Friday, March 21, 2014

G is for Gotthelf

I love a good horror story. And after reading mostly the Victorians in my dead guy reading challenge, I believe the time is now ripe to go beyond the British realm. So I picked up Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider. Gotthelf is a curiosity. He was a Swiss pastor who was a contemporary of Edgar Allan Poe. According to his biography, one difference between Gotthelf and Poe is that Gotthelf believed in the reality of the demon he created in his short stories. This thought gives me goosebumps, as the monster he created in The Black Spider is quite the character.

Upon opening the novel, which was published in 1842, one might think that it isn't a horror novel at all. The opening lines paint a picture of quaintness and the mundane. Gotthelf begins with a very vivid, albeit poetic, description of the town of Sumiswald, where the events of the novel take place.
Above the mountains rose the sun, shining in limpid majesty down into a welcoming but narrow valley, where it woke to joyous life creatures that had been created to take pleasure in the sunshine of their days. From the forest's gilded edge the blackbird trilled its aubade while the amorous quail intoned monotonous minnelieder from amid the flowers sparkling in the dew-bespangled grass, and high above the dark firs, lusty crows danced nuptial roundelays or else cawed tender lullabies above the thorny little beds of their unfledged chicks.
But all will not be well at Sumiswald, for in The Black Spider, a dark period in the history of that little fictional town will be told. It begins with a brutal knight, one Hans von Stoffeln, who makes a most inhumane demand on the farmers of his estate. It's a demand so impossible for the residents of Susmiswald that one of the women, Christine, is forced to make a pact with the devil. The devil in The Black Spider is one I haven't encountered before. No horns, fangs, and serpertine eyes and tails here. What Gotthelf conjured is a tall, red-beared huntsman dressed all in green and with a red feather in his cap. All he asks in return is an unbaptized child.

So the knight is made happy and all seems well in the little town. Until the first child is born. Christine takes it upon herself to get the child and bring it to the devil. But she is thwarted, as the child is baptized as soon as it is born. Then the second child is born, and the same thing happens. All this time, a black mark has been growing on Christine's face. The mark grows and grows till little spiders come out of it and kill all the cattle in Sumiswald. When the third child is born, Christine hurriedly goes to the mother's house and steals the child. But alas, when she was about to hand the baby over to the green huntsman, a priest sprinkles holy water on these two. The devil flees, and Christine shrinks and transforms into a small spider, which the priest casts aside in rescuing the poor baby.
The story does not end here. It's too clean, yes? The black spider wreaks havoc in the town, appearing in one house, killing people, and then disappearing instantly, only to appear again in another place. It's at this point that I begin to think how The Black Spider is very similar in theme to the story of the pied piper of Hamelin. But instead of people realizing their fault and correcting it by doing what has been previously agreed on, the people of Sumiswald resort to their faith. (Gotthelf, after all, was a pastor.) Of course they can't give a child to the devil, whether it's baptized or not. It was up to one of the residents of Sumiswald to outwit the black spider and trap it in a wooden post.

Gotthelf's novel is a quick read. It's just a little over 100 pages. One assumes that this tale, written in the mid 1800s, would have a plot that took its time to unfold. No. The Black Spider's narrative pace is a hectic one. And an atmosphere of dread and creepiness pervades throughout the pages.

Nightmarish—that's how I would describe Gotthelf's novel. I couldn't help but look over my shoulder every now and then. Just to check whether an 8-legged thing is slowly finding its way into one of my pockets. Don't get me wrong, I love spiders. They kill pests, and they'd mostly leave you alone if you leave them alone too. But the spider in this novel is something you'd wish you'd never meet. You might as well practically kill yourself if you do. There's just no escaping it. It's evil incarnate.

Again, I'm grateful that NYRB has published this forgotten classic. It's wonderful reading about the traditions and customs of small towns in ages gone by. There's an opening scene about a baptism that's about to happen. I never knew that there was so much eating involved before and after the ceremony. I guess in olden times, one stuffs himself silly when a baby enters the Christian world. Fascinating trivia.

Read this book if:
  1. You have a thing for classic horror stories.
  2. You love spiders.
  3. You're looking for a quick and scary read.


Ryan said...

That just sounds awesome!

Peter S. said...

Indeed this novel is! So, so, so awesome, Ryan!