Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann claimed, “there was scarcely a work in world literature that he admired more than The Black Spider.” Despite producing over ten novels, this 19th century gothic novella is Gotthelf’s most well known work and remains both eminently readable and genuinely frightening, even by today’s standards.
Using the framing device of a story within a story, The Black Spider opens in sunlight and joy. It is a beautiful morning in a picturesque small Swiss village and a family have gathered to celebrate the baptism of their latest member. A sumptuous feast has been prepared and in between course, some of the family rest outside in the sunshine, where birds are singing and cattle are grazing in lush green fields. One of the party spots an incongruous black post on the outside of the otherwise perfect house and ask the grandfather of the family why it is there. His response is as unexpected as it is terrifying.
He takes his audience back in time by several centuries, when the region was overseen by a tyrannical knight who imposes impossible tasks and terrible burdens on his subjects. When his latest request means that the villagers face ruin or death, they are visited by Satan in the form of a man clad in green, with a fiery red beard, who offers them assistance in exchange for an unbaptised child. Afraid of entering into such a pact, the villagers turn him down, but when it becomes clear that they are not going to be able to carry out the knight’s requests, one woman – Christine – takes matters into her own hands and agrees to Satan’s terms, convinced that she can outwit him. Satan seals the deal with a kiss on her cheek, which leaves a black burning dot on her face. However, when the villagers renege on their deal, that black dot turns into a vengeful and horrifying spider, which terrorises them all in the most macabre and devastating of ways.
And now 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 they vanished they were followed, long-legged and venomous, by innumerable others.
What follows is the villager’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of an innocent soul and keep in check the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.
Gotthelf was a Protestant minister and this short book does have the aura of a sermon about it. His warning is that if evil finds even the smallest foothold, it will spread; causing hearts to ‘harden against God and man’ and can only be defeated by sacrifice and devotion to God’s grace. At times, the novella is a little preachy, but thanks to vivid characterisation and skilful plotting, it remains utterly compelling.
Above all though, it is really quite scary. The spider’s initial appearance and subsequent rampage features masterful horror writing and there are some fantastic set pieces, particularly when the spider makes an appearance at the knight’s banquet table and when it is finally imprisoned in a hole in a wall.
Then a terrible shriek came from the middle of the crowd, as if someone has set his foot upon a burning thorn, as if his foot being nailed to the earth with nails of fire, as if flames were shooting through his marrow. The crowd fell apart, all eyes drawn to the foot to which the hand of the screaming man was pointing. On this foot sat the spider, black and huge, glowering balefully, maliciously all around.
Gotthelf is also adept at exploring the idea of crowd mentality and how easy it is to be swayed from what you know to be right, when all around you are rationalising the acceptance of evil. By framing his horror story with the modern day baptism of a child, Gotthelf subtly points out that even within the most sacred and special moments in life, evil lurks, just waiting to find a crack in which to grow.
Susan Bernofsky’s translation captures both the beauty of Gotthelf’s descriptive prose and the terror of the spider’s rampage, although the constant repetition of the words ‘baleful’ and ‘vainglorious’ does grate at times, although that may be more to do with Gotthelf’s original text.
If you don’t like spiders, this is definitely one to avoid, however The Black Spider was a perfect read for the RIP Challenge.
READ ON: KINDLE
NUMBER READ: 389
NUMBER REMAINING: 357
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!