A novella-length piece written by a Swiss pastor in 1842 that initially seems to serve more as a religious parable than anything else — an unlikely choice as a Top 100 Horror selection, one would think. And yet, there it is, Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider (or, as it was titled in its original German, Die schwarze Spinne), holding pride of place in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman‘s excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books. In his article in that volume, author Thomas Tessier refers to the novella as “one of those relatively rare examples of an outstanding horror novel that deservedly ranks among the best of world literature.” And in his scholarly introduction to the currently in print Oneworld Classics edition, H.M. Waidson reveals that Gotthelf’s work was little known outside of Switzerland until 1949, when no less a figure than Thomas Mann wrote that “there was scarcely a work in world literature that he admired more than The Black Spider.” Easily Gotthelf’s most well-known work today, despite having a dozen novels and around 40 shorter stories to his credit, the novella (the whole thing runs to only 109 pages) turns out to be both eminently readable and fairly shocking, even for the modern-day, jaded horror fan.
In his short book, Gotthelf (who was born Albert Bitzius in 1797) uses as a framing device a christening party at a farmstead east of Bern, the vicinity where the author passed most of his life. The first quarter of the book (roughly 25 pages) gives the reader a detailed account of the christening party and the various personages in attendance, but things get serious when the grandfather tells a story to explain the strange window post that jars so inharmoniously in one wall. His story takes place around 600 years before, when a cruel band of Teutonic knights ruled the valley and made onerous demands on all the peasants. Wishing to make the lot of the townsfolk easier, the brazen Christine struck a deal with no less a figure than the Devil himself, in payment of which an unbaptized child was to be delivered as soon as was possible. But though Old Scratch came through royally on his end of the bargain, the townsfolk tried to evade their obligation, with the result that a spider-shaped welt soon began to grow on Christine’s cheek, which eventually erupted and poured forth plague-carrying spiders around the countryside! And then things turned even worse, as Christine, after being shriveled by holy water, became an unstoppable, malignant, very large black spider herself.
Though wacky sounding in synopsis, let me tell you that Gotthelf writes so convincingly, his style is so parable/fairy talelike and borderline Biblical, his characters so neatly fleshed out and believable, that the entire conceit becomes extremely compelling. And yet, this really is a horror novel, with any number of truly memorable set pieces, including, of course, the spider’s rampage; its initial imprisonment inside that window post; and its unfortunate liberation, some hundreds of years later. With the monstrous black spider an obvious stand-in for the Devil himself, the book’s central portion (i.e., Grandpa’s story) could almost serve as the scariest, most exciting and gripping Sunday sermon you could ever hope to hear. Its ultimate message, that we should all be pious and God-fearing individuals who trust in the Lord to see us through our terrible travails, is one that we might expect of Gotthelf, Protestant minister that he was; the fact that such a minister was able to come up with such a grisly horror tale might come as more of a surprise to readers. The novella also gives us a nice feeling for what life must have been like for the mid-19th century rural Swiss folk, and Gotthelf’s word pictures of the village, the foods at the christening, and the bucolic scenery are quite vivid.
In all, this is a book that may turn out to be a lot less dry and a lot more exciting than a 21st century reader might expect. As Tessier concludes, the work is a “macabre, darkly glittering classic,” and it is one that I can certainly recommend to any horror or fantasy fan today.