Wednesday, September 30, 2015

And now for something creepy: The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

It's almost-not-quite-October, and after numerous false starts on this post, I've decided to throw caution to the wind and talk about a creepy little novella that might have flown under your radar. First written in 1842, The Black Spider, remains one of my favorites, and I've read it a couple of times since discovering it last year.

Before we start, let me clarify that when I talk about horror, I don't think of slasher fiction, or torture porn. Those types of fiction simply aren't my speed.

I enjoy the gentle dread concealed within dark fairy tales and Gothic horror. The stories tend to be more intricate and rely heavily on a sense of mood and place. The Black Spider falls neatly on the side of the macabre, but Gotthelf does not rely on graphic descriptions of blood and gore. His is a much more subtle touch, one that I think you might enjoy.

The Black Spider is a Christian fairy tale filled with the familiar themes on the dangers of outsiders and dealing with the devil. There is an evil knight, frightened villagers, the devil, a good priest, and ... oh, a spider.

The story flips from the present to the past and back to the present. The prose is simple but exceedingly visual.

During a "modern day" (modern in 1842, anyway) christening party, the godmother of the child notices that although the grandparents' house is new, it contains a black post, which appears to be much older than the rest of the house. The child's grandfather then spins the tale of the black spider where we find that many, many years ago, the village was ruled by a Teutonic knight, who made terrible demands on his subjects. The villagers were too weak to deny him, and each task became more outrageous, more arduous.

The knight's cruelty culminates with a command to replant trees from a distant mountain to his estate. He wants a shady path to his castle. The people are faced with the terrible choice of either moving the trees and neglecting their harvests--thereby starving to death over the long winter--or resisting the knight and facing his wrath.

In pops the devil to the rescue.

Well, he doesn't actually "pop in," he sort of shows up in the guise of a "helpful hunter," known throughout the story as "the green man." All the green man wants in return for the boon of helping the villagers is a newborn unchristened child. Such a small thing to ask.

Of course, the villagers decline the offer.

Moving the trees becomes increasingly difficult, and as the knight's deadline and the harvest draw closer, one of the villagers, a woman named Christine, devises a plan. Christine advocates making the deal with the green man. Let him help them move the trees, and then when he comes for the newborn, she tells the villagers to have a priest present at the birth. That way, the priest can christen the child before the green man can claim the child.

Frightened of the green man, the villagers send Christine to negotiate the terms. Confident that her plan cannot go wrong, she meets the green man on the road, but Christine forgets one very important detail: the devil always finds a way to claim what is his. The green man seals their deal by giving Christine a kiss on the cheek.

No ordinary kiss is this.

"Basler-Kopp Die Schwarze Spinne"
by Franz Karl Basler-Kopp
Time goes by and one of the village women becomes pregnant. When she has her baby, the priest is called, and he christens the child before the green man can claim it. Everyone is fine, except for Christine, who feels as if "a glowing iron had suddenly been pressed to the spot where she had received the green man's kiss."

With each passing day, Christine suffers more and more from the green man's kiss. A black spot grows on her cheek. She appeals to the unsympathetic villagers, and begs them to give the green man the next unchristened infant. The villagers refuse to alleviate Christine's pain, and thus the spider is born.

Filled with dark delights that will leave the reader shivering, The Black Spider is an excellent story to kick off the haunted month of October.

Give it a read. You won't be sorry you did ... or maybe you will be ... just a little bit ... after dark.


Terri Garey said...

Ooo, I LOVE this! I'm not a fan of hard-core horror, either, but I adore a little spooky tingle down my spine! Thanks for the recommendation, Teresa!

T. Frohock said...

Yeah, I completely dropped out of horror when splatterpunk became popular. It never appealed to me, but I love Gothic horror. I think that is why Guillermo del Toro's movies appeal to me so much. I'm glad to see Gothic making a resurgence.

Terri Garey said...

I loved Pan's Labyrinth, but I've missed most of his other films. I should probably see how many are on Netflix!

T. Frohock said...

None, unfortunately. I had to buy The Devil's Backbone. I can't wait for Crimson Peak.

Helen Lowe said...

This story sounds eerily spooky indeed--and as you say, like an excellent start to Northern Hemisphere October, with the nights drawing in and the wind rattling through bare branches and along eaves...

Great first SU post, Teresa: like Stina and Rachel, you know what we like!

T. Frohock said...

Thanks, Helen!