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At a gathering after a baptism in a bucolic Swiss village, attendees notice a blackened piece of wood that seems out of place in the structure. they prevail upon a grandfather to tell the story of why it's there. What follows is a tale of genuine horror that would keep Glenallen Hill from ever sleeping again.

Albert Bitzius was a pastor and Christian reformer in the Bernese Emmental region of Switzerland whose initial writing were considered with improving rural life. His pen name, Jeremias Gotthelf, was taken from a character in an early novel. As the radicalism and secularism of the French Revolution began to intrude on Swiss life, his writing became more conservative, a more didactic summons to traditional faith. His novella, The Black Spider, is considered his greatest work, an inspiration for Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus and many others. Because he wrote in Swiss German dialect, his work has been considered difficult even for Germans and, from what I've found online, the earlier English translation of this book is stilted as well. So this translation by Susan Bernofsky, issued by the excellent NYRB Classics imprint, is most welcome.

The old grandfather tells of a time when an oppressive Teutonic knight extracted so much labor from the local peasants that they worried they'd not be able to tend and harvest their own crops. Then he doubled down by demanding they transport and plant trees around his manor. Along comes a green woodsman--kind of a cross between Robin Hood and the green man of myth--who offers to complete the onerous task for them, with one small catch: they have to give him an unchristened child in return. While they wisely scorn this offer, one forwards village woman believes she'll be able to outwit him, so she accepts the offer and a kiss on the cheek. Initially, she is able to thwart the deal by having newborns christened quickly, but then something horrifying begins to occur:
In the midst of all these celebrants sat Christine, but she was oddly quiet, with flaming cheeks and dull eyes, and a strange twitching could be seen in her face. As an experienced midwife, she had been present at the birth, had assumed the role of godmother during the baptism, her insolent heart devoid of fear, but when the priest sprinkled the holy water over the child, baptizing it in the name of the holy trinity, she felt as if a glowing iron had suddenly been pressed to the spot where she had received the green man’s kiss. In sudden terror she had flinched, almost dropping the child, and since that moment the pain had not relented but instead grew more acute from hour to hour. At first she sat quietly, suppressing the pain, her newly awakened soul tormented by heavy thoughts, and her hand flying more and more frequently to the burning spot where it felt as if a poisonous wasp had alighted, thrusting its fiery barb deep into her core. But there was no wasp to shoo away, and the stings grew ever more fiery and her thoughts ever more filled with terror, and Christine began to show people her cheek, asking what they saw there, and again and again she asked, but no one saw anything at all, and soon no one was inclined to waste time inspecting Christine’s cheek. Finally she did convince an old woman to look once more, just as the cock was crowing to announce the dawn, and the old woman saw an almost invisible speck on Christine’s cheek. It’s nothing, the woman said, it’ll go away on its own, and off she walked. Christine tried to comfort herself, saying it was nothing, it would soon go away; but the pain did not let up, and imperceptibly the speck grew, and soon everyone could see it and asked about the black dot on her face. No one thought much of it, but their words were like barbs driven into her heart, awakening the heavy thoughts once more, and again and again she was forced to remember that this was the very spot where the green man had kissed her, and that the same burning pain that had flashed through all her limbs at the moment of the kiss now burned and gnawed at her without respite. Sleep abandoned her, and everything she ate tasted of fire. Agitated, she went here, went there, seeking comfort and finding none, for the pain continued to sharpen, and the black dot grew larger and blacker, isolated dark streaks radiated from it, and at the edge of the spot that was closest to her mouth a bump had risen.

So Christine suffered and fled through long days and long nights, and still she hadn’t revealed the fear in her heart, nor spoken of what she had received from the green man just there; but she would have sacrificed anything in heaven or earth to rid herself of these torments. She was presumptuous by nature, and agony made her ruthless.

