The Black Spider

Jeremias Gotthelf, trans. Susan Bernofsky

October 30, 2018 
The following is from Jeremias Gotthelf's novel, The Black Spider. In a remote Swiss village, a grandfather tells a story during a christening, a tale that portends evil at large in society and provides a vision of cosmic horror. Jeremias Gotthelf was the pen name of Albert Bitzius, a Swiss pastor and writer who used his work to communicate his reformist concerns with regard to education and the plight of the poor.
I first read Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne, 1842) as an undergraduate German student in Baltimore. The book hadn’t been assigned in any of my classes, I’d just heard about it and wanted to read it, and I got around to it one weekend when I happened to be spending a quiet evening at home. Home at the time was a low-ceilinged railroad apartment in the basement of a rowhouse  at 109 W. 29th St. with bars on the windows and black linoleum floors. The room at the very center of the apartment—far from the windows at the front and the back—was the darkest place on earth, and that’s where I did my reading, curled on a ratty old sofa that had been there when I moved in, the book held in the circle of light cast by a thrift store lamp. The world was dark, I was alone, and Gotthelf’s novel about a monstrous spider sent by the devil himself to wreak havoc on mankind scared the living daylights out of me. I imagined spiders coming out of all the walls and creeping up on me. I stayed up all night reading and finished the story just before dawn, convinced I would never sleep again.
The Black Spider is the kind of book that makes it hard for you to push aside your terror. I’d always been afraid of spiders anyhow. One childhood dream I still remember 40+ years later has me trying to find my way through strange rooms in which huge spiders tower over me, ten times my height. My longstanding arachnophobia made me the perfect reader for this novel, and two decades later I was offered the opportunity to translate it. While I was working on the translation, wrestling with linguistic difficulties in sentence after sentence, the book lost its horror for me, and I could laugh about the skill with which its effects were created. But now, five years later, the book has reclaimed its power over me. The bit excerpted here comes fairly early on in the story after a woman named Christine has—heroically or foolhardily—prevented a vengeful feudal lord from destroying her village by enlisting the help of a strange little man dressed in a green huntsman’s suit. In exchange for his services, she promises an unbaptised child.

–Susan Bernofsky

In the midst of all these celebrants sat Christine, but she was oddly quiet, with flaming cheeks and dull eyes, and a strange twitching could be seen in her face. As an experienced midwife, she had been present at the birth, had assumed the role of godmother during the baptism, her insolent heart devoid of fear, but when the priest sprinkled the holy water over the child, baptizing it in the name of the holy trinity, she felt as if a glowing iron had suddenly been pressed to the spot where she had received the green man’s kiss. In sudden terror she had flinched, almost dropping the child, and since that moment the pain had not relented but instead grew more acute from hour to hour. At first she sat quietly, suppressing the pain, her newly awakened soul tormented by heavy thoughts, and her hand flying more and more frequently to the burning spot where it felt as if a poisonous wasp had alighted, thrusting its fiery barb deep into her core. But there was no wasp to shoo away, and the stings grew ever more fiery and her thoughts ever more filled with terror, and Christine began to show people her cheek, asking what they saw there, and again and again she asked, but no one saw anything at all, and soon no one was inclined to waste time inspecting Christine’s cheek. Finally she did convince an old woman to look once more, just as the cock was crowing to announce the dawn, and the old woman saw an almost invisible speck on Christine’s cheek. It’s nothing, the woman said, it’ll go away on its own, and off she walked.

Christine tried to comfort herself, saying it was nothing, it would soon go away; but the pain did not let up, and imperceptibly the speck grew, and soon everyone could see it and asked about the black dot on her face. No one thought much of it, but their words were like barbs driven into her heart, awakening the heavy thoughts once more, and again and again she was forced to remember that this was the very spot where the green man had kissed her, and that the same burning pain that had flashed through all her limbs at the moment of the kiss now burned and gnawed at her without respite. Sleep abandoned her, and everything she ate tasted of fire. Agitated, she went here, went there, seeking comfort and finding none, for the pain continued to sharpen, and the black dot grew larger and blacker, isolated dark streaks radiated from it, and at the edge of the spot that was closest to her mouth a bump had risen.

“When the priest sprinkled the holy water over the child, baptizing it in the name of the holy trinity, she felt as if a glowing iron had suddenly been pressed to the spot where she had received the green man’s kiss. In sudden terror she had flinched, almost dropping the child”

So Christine suffered and fled through long days and long nights, and still she hadn’t revealed the fear in her heart, nor spoken of what she had received from the green man just there; but she would have sacrificed anything in heaven or earth to rid herself of these torments. She was presumptuous by nature, and agony made her ruthless.

Once more a woman was expecting a child. This time there was much less fear, the peasants were lighthearted; as long as they took care to summon the priest in good time, they thought, they could defy the green man. But Christine was not lighthearted. The closer the day of the birth approached, the more terrible the burning in her cheek became, and the more the black spot swelled, stretching distinct legs out from its center and sprouting little hairs; shiny points and stripes appeared on its back, the bump became a head, and from it flashed glinting, venomous glances, as if from two eyes. Everyone shrieked at the sight of this venomous spider upon Christine’s face, rooted in her face, growing there, and they fled in fear and horror. There was much talk, all sorts of different advice, but whatever this affliction might be, no one was sorry for Christine, whom they shunned, fleeing her presence at every turn. And the more they fled, the more she pursued them, hurrying from one house to the next; the devil was reminding her of the promised child, she knew, and she tried to prevail on the others to make this sacrifice, hounding them in her infernal terror. But the others hardly paid attention: Christine’s torments caused them no pain, she herself was to blame for her sufferings, and if they couldn’t escape her, they said, “What is that to us? No one promised a child, and no one is going to give one up.” Furiously she importuned her own husband. Like the others, he fled from her, and when he could flee no more, he spoke cold-bloodedly, saying soon it would get better, it was just a common mole; when it had finished growing, the pain would cease, and then they could tie it off.

