The Black Spider (Jeremias Gotthelf)

91j64AW378L._SL1500_A title from the Horror: 100 Best Books list, apparently also one of Thomas Mann’s favourite books. Jeremias Gotthelf was actually a Swiss pastor called Albert Bitzius who took his pen name from the lead character of his own first novel; that background no doubt at least partly accounts for the rampant God-bothering of this, his evidently best-known work. Essentially, it’s a morality tale, opening in what we may assume is the early 1840s (when it was published), a charming day in a charming rural Swiss village where a no doubt charming child is given baptism and everyone congregates thereafter for food and refreshments, whereupon someone remarks on an oddity of the house’s architecture and the elderly grandfather relates a decidedly un-charming tale. Some centuries earlier, the Teutonic Knights had held sway in that area, and one in particular sorely beset the peasants around him. The latter are offered help by a mysterious huntsman who soon proves to be the Devil himself; the villagers are, understandably, afraid to accept his offer, the repayment of which entails one un-baptised baby, but Christine, one of the women of the village, has less fear of the huntsman than she should, whereupon complications ensue. As I said, God-bothering stuff, with the man upstairs constantly being invoked (by the characters and by Gotthelf) and called upon for help; it’s the particular manifestation of evil—Christine is turned into the titular arachnid after the huntsman gives her a kiss on the cheek—that gives it some interest, this monstrous and seemingly unstoppable eight-legged freak that goes on killing pretty much everyone it can… There’s a kind of fairytale quality to it, particularly in the rather winsome opening scenes before the tale proper begins, but once it does the fairytale soon turns into something pleasingly more fucked. I liked this, even if its gender politics are perhaps a bit eyebrow-raising (not the most progressive of texts, but it seems we shouldn’t have expected anything else from Gotthelf), and its brevity is an undeniable virtue.

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