Spoiler Alert: I probably reveal a little more in this review than you might expect from such a short novel. I concentrate on the build-up to the first appearance of the black spider and say nothing about its second appearance. No one is going to read this novel and be shocked to discover there’s a black spider in it any more than anyone is going to read Dracula and go: “Oh, my God! He’s a vampire.”
Unlike some of the books being released by Oneworld Classics, the translation of Jeremias Gotthelf’s novella The Black Spider by Herbert Morgan Waidson is not a new one. It comes from Calder Publications’ back catalogue and dates back to 1958. This is not a criticism because Waidson’s translation is very readable indeed. There has been a more recent translation, in 1992, by B. Adefope but it’s out of print. What puzzles me is that it took so long to translate a book written in 1842 in the first place, a book of which Thomas Mann said, "And so I read Jeremias Gotthelf, whose Schwarze Spinne I admire almost more than anything else in world literature" 
The Black Spider, written in German, is Gotthelf’s best-known book but little else is available in English. In Germany things are very different and several films have been made based on his work including a 1983 version of Die Schwarze Spinne. I would have been surprised if the book had not been filmed because it’s perfect material for a little horror movie. I can just see a gaudy fifties-style poster in the style of Reynold Brown with an oversized spider with flaming eyes about to bite the neck of a helpless (and scantily-clad) female and I’m sure that Gotthelf would have disapproved.
Jeremias Gotthelf [Gotthelf = may God help] was the pseudonym of Albert Bitzius, a Swiss clergyman who lived from 1797 to 1854 mostly working as curate to the remote village of Lützelflüh in the Emmental. “A thoroughly genial temperament (!) made him popular with all classes except, perhaps, sluggards and big wigs,” reported the British Quarterly Review in 1863.
‘Jeremias Gotthelf’ was coincidentally the name of the protagonist in his first novel, The Farmer’s Mirror (Der Bauernspiegel):
Der Bauernspiegel is a product of Gotthelf's social indignation, fed by first-hand experience. It is, as he puts it, a one-sided mirror which reflects the dark side of the peasant's life. In homely and robust language, he portrays Swiss country folk and their life, shows an unerring eye for concealed or unconscious motive, and has an infinite compassion for the suffering of the humble and the inarticulate. – Answers.com
I mention this because this book sets the scene for much of his writing. Gotthelf's deep interest in the welfare of the peasantry prompted him also to undisguised political and social writing. So, why is his best-known work a gothic horror story? And what’s more, why was this book (which fundamentally is a fight between God and the Devil) co-opted by the Nazis during World War II? In his article on The Black Spider Paul Raymont writes:
It is not hard to see why; one of the story's motifs concerns the collective guilt of a community that has acquiesced in the evil plotting of one (or more) of its members.
I’m not saying he’s wrong but I guess anyone can twist anything to their own needs. If there's one thing most readers will agree upon when looking at Gotthelf's work in general is that he is a didactic writer; he produced “narrative prose that has at its core the goal of proclaiming a ‘right’ course of action or belief” and although I know the Nazis believed they were right, I still struggle to see why this work piqued their interest. I would be keen to learn more.
The structure of the book is a curious one. The story of the black spider is framed by the events surrounding a christening hundreds of years in the future. The guests have returned from the christening which has gone according to plan, despite the flurry of activity described in great detail in the opening pages (particularly the godmother’s panic when she realises she’s forgotten the baby’s name). Everyone is in good humour. They have been well fed, so well fed in fact that they have to take a break in the proceedings to give their tummies a rest. It is during this lull that one of the guests passes a comment about the house:
“I like the house extremely well,” one of the women said. “We too ought to have a new house for a long time now, but we always shy off at the expense. But as soon as my husband arrives, he must have a good look at this house; it seems to me that if we could have a house like this, I should be in heaven. But all the same I would like to ask – and don’t take it amiss, will you? – why ever that ugly black window post is there, just by the first window; it detracts from the appearance of the whole house.”
