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.
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