But the pain did not cease, each leg was like hellfire, the spider’s body like hell itself, and when the woman’s time came, Christine felt a sea of flame surrounding her, it was as if fiery knives were gouging at her marrow, and fiery whirlwinds howling through her brain. And the spider swelled and reared, and its venomous eyes bulged amid the short bristles. When Christine, racked with fiery torments, could find sympathy nowhere—while the woman in labor remained well guarded—she threw herself, reeling in her madness, down the path she knew the priest must take.

Swiftly the priest came striding across the slope, accompanied by the sturdy sexton; the hot sun and the steep path did not obstruct his steps, for he was charged with saving a soul and warding off eternal misfortune, and as he was coming late from the distant home of an invalid, he feared terrible consequences. In her despair, Christine flung herself at his feet, grasping at his knees, begging him to release her from her torments, to sacrifice the child, which did not yet know life, and the spider reared even higher, glinting black and horrific in her flushed face and hideously eyeing the holy implements and symbols the priest bore. Quickly he thrust Christine away, making the sign of the cross; the enemy was before him, he saw, but he abandoned this battle to save a soul. Christine sprang up, charging after him, trying everything in her power; but the sexton’s firm hand kept the raging woman away from the priest, and he arrived in time to safeguard the house, to receive the child in his consecrated hands and place it in the hands of Him whom hell can never overpower.

“The closer the day of the birth approached, the more terrible the burning in her cheek became, and the more the black spot swelled, stretching distinct legs out from its center and sprouting little hairs; shiny points and stripes appeared on its back, the bump became a head, and from it flashed glinting, venomous glances, as if from two eyes.”

Outside, Christine had all this while been fighting a dreadful battle. She fought to take possession of the child before it was baptized, to enter the house, but strong men prevented her. Powerful gusts buffeted the house, pale flashes of lightning whipped about it, but the Lord’s hand gave it shelter; the child was baptized, and Christine circled the house powerless and in vain. Racked with ever more infernal torments, she uttered sounds that were not the sounds of a human breast; the animals stood quaking in their stalls and tore loose from their ropes, and the oaks in the forest convulsed in a great horrified rustle.

Inside the house, rejoicing broke out at this new victory, at the impotence of the green huntsman and the vain struggles of his accomplice; outside, Christine lay struck down by indescribable torments, and in her face labor pains began such as no woman on earth has ever known. The spider in her face swelled up higher than ever, sending fiery barbs through her very bones.

And now Christine felt as if her face was bursting open and glowing coals were being birthed from it, quickening into life and swarming across her face and all her limbs, and everything within her face had sprung to life, a fiery swarming all across her body. In the lightning’s pallid glow she saw, long-legged and venomous, innumerable black spiderlings scurrying down her limbs and out into the night, and as they vanished they were followed, long-legged and venomous, by innumerable others. Finally there were no more left to swarm after the others, the burning in her face subsided, and the spider settled back into her flesh, becoming an almost invisible dot again, its dying eyes gazing after the infernal brood it had given birth to as a sign of how the green huntsman likes being toyed with.

Spent, as if she had just given birth, Christine dragged herself home; though the fire in her face no longer burned so sharply, the fire in her heart raged still; and though her exhausted limbs longed for rest, the green man permitted her no rest, for once he has a person in his clutches, this is what he does.

In the house, meanwhile, they celebrated and rejoiced, and so for a long time they did not hear the animals bellowing and thrashing in their stalls. Finally they heard and were startled; a few went to look, and returned deathly pale with the news that the finest cow lay dead, and the rest of the beasts were thrashing and flailing in ways they had never seen. Something was not right, they said, strange forces were at work. All celebration ceased, and everyone ran outside to look to the animals, whose bellowing resounded over mountain and valley, but they did not know what to do. They tried both worldly and spiritual arts against this curse, but in vain; before the day dawned, all the animals in the stable had died. And as silence set in at the house, they began to hear bellowing here and bellowing there. The affliction was spreading from stable to stable where, in their terror, the beasts piteously cried out to their masters for succor.

They sped home as if flames were shooting from the roofs, but they brought no succor; in stable after stable, death laid low their livestock, and the wails of man and beast filled mountains and vales, and the sun that when it last departed had left behind so gay a valley now looked down upon a scene of abject misery. When the sun rose, the peasants saw that the stables where their livestock had fallen swarmed with innumerable black spiders. They crept over the animals, the fodder, and everything they touched was poisoned, and every living thing began to thrash about and was soon struck down. The spiders could not be cleared from the stables they infested. They seemed to have sprung up out of the ground, and no stable they had not yet beset could be shielded from them, for suddenly they would creep out of the walls or else scores of them would drop from the rafters. The peasants drove their livestock out into the fields, but they were only driving their beasts into the jaws of death. For as soon as a cow set foot in a meadow, the ground began to teem with life: black, long-legged spiders sprouted from the earth, horrific Alpine flowers that crept up the animals’ legs, and dreadful cries of anguish resounded from mountain to valley. And all these spiders resembled the spider upon Christine’s face as children resemble their mother, and no one had ever seen spiders like these before.


From The Black Spider. Used with permission of New York Review Books. Copyright © 2018 by Jeremias Gotthelf. English translation copyright 2018 by Susan Bernofsky.

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