Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Black Spider - Jeremias Gotthelf

'The Black Spider' was a book group choice - and did exactly what good book group books should - made me read something I'd never otherwise have picked up (the dirty great spider on the cover would have been more that enough to put me off). Jeremias Gotthelf  (real name Albert Bitzius) was a pastor, and writer, in Emmental in the early 19th century, 'The Black Spider' is by far his best known work - it's apparently a set text in Swiss schools, I had nothing so terrifying in my day.

Part morality tale, part horror story 'The Black Spider' opens with busy preparations for a christening in full swing, the setting is a prosperous farm house in the Emmental -everything is neat, clean, and as it should be in a god fearing household. After the child is safely baptised and everyone has eaten and drunk to bursting point the party is sitting in the meadow when someone asks why a particular piece of old wood was used in the building of such a fine new farmhouse. After a little hesitation the grandfather starts to tell how the village was once visited by a terrible plague...

Back in the middle ages the village was ruled by a wicked Knight who had picked up heathen habits, he worked the villagers past endurance until one night in the depths of their despair and faced with starvation the devil appears to them in the form of a huntsman. He will help them out of their trouble he says in return for one un-baptised* child. The villagers flee in terror apart from one woman who makes a pact with the huntsman convinced that she can later deceive him. It's a bargain the village is happy enough with, there is an unspoken conviction amongst the men that the soul of a single child is a small thing weighed against all their lives, and in the end they themselves made no pact - the responsibility all rests with this one woman - Christine.

Eventually a child is born but the villagers manage to have it baptised at birth so the devil is cheated, something they congratulate themselves mightily about, only Christine begins to realise the devil won't be thwarted so easily. When a second child is born, and the deal is reneged on again, a terrible plague of poisonous spiders is unleashed - all the cattle are killed and the wicked knight demands that the bargain be upheld. It isn't and the next time the plague is even more terrible.

Eventually a young mother sacrifices herself to trap the spider and all is well for a while, but eventually the villagers forget what they owe to God, they have become prosperous and proud, and then the spider is released again...

The moral is pretty clear - the God fearing person has no need to fear the devil or death but it absolutely in God that one must put ones trust. I think this is a little hard on the first lot of villagers who find themselves in a very tight spot indeed - it would take a great deal of faith to face the starvation of yourself and your family with any sort of equanimity. As a horror story though this is superb. The arrival of the spider is one of the most horrible things I've ever read, I'm frightened of them anyway and this book certainly won't help with that. The descriptions of Emmental life are interesting in themselves, the comparison between all that's clean, bright, and wholesome, against what the spider brings is hugely effective in ratcheting up the tension. A book that's well worth seeking out.

*Note, spell checker tried to change unbaptised to unoptimised which seems somehow in keeping with the story.


  1. I read this for last year's German Lit Month - wonderful, scary story. It's great the way it starts off so slowly and then turns into a slasher movie ;)

  2. You're spot on Tony, I couldn't see quite where it was going to go at the beginning but when the Spider emerges - good heavens - absolutely terrifying. I've been all round with a feather duster since making sure my flat is spider free.