Jeremias Gotthelf - The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society, or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror.



Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky. new York Review of Books, 2013. [1842.]
 

It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.

There is scarcely a work in world literature that I admire more.—Thomas Mann

The Black Spider was a horror story of its day, written by a Swiss pastor, Albert Bitzius, under the pseudonym of Jeremias Gotthelf. What distinguishes it from, say, the horror stories of Gotthelf’s contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe, is that Gotthelf firmly believed in the reality of the demon he created…. Gotthelf’s talent is to make his horror credible by the simplicity of his style and the acuteness of his psychological perception, particularly of the herd instinct among the villagers. His story is a homily, showing how the everyday moral weaknesses of men and women give an opening to the spirit of evil. Christine’s sin is not just in flirting with the Devil, but in thinking that she knows best.—Piers Paul Read

Jeremias Gotthelf: with him I’m just like the woman in Heinrich Pestalozzi’s novel Lienhard und Gertrud who says ‘Your priest has driven me out of church!’—Robert Walser

Perhaps the psychological theories of Freud and Jung and the nightmare fantasies of Kafka had to be absorbed before the European imagination was ready for Gotthelf’s The Black Spider.
—Herbert Waidson, author of Jeremias Gotthelf: An Introduction to the Swiss Novelist
Gotthelf’s writings are the utterance of the earnest life within and around him. He entered into the great mountain temple of nature, following within the veil such great high-priests as Wordsworth and Novalis. He is a true poet when he tells us in hushed voice of the hill-side storm, the relentless avalanche, the devastating torrent; or leads us rejoicing through the jubilant spring woods and grateful autumn fields. But his deepest interest lay in the human life which surrounded him, which spoke to him daily in dirge or psalm. —The British Quarterly Review (1863)


Evil, however, abounds in this dire, bone-freezing short novel by a Swiss pastor, first published 171 years ago and newly translated from the German by the able Susan Bernofsky. The writer — whose real name was Albert Bitzius — means to instruct his readers about the consequences of trafficking too casually with the Devil, here imagined as an unsavory character dressed in green, like the fearsome knight with whom Sir Gawain, once upon a time, made a really lousy deal. In “The Black Spider,” this demon (sometimes referred to, bluntly, as the Evil One) offers to help a bunch of Swiss peasants accomplish a nearly impossible task imposed on them by the cruel lord of the local castle. In exchange, the green devil requires the payment of a newborn, unbaptized child. After some initial resistance, the townspeople manage to talk themselves into making this bad trade, and then, we mortals being the weak, foolish creatures we are, they compound their error by trying to break their unholy contract. The Evil One is not amused.
On a woman’s face, a dark spot appears where the Devil had once planted a soft kiss; the spot grows and grows, and in time a large venomous spider bursts from her cheek, a hideous parody of birth. It is also, of course, a striking symbol of original sin. And as the implacable arachnid and its offspring proceed to ravage the rural population, it becomes, too, a metaphor for plague. Gott­helf spins his horrifying tale patiently, serenely, with full confidence, it seems, that it will be strong enough to bear all the allegorical weight he can load on it.
His confidence is justified. “The Black Spider” is scary as hell, and the evil it portrays with such apparent simplicity seems, in the end, a more complex phenomenon than we might have thought. Throughout, Gotthelf keeps his readers aware of the rhythms of nature, so the awful powers unleashed here seem to arise out of the eternal order of creation, a great storm of evil combining the destructive forces of the natural world and the self-destructive force of human nature after the Fall. He does something only the best horror writers, and the best preachers, can do: he puts the fear of God in you. - Terrence Rafferty

