In Jeremias Gotthelf’s 19th century gothic horror story The Black Spider, newly translated by Susan Bernofsky, a young woman makes a pact with the devil, sealed by a single kiss, that brings generations of terror to her community. The destruction of the evil caused by that kiss is the basis of Gotthelf’s wonderfully creepy and genuinely frightening story.
The story opens on a radiantly beautiful morning in a quaint Swiss village—black birds trill aubades amid dew-speckled flowers, and lusty cows traipse across lush fields. In a well-kept farmhouse, preparations are underway for a celebration: the newest member of the village is about to be baptized. The house is a hubbub of activity. There’s sumptuous food to prepare, archaic rituals to observe, and social niceties to carry out—but finally, amid or perhaps despite the hustle and bustle, the baptism party gets underway for the church, where the child finally receives the eternal protection that holy baptism confers.
While the churchgoers are relaxing after the celebratory meal back at the farmhouse, the second part of the story takes place. Noticing a blemished and blackened window post in the otherwise handsome and newly built home, a villager goads the grandfather into explaining its presence. The grandfather ends up telling two linked stories separated by many centuries (that are framed by the story of the child’s baptism) of a terrible monster that devastates the village. It seems at first that these two tales are where the horror resides, but what is most chilling is how the stories (themselves grisly and terrifying) shed new light on the framing story of the baptism of the child, spreading, as if by contagion, a pall of fear and doubt onto what has previously been read as the splendor of a sacred day.
Gotthelf’s warning is that evil can be (and may be especially) lurking among the pomp and finery of what we think of as sacred: when worship of God is replaced with “vainglorious grandeur” and hearts are “hardened against God and man,” then evil finds a foothold. The antidote to evil, argues Gotthelf, is a continuous application of piety, humility, courage, and above all else, devotion to traditional values and God’s grace. God has the ability to save humankind from itself provided that humans are willing to believe fervently in God and be able to sacrifice themselves for God and his community.
Fifty years before 19th-century French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon put forth the theory of crowd mentality, Gotthelf was examining it in works like The Black Spider. The villagers’ mistake when the devil arrives is to become swayed from what they know is right—in their misguided frenzy, they rationalize the acceptance of evil . At the root of evil, argues Gotthelf, is an environment where
God’s commandments mattered less and less, and worship and worshipers became objects of mockery; for where much vainglory is to be found, or much money, one also finds delusions that mistake appetites for wisdom…
Gotthelf (translated literally = God help or helper of God) is the pen name of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854), a Swiss pastor and author of novels, novellas, short stories, and nonfiction. Though notorious for his strong reformist views on education and the plight of the poor, Gotthelf was one of the most important novelists in Switzerland and of the German language in that period. But The Black Spider is no mere didactic tract; Gotthelf’s cunning use of allegory, mastery of the framing device, and irony-infused language (where every detail, reread or recollected, becomes a sign of impending doom) creates a precise study in the psychology of fear—one that is as true in the 10th century as it is today.
Bernofsky’s elegant translation brings out the magic of Gotthelf’s prose. The chair of the PEN Translation Committee, multi-translation award winner, and translator of modern German authors such as Walser, Kafka, and Hesse, Bernofsky says this about the novel on the Pen America website:
[Y]ou get the sense that he wrote this to encourage his community to keep the faith, because it’s only by keeping the faith, and having the community as a whole keep the faith, that catastrophe can be deterred. On an ongoing level, sustained faith is necessary to keep the community from being destroyed.
Horror is most affecting when it catches us by surprise, when it unseats what we normally think of as safe, holy, and pure. Our sin, and our undoing, is to be swayed by the safety of our own satisfaction, our wealth, and our success:
But just as the pear tree that is best nourished and watered and bears the most fruit can be struck by the worm that gnaws at its rind, making it wither and die, so it can happen that where the flood of God’s blessings flows most richly over men, the worm can creep its way in, causing men to puff themselves up and grow blind, seeing only God’s blessing and forgetting God, letting the riches they enjoyed distract them from their provider, becoming like the Israelites who received God’s succor and then forgot Him, blinded by golden calves.
It’s in the moment of reckoning that we become aware of signs that we previously read as innocent and insignificant. It is then that we become aware of our errors, and evil’s range and power are revealed to us as all-knowing. As Gotthelf knows, evil is always (has always been) waiting patiently for us to slip into the delusion that we are safe.