Once more a woman was expecting a child. This time there was much less fear, the peasants were lighthearted; as long as they took care to summon the priest in good time, they thought, they could defy the green man. But Christine was not lighthearted. The closer the day of the birth approached, the more terrible the burning in her cheek became, and the more the black spot swelled, stretching distinct legs out from its center and sprouting little hairs; shiny points and stripes appeared on its back, the bump became a head, and from it flashed glinting, venomous glances, as if from two eyes. Everyone shrieked at the sight of this venomous spider upon Christine’s face, rooted in her face, growing there, and they fled in fear and horror.
The spider and its progeny proceed to terrorize the village and slaughter wantonly, the deal with the Devil having gone horribly wrong.

The story succeeds as both a tale of horror and a polemic about the necessity of maintaining Christian faith. It's easy to see why Gotthelf is considered one of the greatest Swiss authors and why this influential work has been turned into movies and even operas. It's as scary as any Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, or Stephen King and rich with psychological portent. You'll never look at a spider without shivering again.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Jeremias Gotthelf Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jeremias Gotthelf
    -ENTRY: Jeremias Gotthelf: Swiss writer (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -Jeremias Gotthelf: Pastor and Rural Novelist (All About Switzerland)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Jeremias Gotthelf (1797–1854) (IMDB)
    -Jeremias Gotthelf Centre (My Switzerland)
    -BOOK SITE: The Black Spider (Penguin Random House)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Black Spider
    -EXCERPT: The Black Spiderby Jeremias Gotthelf, trans. Susan Bernofsky (Lit Hub)
    -OPERA: Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959): Opera "Die schwarze Spinne (The black spider)" (1931-1932) (You Tube)
    -ESSAY: Jeremias Gotthelf (Religion & Liberty, December 15, 2016)
    -ESSAY: Jeremias Gotthelf: A Note on Recent Literature (H. M. Waidson, October 1955, The Modern Language Review)
    -ESSAY: "The Conservative Liberalism of Jeremias Gotthelf" (Peter Meilaender)
    -ESSAY: The Kiss of the Spider Woman: Gotthelf's "Matricentric" Pedagogy and Its (Post)war Reception (William Collins Donahue, The German Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Spider in a Frame: The Didactic Structure of "Die schwarze Spinne" (Jamie Rankin, The German Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Reception of Gotthelf in British and American Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (John S. Andrews, The Modern Language Review)
    -ESSAY: Arachnid Aesthetics: Gotthelf’s Die schwarze Spinne (Martha B. Helfe, MLN)
    -VIDEO ARCHIVE: "Jeremias Gotthelf (You Tube)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (John Cotter, Open Letters Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Jessica Michalofsky, The Rumpus)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Bill Marx, ArtsFuse)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Three Percent)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Terrence Rafferty, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Pechorin's Journal)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (His Futile Preoccupations …..)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Winstonsdad's Blog)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (The Mookse and the Gripes)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Jim Murdoch, The Truth About Lies)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Nancy O., Reading Avidly)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Michael Haldane)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (praymont)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Bibliophilia Obscura)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Rahul Kanakia, Strange Horizons)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Lucifer's Librarian)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (A Work in Progress)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (fantasy Literature)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Desperate Reader)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (JONATHAN LEWIS, Mystery File)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (zoran rosko vacuum player)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (JD Jung, Underrated Reads)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Dean W, 1001 DAYS OF DREAMING)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Wuthering Expectations)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Lizzy's Literary Life)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Imogen's Typewriter)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Books on GIF)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Paul St John Mackintosh, Tele Read)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Smucky's Grave)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Macumbeira)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Her Other Stories)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (T. Frohock, The Supernatural Underground)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Isabella K, Magnificant Octopus)
    -REVIEW: of The Black Spider (Avni Bhagwan, My Trending Stories)
    -REVIEW: of Jeremias Gotthelf: An Introduction to the Swiss Novelist by H. M. Waidson (William H. McClain, Modern Language Notes)
    -REVIEW: of Jeremias Gotthelf by H. M. Waidson (Werner P. Friederich, Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures)

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