In Jeremias Gotthelf’s 19th century gothic horror story The Black Spider, newly translated by Susan Bernofsky, a young woman makes a pact with the devil, sealed by a single kiss, that brings generations of terror to her community. The destruction of the evil caused by that kiss is the basis of Gotthelf’s wonderfully creepy and genuinely frightening story.
The story opens on a radiantly beautiful morning in a quaint Swiss village—black birds trill aubades amid dew-speckled flowers, and lusty cows traipse across lush fields. In a well-kept farmhouse, preparations are underway for a celebration: the newest member of the village is about to be baptized. The house is a hubbub of activity. There’s sumptuous food to prepare, archaic rituals to observe, and social niceties to carry out—but finally, amid or perhaps despite the hustle and bustle, the baptism party gets underway for the church, where the child finally receives the eternal protection that holy baptism confers.
While the churchgoers are relaxing after the celebratory meal back at the farmhouse, the second part of the story takes place. Noticing a blemished and blackened window post in the otherwise handsome and newly built home, a villager goads the grandfather into explaining its presence. The grandfather ends up telling two linked stories separated by many centuries (that are framed by the story of the child’s baptism) of a terrible monster that devastates the village. It seems at first that these two tales are where the horror resides, but what is most chilling is how the stories (themselves grisly and terrifying) shed new light on the framing story of the baptism of the child, spreading, as if by contagion, a pall of fear and doubt onto what has previously been read as the splendor of a sacred day.
Gotthelf’s warning is that evil can be (and may be especially) lurking among the pomp and finery of what we think of as sacred: when worship of God is replaced with “vainglorious grandeur” and hearts are “hardened against God and man,” then evil finds a foothold. The antidote to evil, argues Gotthelf, is a continuous application of piety, humility, courage, and above all else, devotion to traditional values and God’s grace. God has the ability to save humankind from itself provided that humans are willing to believe fervently in God and be able to sacrifice themselves for God and his community.
Fifty years before 19th-century French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon put forth the theory of crowd mentality, Gotthelf was examining it in works like The Black Spider. The villagers’ mistake when the devil arrives is to become swayed from what they know is right—in their misguided frenzy, they rationalize the acceptance of evil . At the root of evil, argues Gotthelf, is an environment where
God’s commandments mattered less and less, and worship and worshipers became objects of mockery; for where much vainglory is to be found, or much money, one also finds delusions that mistake appetites for wisdom…
Jeremias Gotthelf
Jeremias Gotthelf
Gotthelf (translated literally = God help or helper of God) is the pen name of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854), a Swiss pastor and author of novels, novellas, short stories, and nonfiction. Though notorious for his strong reformist views on education and the plight of the poor, Gotthelf was one of the most important novelists in Switzerland and of the German language in that period. But The Black Spider is no mere didactic tract; Gotthelf’s cunning use of allegory, mastery of the framing device, and irony-infused language (where every detail, reread or recollected, becomes a sign of impending doom) creates a precise study in the psychology of fear—one that is as true in the 10th century as it is today.
Bernofsky’s elegant translation brings out the magic of Gotthelf’s prose. The chair of the PEN Translation Committee, multi-translation award winner, and translator of modern German authors such as Walser, Kafka, and Hesse, Bernofsky says this about the novel on the Pen America website:
[Y]ou get the sense that he wrote this to encourage his community to keep the faith, because it’s only by keeping the faith, and having the community as a whole keep the faith, that catastrophe can be deterred. On an ongoing level, sustained faith is necessary to keep the community from being destroyed.
Horror is most affecting when it catches us by surprise, when it unseats what we normally think of as safe, holy, and pure. Our sin, and our undoing, is to be swayed by the safety of our own satisfaction, our wealth, and our success:
But just as the pear tree that is best nourished and watered and bears the most fruit can be struck by the worm that gnaws at its rind, making it wither and die, so it can happen that where the flood of God’s blessings flows most richly over men, the worm can creep its way in, causing men to puff themselves up and grow blind, seeing only God’s blessing and forgetting God, letting the riches they enjoyed distract them from their provider, becoming like the Israelites who received God’s succor and then forgot Him, blinded by golden calves.
It’s in the moment of reckoning that we become aware of signs that we previously read as innocent and insignificant. It is then that we become aware of our errors, and evil’s range and power are revealed to us as all-knowing. As Gotthelf knows, evil is always (has always been) waiting patiently for us to slip into the delusion that we are safe. - Jessica Michalofsky