The grandfather doesn’t jump to tell his tale. He makes excuses but, on being pressed – “don’t beat about the bush ... tell the truth and give an honest account” – he gives in and tells those assembled a blood-curdling tale beginning generations earlier when the land was ruled by a succession of Teutonic Knights:
[T]he one who was in charge here was known as the district commander. These superiors changed frequently, and for a time there was somebody from Saxony, and then somebody from Swabia; consequently no sense of trust could grow, and each commander brought manners and customs with him from his own country.
The name of the district commander at the time during which the black spider makes it appearance, and “[o]ne of the worst,” was Hans von Stoffeln who had the bright idea of building a great castle on the Bärhegenhubel, a wild, bare hill in the midst of deserted country, and the peasants who were attached to the castle have to do the building. He showed no pity and his bailiffs drove the people on mercilessly:
At last the castle was finished, with its walls that were five yards thick; nobody knew why it was standing up there, but the peasants were glad that it really did stand, if it had to be there at all, and that the last nail was knocked in and the last tile fixed into place on top.
They wiped the sweat from their brows, looked round their own property with dejected hearts and sighed to see what extent the accursed building work had held them back.
Not so fast. After some teasing from his knights von Stoffeln realises he needs an “avenue of trees to provide a shady walk.” Fine. But he wants it in a month and they can’t use local trees, no, he wants “a hundred full-grown beech trees from the Münneberg” which is a steep hill, a three-hour journey away over rough tracks. It is an impossible task, something he realises later, but he has spoken and what he has commended must take place.
Now, I don’t know about you but a lot of this is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s mistreatment of the Israelites when they were in captivity in Egypt – I can even picture Yul Brynner delivering the line: “So let it be written, so let it be done” – and, when he specifically mentions the thickness of the walls I couldn’t help think of the way the walls of Babylon were described. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but once you start down this route it’s hard to stop.
The men are disconsolate especially since it’s the month of May and they need to be at work in the fields if they want to have bread and food for the winter. Suddenly, “the tall, figure of a green huntsman” appears; no one sees him arrive:
A red feather was swaying on his bold cap, a little red beard blazed in his dark face, and a mouth opened between his hooked nose and pointed chin, almost invisible like a cavern beneath overhanging rocks ... “What’s the matter, good people...?”
Coincidentally the green huntsman is a kind of spider. It doesn’t build webs preferring to hunt insects in green vegetation, where it is well camouflaged
Long story, short: he says he is willing to assist with the transportation and implantation of the trees “for very little payment ... nothing more than an unbaptised child.” At this point “scales fell from their eyes, and like spray in a whirlwind they scattered in different directions.” (Now, where else have we heard about scales falling from eyes?) “Think it over,” he says “or see what your womenfolk have got to say about it; you’ll find me here again in three nights’ time!”
Which is where Christine enters the picture.
She was not the sort of woman who is happy to be at home, to fulfil her duties in quietness and to care only for home and family. Christine wanted to know what was going on...
When the Devil reappears she is the only one brave enough to deal with him. (This parallels the events in the framing story: it’s a woman who is curious and a man who hesitates.) The problem is there’s no unbaptised child available. No problem. The Devil is perfectly happy to wait. He doesn’t even require a signature and he accepts that his arrangement is solely with her; all he asks is a kiss on the cheek to seal the deal:
At this he pursed up his mouth towards Christine’s face, and Christine could not escape; once more she was as if transfixed by magic, stiff and rigid. Then the pointed mouth touched Christine’s face, and she felt as if some sharp-pointed steel fire were piercing marrow and bone, body and soul – and a yellow flash of lightning struck between them and showed Christine the green huntsman’s devilish face gleefully distorted, and thunder rolled above them as if the heavens had split apart.
A kiss on the cheek, now where I have heard that before? And does that face with the little flash of yellow not sound awfully serpentine to you? Is Gotthelf not alluding back to the temptation of Eve here? And was she not to blame for the fall of Man? It’s easy to read into the text here and assume that what he’s getting at is the sin of female independence. And yet, lo and behold, a woman has become the peasants’ saviour. The trees are transported with minimum fuss. Only one child, “an innocent boy, dear in the sight of God and man” accidentally witnesses how, however.
