"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 16, 2014

"The Black Spider" by Jeremias Gotthelf (The Art of the Novella 21)

While the English in the 19th century were churning out unwieldy, three volume novels because the market in the shape of the omnipresent lending libraries demanded it, the Germans (and others writing in the German language) were free to pursue shorter forms, such as the novella. And indeed, the novella flourished in Germany and many of the best works of the 19th century are exquisite stories of novella length.

One of the best novellas was written by a Swiss pastor writing under the pseudonym Jeremias Gotthelf (his real name was Albert Bitzius): The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne), dating from 1842. The Black Spider is a horror story imbued with Christian mythology.

[Basler-Kopp: Die Schwarze Spinne - Wikipedia]

The story starts with a frame tale: a christening is being celebrated in a smart farmhouse in a Swiss village. It is a beautiful day and the guests are enjoying the food and drink. Then one guest notes that a blackened, old post has been built into a new window frame of the farm house. He asks the reason for this anomaly and a wise grandfather who has always lived in the house, proceeds to tell the tale behind this phenomenon. It is a chilling story and the audience listens in appalled silence.

Centuries ago, a cruelly overbearing manor lord asked an impossible service of the villagers, to plant the lane in front of his castle with scores of trees that had to brought from a far-away mountain, and that all in a very short time. When the villagers were discussing their oppressive burden, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and green hunting hat came by and offered his help. The villagers were wary of the uncanny man, but when he repeated his offer to Christine, a strong and willful woman, she accepted on their behalf. There was of course a pay-off, a terrible one: the villagers would have to give the first new-born baby to the hunter, before it was baptized. To seal the deal, the mysterious man - who was none other than Satan - gave Christine a kiss on her cheek. 

And he kept his word: using his demonic powers he transported the trees in no-time from the mountain side to the castle - and then asked for his reward. But Christine and the farmers cheated on him: as soon as a child was born, the priest immediately baptized it so that it was saved from the clutches of the devil. But at the same time Christine felt a burning pain on her cheek: where the hunter had kissed her, a black spot appeared that grew larger and larger, and finally changed into a black spider. When next again a child was saved by immediately baptizing it, the black spot broke open and countless small black spiders escaped into the village, where they killed the cattle and also attacked humans. 

Things got worse. Christine tried to stop the spider plague by taking the next baby to the mysterious hunter, but was stopped in her tracks by the priest who again baptized it just in time with holy water. Christine who had been touched by the same water, shrank away and turned into a huge black spider, killing the priest and setting upon the villagers. 

I won't divulge how this disaster is finally averted - how the spider is caught and pushed into a hole in the black old pillar, which is then safely locked behind a piece of wood. But human beings are innately stupid - a few centuries later a curious person lets out the spider and the same disaster is repeated. Will the villagers this time be more wise and leave evil alone? 

The Black Spider is an unforgettably creepy tale that is as appalling today as when it was written in the mid-19th century. It is a parable of good and evil, in which evil is painted in glaring colors - both evil in the heart of human beings and evil rampant in society. It is also a vision of cosmic horror in the style of Lovecraft, or, as Thomas Mann interpreted it, as a sort of foretelling of the horrors of Nazism. 

The German original can be found at Wikisource; an English translation by Susan Bernofsky can be found in New York Review Books