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. - Phillip Koyoumjian

Finely crafted stories generally have virtues that are easy to describe: they're about an interesting place or milieu, or they contain particularly precise and vivid language, or they introduce a character who immediately comes alive, or they have a high-concept premise. But some stories are enjoyable in entirely new and unexpected ways. This is particularly the case for works, like The Black Spider, that predate our modern storytelling rules and, thus, behave in ways that put us off our guard.
This novella was first published in 1842 by the Swiss pastor Jeremias Gotthelf. It was recently retranslated (from the German) by Susan Bernofsky and released last month by the New York Review of Books (NYRB) imprint that has done so much in the past decade—under its Classics label—to revive interest in so many unjustly obscure authors.
The story is fairly short (only 108 pages) and doesn't go out of its way to classify itself. The back cover blurb summarizes its elements in a list that seems dark but also charmingly quaint:
Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider . . . The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or at large in society, or as a vision, anticipating H.P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There's no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.
Rarely has a novel's description left me so adrift. From reading the back cover, I had no idea what sort of story I was going to read. Was it a fairy tale? Was it a tale of supernatural horror? Or a work of darkly accented realism?
The beginning offered little guidance. The first 20 pages of the work (almost a fifth of its length) are given over to a description of the christening of a newborn in a fairly prosperous nineteenth-century Swiss village. The bucolic scene is played out with wit and humor and considerable detail—the portrait of this rural life is, in its own way, very readable—but it's also somewhat slow-paced:
[The godmother] turned the handleless cup upside down, declaring that she had no room left for anything more and that if they did not leave her in peace she would have to play some tricks of her own. The housewife replied that she truly regretted the godmother was so displeased with the coffee, she'd given the nurse most urgent orders to make it as good as possible, there was indeed nothing she could have done to prevent it turning out so badly that no one wanted to drink it, and the cream was surely not to blame, she'd skimmed it herself, which was certainly not her daily custom. What could the poor godmother do but accept another cup? (p. 9)
As in the above passage, considerable attention is devoted to the discomfort of the child's young godmother: she's forced to eat far more food than she wants, and then she forgets to remind the priest of the newborn's name and subsequently becomes petrified that he'll christen the boy with the wrong name. But everything turns out fine, and the villagers all come back to the parents' cottage for a feast. The fire is going. People are waiting for food.
It's only at this point that the boy's grandfather begins relating a story about a blackened post that's embedded into the corner of their house. His story begins several centuries ago, sometime in the Middle Ages, when the villagers' ancestors were the serfs of a particularly cruel lord. After he forces them to work through their harvest on an impossible task, the villagers are approached by a mysterious woodsman who says he will complete the work for them . . . if they promise to give him the first child born in the village. The villagers are not confused; they immediately understand that the woodsman is the Devil.
At this point, we are one third of the way into the story and for the first time I feel like I finally understand it: Eureka! I'm reading a Deal With The Devil story. Okay, so why didn't Gotthelf start with that? What was up with all that other stuff? Oh well, it was probably some weird nineteenth-century storytelling quirk, like how Frankenstein begins with a captain finding Victor Frankenstein on an iceberg in the Arctic Circle.
The Black Spider rapidly puts together all the elements of a Deal With the Devil story. We have sympathetic people with sympathetic desires put into a situation which is so impossible that it's almost understandable that they could make the deal—if the villagers can't complete the lord's task and get back to harvest their fields, the whole village will perish, so maybe it makes sense to sacrifice one child.
And then a bold young woman steps forward and offers up the hope that they can make the deal and somehow wriggle out of it. And, finally, I felt like I fully understood this story: All right, I'm getting it. She's the hero here. Even if she comes out badly in the end (like Faust), we'll still end up admiring her passion.
But that was not the story at all. In fact, I was reading a very different story.
I recognize that my expectations for this story are not the ones that Gotthelf's readers would have had, but stories can't help but be read within the context of the modern day and of what's come after them. For me, the fun of the story was the ways in which it exposed—through contrast—the value system that covertly undergirds many modern novels. Whether she lives or dies, we expect the bold and courageous wife to be celebrated for her audacity. Whether he is overthrown or not, we expect the cruel and uncaring master to be reviled for his selfishness. But Gotthelf's story is built on a different system of morality: one that was developed precisely because its creators lived in a world where audacity was punished and cruel systems of government perpetuated themselves year after year, century after century.
Gotthelf was a pastor: he really believed in the reality of the Christian god. And The Black Spider is an unflinching, theologically correct look at what it means to believe in the Christian god. Gotthelf builds a world that doesn't very much care for human life. In this world, God does not swoop down and save you at the last minute. Both the righteous and the unrighteous are doomed. Oftentimes, the righteous die in more untimely and painful ways than the unrighteous. The only difference between their deaths is that the righteous ascend to heaven, while the unrighteous suffer for all eternity.
As the story comes to a close, the reason for its meandering opening becomes clearer. This is a story about a community. The christening that we witnessed was a reverent and joyful event. But these villagers are the direct descendants of the ones we see later, howling at each other, striking each other down, and struggling to hand a child over to the devil. Nothing separates them. Even the memory of the titular black spider has been lost. And, with the closing lines of the novella, we’re left with a very real sense that, given enough time, these villagers will also fall prey to the same evil that beset their ancestors:
where belief dwells, the black spider may not stir, neither by day nor by night. But what strength it can attain when beliefs and temperaments change is known only to the One who knows all things and who gives to each his powers: both to spiders and to men. (p. 108) - Rahul Kanakia

Translation Duel: The Black Spider – Jeremias Gotthelf

German Novellas of Realism: Stifter, Droste-Hulshoff, Gotthelf, Grillparzer ...


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