) in the summer of 1948, Dagerman was regarded at that time as one of Sweden’s most talented “Fyrtiotalisterna,” a handful of men of letters whose writings evoked the ennui that followed the Second World War. He produced plays, poetry, short stories, journalism, and novels before depression eventually deprived him of the will to write; he ended his own life not long after his thirty-first birthday. A Burnt Child, his penultimate novel, is a haunting expression of the angst many European intellectuals felt during this period.

Twenty-year-old philosophy student Bengt Lundin (whose name plays on the original Swedish title, Bränt barn) is confronted with his mother’s death and his father’s looming marriage to his mistress. Bengt struggles with anger toward his father and conflicting emotions toward his volatile late mother and unstable fiancée.

Bengt’s deceptive and arrogant character is developed by chapters narrating events alternating with letters written by Bengt to himself and to other characters. These letters show his youthful vanity and sophomoric thinking: “I think that the more theoretical knowledge you obtain, the more multifarious and kaleidoscopic your view becomes of the reality that lurks behind concepts.” Multifarious and kaleidoscopic, no; fractured and scattered, yes. When contrasted with the actual events described in the narrative, Bengt’s “analysis” of what he and the people around him do appears merely as a specious rationalization for his own moral failings; he possesses much theoretical knowledge, but no understanding of human nature. His reliance on his naïve intellect leads him directly, and half-knowingly, into committing the very act he claims to despise his father for.

Compounded with (and partly a cause of) Bengt’s deceptiveness and intellectual immaturity is his oedipal relationship with Gun, his father’s mistress/fiancée and later wife. Gun possesses all the qualities Bengt’s mother did not: beauty, youthfulness (if not youth), sensuality. Indeed, she wears the red dress and high heels his mother refused to wear because she believed herself too old to wear such things. “Her name is Gun Berg. That name is much too young for such an old woman,” he observes (his mother’s name was Alma).

While scornful of his father’s betrayal of his mother, and his mother’s betrayal of Bengt through her own affair, he betrays his own father and fiancée with Gun. After he realizes that he cannot make Gun love him exclusively, he succumbs to jealousy and attempts suicide. He eventually reconciles himself (to some degree) with reality, although he does not abandon his increasingly oedipal love for Gun. By the end of the novel, he calls her Mama as they hold each other in a lovers’ embrace.

Dagerman’s style (in the narrative chapters) is best described by Graham Greene: “Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion.” Like a film, Dagerman’s prose illustrates a scene in a way that evokes a mood. (Indeed, film plays a role in the novel: Gun works in a cinema, and it is here that Bengt first meets her.) Here are Bengt and his father at a restaurant after his mother’s funeral, just after Bengt realizes his father had committed adultery:

They walk to the private room together. It’s almost dark now, but the flame will continue to burn for a little while longer. The son is walking behind the father, but once inside he sits on the opposite side of the table. He wants to look him in the eye. He wants to see whether his eyes are afraid. But the father doesn’t look at him. The father is standing next to the deceased’s cold chair and looks down at the empty plate. But it’s no longer empty. The bill is on the mother’s plate.

This visual style is where Dagerman is at his best. At times his prose can lapse into distracting and tedious philosophizing, especially toward the end of the book. Fortunately, this detracts little from his usually terse, evocative prose.

A Burnt Child is an excellent portrayal of the clash between a young man’s reason and his heart. By contrasting third-person narrative with Bengt’s letters, Dagerman skillfully illustrates Bengt’s failure to conquer human frailty with reason. The highly descriptive, yet concise, prose joins the psychological exploration to evoke the despondency Dagerman and others felt after the incomprehensible destruction of war.

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