The job done, von Stoffeln happy (happy that is until he goes walking between them whereupon he finds himself “seized by a secret horror”), all the village has to do is wait until the next child is due and try and figure out a way to wriggle out of Christine’s deal, assuming that if they don’t deliver up a child she will be the one who will be punished. And they do indeed devise a plan.
As the birth approaches a black mark appears on Christine’s cheek, and once that mark assumes the shape of a black spider her neighbours begin to avoid her. When she complains how her face burns and begs them to reconsider they refuse:
[W]hat was tormenting Christine did not hurt them and what she was suffering was in their opinion her own responsibility, and if they could no longer escape from her, they said to her: ‘That’s your affair! Nobody has promised a child, and therefore nobody is going to give one.’
The next child is born and baptised and they all breathe a sigh of relief. Now, if only they follow the same procedure when each subsequent birth takes place everything will be all right. The Devil is not so easily cheated though and he sends spiders to attack their animals. But why pick on the poor spider? They crop up in the Bible from time to time but usually as an example not as a bad guy. What the author is tapping into is a more primal fear:
Recent studies of spider phobia have indicated that fear of spiders is closely associated with the disease-avoidance response of disgust. It is argued that the disgust-relevant status of the spider resulted from its association with disease and illness in European cultures from the tenth century onward. The development of the association between spiders and illness appears to be linked to the many devastating and inexplicable epidemics that struck Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, when the spider was a suitable displaced target for the anxieties caused by these epidemics. Such factors suggest that the pervasive fear of spiders that is commonly found in many Western societies may have cultural rather than biological origins, and may be restricted to Europeans and their descendants. – Graham Davey, ‘The "Disgusting" Spider: The Role of Disease and Illness in the Perpetuation of Fear of Spiders’ in Society and Animals, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1994 , pp. 17-25(9)
When the next child is due the villagers agree that what must be done must be done and Christine is allowed to take the child. Even the father agrees saying that he will make a show of going to get the priest but will drag his feet giving Christine all the time she needs. No sooner has the umbilical cord been cut she snatches the baby and heads out to meet the demonic woodsman at the designated place only to be confronted by the parish priest who stands firm and faces the woman alone. He wins but at a cost. This is where the titular black spider appears and it’s like no spider anyone in the village has encountered below.
The grandfather who has been telling the guests this tale explains how the creature is finally captured and trapped within a hole in a piece of wood, held there by a wooden peg.
“What, in that black piece of wood there?” the godmother cried, starting up from the ground in one movement as if she had been sitting on an anthill. She had been sitting against that piece of wood when she had been inside the room. And now her back was burning...
Gradually the guests are calmed and it looks as if that’s that until one guest just has to ask:
“Hasn’t the spider ever got out of the hole since then? Has it always stayed inside all those hundreds of years?”
This brings us to the grandfather’s second tale, a kind of recapitulation. After the first defeat of the black spider the villagers become quite pious. They’ve had a narrow escape and they know it. Two hundred years down the line, however, their descendents have begun to lose their way spiritually and no one believes the old stories about the black wood:
[P]ride and arrogance made their home in the valley, brought there and increased by women from other parts. Clothes became more pretentious, jewels could be seen gleaming on them, and indeed pride dared to display itself even on the holy implements themselves and, instead of people’s hearts being directed in prayer fervently to God, their eyes lingered arrogantly on the golden beads of their rosaries.
Only a matter of time before someone (a man as it happens this time) unplugged the hole just to prove the old stories were bunkum. This is a recurrent theme in the Bible throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites would sin, suffer, repent, prosper and then fall back into the same cycle generation after generation. Often though the things that befell them were not direct punishment from God. All he did was remove his protection and let nature take its course. And that is what happens in this second tale. Interestingly the hero this time round is a man called Christian.
Was the old man just making up a scary story, the kind people do round a campfire, or was there a malevolent spider really trapped in that beam? His guests are left guessing. We are left guessing. The celebration concludes, the guests depart, but you can just imagine how they might have filmed the final scene, the camera slowly zooming in on the black lump of wood, the narrator warning of the consequences of sinful behaviour:
But what power the spider has when men’s spirits change is known only to Him Who knows everything and allots His strength to each and all, to spiders and to mankind.
