Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Black Spider

Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider is an overlooked masterpiece of horror, a novella telling the story of a Faustian pact made in the Middle Ages, with repercussions through the centuries.

A Teutonic Knight makes cruel and impossible demands upon his subjects, involving the transplantation of one hundred full grown beech trees across a mountain to serve as landscaping for his newly constructed castle. While the peasants are driven to despair by this order, one brave and foolhardly woman makes a pact with a mysterious huntsman, dressed in green with a red beard and devilish eyes. He will see that the task is accomplished, but his price is the unbaptised soul of a newborn infant. The woman, Christine, believes that she can reneg on her end of the bargain with the careful connivance of the peasants and the local priest, but with each child withheld, dire afflictions and death overtake the peasants.

At the conclusion of their deal, the Huntsman had given Christine a peck on the cheek, which immediately burned as if she were being pierced by a red hot poker. Over time, the black spot grew and took on the appearance of a large venomous spider. At one point it bursts, sending forth innumerable spiderlings to plague the valley. Eventually, Christine is subsumed into the spider, which goes on an apocalyptic rampage. In the midst of the carnage, one brave soul finds the inner strength and resolve to trap the spider and cheat the Huntsman, but like the Satan of Revelations, the creature is bound for only a certain number of years, until the morals of the mountain folk degenerate again and the creature is again briefly let loose.

The tale is framed in the context of a 19th century baptismal celebration, and is told by the old grandfather to a group of fat and ruddy faced villagers, who listen with growing terror. The tale is a warning of the necessity of staying on the narrow Christian path, for the spider and it's master, while temporarily defeated, are ever present, ever ready to strike.

The horrors of the arachnid, so well described, contrast vividly with the sunny vitality of the prosperous villagers at the feast. Gotthelf was a "militantly conservative" Christian who wrote this allegory as a cautionary tale. The slow growth of the spider on Christine's cheek, and her growing sense of despair bear unavoidable comparison to Kafka, and although the narrative in summary sounds like something from a B movie, the writing is effective in inducing the sense of terror that grips the valley. The Black Spider is an excellent example of early horror writing.

There are several anthologies which include The Black Spider. The translation I read was in German Novellas of Realism, Volume One in the excellent series The German Library, published by Continuum. The old Anchor editon of Nineteenth Century German Tales, edited by Angel Flores in the 1950's, includes this story in a different translation and, as an added bonus, has a fantastic Edward Gorey cover.

Much more information can be found at a journey round my skull (see favorite links).