Forbidden Tomes: THE BLACK SPIDER by Jeremias Gotthelf

Today’s unearthed tome is a bit unusual in its intention. Jeremias Gotthelf is a pseudonym used by a Swiss pastor and author, whose writings always tended toward a religious moral. But Gotthelf did not hold punches when delivering these morality tales. This is evident in his best-known work, an astounding monster tale called THE BLACK SPIDER.

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I implore those with intense arachnophobia to read no further. You know why.

Gotthelf begins his story in a lovely Swiss village on the joyous day of a baby’s christening. When the family gathers back in the big manor house for a celebration, one of the younger guests asks the grandfather about a curious shriveled black piece of wood that doesn’t match with the others. Oh, that’s simple enough, says grandfather, there’s just a vicious devil-spider sitting in there that can come out at any moment and eat you. (But as long as you follow scripture, you’re safe.)

Thus begins a ruthlessly, and surprisingly, violent tale of a Medieval village under the sway of a cruel lord. When the Devil comes along and offers them reprieve in exchange for the next baby, the peasants take the offer – but refuse to hand over the baby when the time comes. So the Devil unleashes the Black Spider upon them (grown out of a poor woman’s FACE), wreaking plague and painful death upon all who stand in its way.

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The descriptions of the spider are vividly and grotesquely rendered by Gotthelf – a scuttling, omnipresent demon-bug that springs from victim to victim and leaves them to rot to death, growing more powerful with each life it takes. His prose is direct, which makes it all the more disturbing. I was in awe at the violence described, something we often forget was a staple feature in sermons during those times. Pastors would horrify their flock into obeying the Lord’s will. Honestly, I was half-converted by the time I finished “The Black Spider.” Imagining that thing crawling up behind me and sinking its fangs, turning my skin putrid and black… Anyway.

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Considering the era in which he was writing, the outright gruesome fantasy of this story is quite remarkable. It predates Lovecraft by a number of decades. Writers back then were not delving into this world of parable and fable, and “The Black Spider” seems to carve out its own genre of the modern fairy tale, something that we begin to see often enough in later authors. But Gotthelf takes the cake for the strength of his beliefs in the horror he has created. His almost surreal characters and images are stamped firmly in their own reality, which makes them hard to deny, especially when the damned spider starts eating them. He understands human behavior well enough to translate it believably into this fantastic world of devils and monsters. And he forces us to go with him.

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This story, particularly due to its overwrought sermon at its conclusion, is not for everyone; but for those who appreciate a good, nasty fable, “The Black Spider” is a dream come true. Just be prepared for that tickle on your arm as you imagine eight legs crawling up to get you. Hopefully you’ve already said your prayers.

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