We begin in a quiet house, after the joyous occasion of a baby’s baptism. An innocuous question—why is one of the house’s beams so withered and small?—leads to the unraveling of a dark story involving unjust cruelty, desperate choices, and satanic vengeance. Many fantastical stories of the 18th and 19th centuries feature such plot devices, but none of them reach the viscerally horrific heights of Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider.
This titular character is the villain of a moral nightmare, written by an actual pastor in the mid 19th century. His story starts in a medieval village, overseen by a cruel landlord who makes an impossible demand of his tenants: to uproot a distant grove of trees and replant them near his castle. Driven to desperation, they encounter a seeming savior in the form of a green-clad woodsman. He promises to complete their task for them, if they grant him the next born child. The townspeople accept the offer, but when a fierce young woman plots to deceive the woodsman, they find a far crueler force descending upon them. The woodsman unleashes his vengeance in the form of a foot-long arachnid that ravages the countryside, unstoppable except by supreme sacrifice.
Pre-Lynch, Pre-Lovecraft, we have theological manifestations of corporeal nightmares. Gotthelf’s story begins with classic satanic plots, medieval tyranny, and desperation, much like the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann or Matthew Lewis, but the consequences manifest in a villain of the flesh. Physical sin and paranoia haunt the pages, and his descriptions are so blunt that the reader begins to feel things crawling on them. He depicts the spider as a malevolent force that kills with a simple touch, spreading black venom through the victim’s body until they die in screaming agony. It’s notable that the symptoms resemble the Black Plague, in the way the spider’s touch discolors its corpses and ravages their blood. Like the Plague, the spider does not distinguish between rich or poor, good or bad—everyone is a victim to its rage.
There’s a cosmic surrealism to the story that predates Lovecraft, the great nihilistic atheist of the horror world. We first hear of the spider when someone mentions the shriveled beam in the house, only to learn that this is where the spider is trapped—it’s been crawling just above the listeners the entire time. The omnipresence of its evil transcends its tangible size; this is not a world-destroying god, but it’s far more deadly because it can hide anywhere. This is a paranoia-inducing construct, and is enough to make any reader run howling for the pews if they feel something scuttle up their leg while reading.
In spite of its brutality, morality oozes out of the plot. Gotthelf writes with the intention of putting forth a message. Sin is painful—a graceless and merciless path to death—but there is salvation in purity. This message has not aged well, to say the least, and it makes the violence seem even more vicious; we are witnessing punishments that Gotthelf seems to think are fair. The young woman’s independence is slapped down when the spider actually grows out of her face, and later on, gallivanting youths unwittingly unleash the spider, causing their own horrific ends.
But the corporeal shock of The Black Spider’s attacks is impossible to ignore, a reminder that many early horror stories—from Dante to Blake—are also religious sermons in a way. Morality exists at the heart of many tales of terror. They intend to frighten their listeners into hearing the message, perhaps. Gotthelf’s lesson may be a bit preachy and old-fashioned, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t just a bit convincing—if one were besieged by such a horrendous plague, what would they do to escape? Even if the morals don’t work, though, the physical effects of Gotthelf’s bizarre story are impactful enough. It reminds us why base fears like corruption and venomous beasties still hold the power to disturb. Maybe we aren’t so far from Gotthelf’s congregation after all.