Finely crafted stories generally have virtues that are easy to describe: they're about an interesting place or milieu, or they contain particularly precise and vivid language, or they introduce a character who immediately comes alive, or they have a high-concept premise. But some stories are enjoyable in entirely new and unexpected ways. This is particularly the case for works, like The Black Spider, that predate our modern storytelling rules and, thus, behave in ways that put us off our guard.
This novella was first published in 1842 by the Swiss pastor Jeremias Gotthelf. It was recently retranslated (from the German) by Susan Bernofsky and released last month by the New York Review of Books (NYRB) imprint that has done so much in the past decade—under its Classics label—to revive interest in so many unjustly obscure authors.
The story is fairly short (only 108 pages) and doesn't go out of its way to classify itself. The back cover blurb summarizes its elements in a list that seems dark but also charmingly quaint:
Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider . . . The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or at large in society, or as a vision, anticipating H.P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There's no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.
Rarely has a novel's description left me so adrift. From reading the back cover, I had no idea what sort of story I was going to read. Was it a fairy tale? Was it a tale of supernatural horror? Or a work of darkly accented realism?
The beginning offered little guidance. The first 20 pages of the work (almost a fifth of its length) are given over to a description of the christening of a newborn in a fairly prosperous nineteenth-century Swiss village. The bucolic scene is played out with wit and humor and considerable detail—the portrait of this rural life is, in its own way, very readable—but it's also somewhat slow-paced:
[The godmother] turned the handleless cup upside down, declaring that she had no room left for anything more and that if they did not leave her in peace she would have to play some tricks of her own. The housewife replied that she truly regretted the godmother was so displeased with the coffee, she'd given the nurse most urgent orders to make it as good as possible, there was indeed nothing she could have done to prevent it turning out so badly that no one wanted to drink it, and the cream was surely not to blame, she'd skimmed it herself, which was certainly not her daily custom. What could the poor godmother do but accept another cup? (p. 9)
As in the above passage, considerable attention is devoted to the discomfort of the child's young godmother: she's forced to eat far more food than she wants, and then she forgets to remind the priest of the newborn's name and subsequently becomes petrified that he'll christen the boy with the wrong name. But everything turns out fine, and the villagers all come back to the parents' cottage for a feast. The fire is going. People are waiting for food.
It's only at this point that the boy's grandfather begins relating a story about a blackened post that's embedded into the corner of their house. His story begins several centuries ago, sometime in the Middle Ages, when the villagers' ancestors were the serfs of a particularly cruel lord. After he forces them to work through their harvest on an impossible task, the villagers are approached by a mysterious woodsman who says he will complete the work for them . . . if they promise to give him the first child born in the village. The villagers are not confused; they immediately understand that the woodsman is the Devil.
At this point, we are one third of the way into the story and for the first time I feel like I finally understand it: Eureka! I'm reading a Deal With The Devil story. Okay, so why didn't Gotthelf start with that? What was up with all that other stuff? Oh well, it was probably some weird nineteenth-century storytelling quirk, like how Frankenstein begins with a captain finding Victor Frankenstein on an iceberg in the Arctic Circle.
The Black Spider rapidly puts together all the elements of a Deal With the Devil story. We have sympathetic people with sympathetic desires put into a situation which is so impossible that it's almost understandable that they could make the deal—if the villagers can't complete the lord's task and get back to harvest their fields, the whole village will perish, so maybe it makes sense to sacrifice one child.
And then a bold young woman steps forward and offers up the hope that they can make the deal and somehow wriggle out of it. And, finally, I felt like I fully understood this story: All right, I'm getting it. She's the hero here. Even if she comes out badly in the end (like Faust), we'll still end up admiring her passion.
But that was not the story at all. In fact, I was reading a very different story.
I recognize that my expectations for this story are not the ones that Gotthelf's readers would have had, but stories can't help but be read within the context of the modern day and of what's come after them. For me, the fun of the story was the ways in which it exposed—through contrast—the value system that covertly undergirds many modern novels. Whether she lives or dies, we expect the bold and courageous wife to be celebrated for her audacity. Whether he is overthrown or not, we expect the cruel and uncaring master to be reviled for his selfishness. But Gotthelf's story is built on a different system of morality: one that was developed precisely because its creators lived in a world where audacity was punished and cruel systems of government perpetuated themselves year after year, century after century.
Gotthelf was a pastor: he really believed in the reality of the Christian god. And The Black Spider is an unflinching, theologically correct look at what it means to believe in the Christian god. Gotthelf builds a world that doesn't very much care for human life. In this world, God does not swoop down and save you at the last minute. Both the righteous and the unrighteous are doomed. Oftentimes, the righteous die in more untimely and painful ways than the unrighteous. The only difference between their deaths is that the righteous ascend to heaven, while the unrighteous suffer for all eternity.
As the story comes to a close, the reason for its meandering opening becomes clearer. This is a story about a community. The christening that we witnessed was a reverent and joyful event. But these villagers are the direct descendants of the ones we see later, howling at each other, striking each other down, and struggling to hand a child over to the devil. Nothing separates them. Even the memory of the titular black spider has been lost. And, with the closing lines of the novella, we’re left with a very real sense that, given enough time, these villagers will also fall prey to the same evil that beset their ancestors:
where belief dwells, the black spider may not stir, neither by day nor by night. But what strength it can attain when beliefs and temperaments change is known only to the One who knows all things and who gives to each his powers: both to spiders and to men. (p. 108)
Rahul Kanakia is a science fiction writer who has sold stories to Clarkesworld, The Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex, Nature, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He currently lives in Baltimore, where he is enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He graduated from Stanford in 2008 with a B.A. in Economics and he used to work as an international development consultant. If you want to know more about him then please visit his blog or follow him on Twitter.