Much of what I’ve talked about so far might suggest that this is an outdated morality tale and I would agree that the book’s intended purpose won’t find much of an audience these days. We live in a godless world and no one is nearly as superstitious as the people in this book. This is the book’s subtext. You don’t have to dig very deep to get to it but primarily it’s a good little horror story. It’s not Stephen King or James Herbert. It was written with a 19th century audience in mind. But it is genuinely scary. Spiders are scary. Big spiders that won’t be killed and move around and super speed are especially scary especially when they shoot flashes of lightning from their eyes.
Historically, to put it in context, The Black Spider was published between those most famous gothic novels, Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula (1897) though there were others before and after. Where it falls down perhaps when compared to these two is on the depth of characterisation. Most people in The Black Spider go without names: “the grandfather”, “the midwife”, “the knights”, “the peasants”, “the woodsman”; I could be wrong but, I think the only named characters are von Stoffeln (a historical figure who was actually a benevolent master who is commemorated in one of the windows of the Sumiswald Church), Christine [follower of Christ] and Christian [the male equivalent]; the name of the baby in the framing story is also mentioned, Hans Ui. This has to be deliberate. This could be any community; these people are a template. One point worthy of note was made by The New Quarterly: “He does not preach, but narrates.”
When it was first published The Black Spider didn’t create much of a stir. It was actually Uli the Farmhand, the novel that preceded this which was the first to become at all generally known outside Switzerland. It wasn’t until 1949 when Thomas Mann drew people’s attention to it that it started to be read widely. In his introduction to this edition, the translator and author of a study on Gotthelf, Herbert Waidson, suggests this as a reason:
That makes a lot of sense. It does allow for a deeper reading of the text, certainly deeper than the one the author intended which is why this morality tale is worth taking another look at. His treatment of mob mentality is also worth highlighting another reason why names are unimportant.
The book is not without its detractors. One Amazon reviewer says that the tale could’ve been told in twenty-five pages. Yes it could but you need to build up to things. How many horror films spend the first few minutes showing how perfect the world is on which they’re about to unleash their own particular embodiment of evil? Gotthelf makes you feel for this nameless, oppressed people. They are not bad people. And that’s the point, they are ordinary people – Gotthelf’s intended audience – but put under extreme pressure (think Job here) will not even the most pious man sin? So, yes, we could have the bullet points in twenty-five pages but it would lose a lot.
What about the second story? After all isn’t he just saying the same thing, underlining a point he has already hammered home? Having read his Bible our curate knew too well the answer to that one. For God’s sake, the nation of Israel had just witnessed the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and within days they were bowing down to a golden calf: if Gotthelf felt the need to lay it on thick he clearly felt there was precedent.
As for the framing story. It’s more than that. Although the events being described are happy a closer look at the people reveal them to be:
The villagers in the framing story treat each other as mere means to self-praise, or to the enhancement of their reputations, showing little real concern for another person as an end in himself or herself (a locus of intrinsic value that may call for the sacrifice of something of one's own). – Paul Rayment, Gotthelf’s Black Spider
Is history about to repeat itself? Is this the thin edge of the wedge? Is this why the telling of this tale is a timely one? Perhaps.
Today, though, I’m not sure who this book would appeal to other than those who have a taste for Gothic novels. It’s a good story, well written but if, like me, you’re drawn to character-driven stories rather than allegories or historical fiction this might not be for you but at only 109 pages it’s worth a look.
You can read a fair chunk of the book here if you’re interested. It’s not from the Oneworld Classics edition but it is Waidson’s translation.
The Black Spider is available now, RRP £8.99.
Dr Michael Haldane, Jeremias Gotthelf’s Die Schwarze Spinne
 The Story of a Novel, trans. Richard and Clara Winston [NY: Knopf, 1961], p. 63
 British Quarterly Review (October 1863), pp. 305-6
 Susan Suleiman quoted in Jamie Rankin, ‘Spider in a Frame: The Didactic Structure of “Die Schwarze Spinne”’ in The German Quarterly, 61 : p. 403
 The New Quarterly (April 1845) quoted by John S. Andrews in ‘The Reception of Gotthelf in British and American Nineteenth-Century Periodicals’, 1956