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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Black Spider

Jeremias Gotthelf

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To purchase The Black Spider

Title: The Black Spider
Author: Jeremias Gotthelf
Genre: Novel
Written: 1842 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 108 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Black Spider - US
The Black Spider - UK
The Black Spider - Canada
The Black Spider - India
L'Araignée noire - France
Die schwarze Spinne - Deutschland
Il ragno nero - Italia
La araña negra - España
  • German title: Die schwarze Spinne
  • Translated by Susan Bernofsky
  • Previously translated by H.M.Waidson (1958) and B.O.Adefope (1992)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressive horror, a well-presented tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 20/10/2013 Terrence Rafferty
The Times* . 12/12/1992 Piers Paul Read
TLS* . 18/6/1993 MGB

* review of an earlier translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "Gott­helf spins his horrifying tale patiently, serenely, with full confidence, it seems, that it will be strong enough to bear all the allegorical weight he can load on it. His confidence is justified. The Black Spider is scary as hell, and the evil it portrays with such apparent simplicity seems, in the end, a more complex phenomenon than we might have thought." - Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times Book Review

  • "While this may remind us of Hollywood's special effects, Gotthelf's talent is to make his horror credible by the simplicity of his style and the acuteness of his psychological perception, particularly of the herd instinct among the villagers. His story is a homily, showing how the everyday moral weaknesses of men and women give an opening to the spirit of evil." - Piers Paul Read, The Times

  • "The narrative drive, the symbolic interplay of darkness and light, and the mixture of moralizing legend and local detail, ensure The Black Spider its status as one of the great novellas of nineteenth-century German literature." - MGB, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Black Spider begins cheerily and bright, a Sunday dawning with preparations for an infant's baptism and the attendant celebrations. The locale is the Swiss countryside, but the family of the child seems fairly well-to-do, and they're putting out an impressive spread (some of the courses seasoned even with precious saffron). It's a happy occasion, and everything seems to be going well -- but a guest remarks that, while the new house is such a splendid, perfect structure, there is one blemish, a: "rough black window post beside the first window". The grandfather offers some explanations, but nobody is fooled; as one of those present notes: "I've heard rumors, but no one ever tells the whole story the way it was". So the grandfather does -- and it is this that is the heart of the very dark story of The Black Spider.
       The story goes back hundreds of years, when the local peasants had to do whatever the lord of the day said. One of these, a Hans von Stoffeln, was particularly demanding. First the peasants had to build him a castle, and when that was done he insisted they also transplant a hundred full-grown beeches to line a shady walk for him leading up to the castle. He only gives them a month for the overwhelming task, too.
       Despairing of ever being able to do as von Stoffeln demands, they encounter: "a tall, spindly huntsman, dressed in green from top to toe". He says he can help them out: yes, it's a devil's bargain, but he'll get the walk properly lined in time -- in exchange for the promise of an unbaptized child. He gives them a few days to think it over -- and, despite all their reservations, of course, eventually the deal is struck (although in such a way that the community can claim not to have been fully on board ...).
       As every child knows, making deals with the devil is a dangerous business. The locals think they might be able to avoid holding up their side of the bargain -- just get those little newborns baptized almost as soon as they're out of the womb ! -- but given how satanically efficiently the trees are transplanted, night after night, and, more significantly, what happens to those who try to spy how exactly this stranger manages this impressive feat, it should be clear that the devil has great powers at his disposal.
       The devil lives up to his side of the deal, and then the locals try to weasel out of theirs. It does not go well.
       What Gotthelf imagines is, indeed, a horror-vision. Really creepy stuff. (This is not a story for the kids -- they'll have nightmares for weeks.) To offer just one incidental casualty, as an example:

There his body was found, and his helmet; the spider's feet had burned their way through the helmet and into his brain, igniting the most horrific flames there, until death overtook him.
       Yes, eventually the satanic presence is bested -- and yes, that black window post has something to do with it -- but the carnage before then is dreadful. Lesson learnt: you don't mess with the devil. And it's also a lesson for the community in the present day, which is why the grandfather decided to share the long-kept-in-the-family story, as a reminder of: "where pride and vainglory can lead".
       As the framing story already suggests, The Black Spider promotes simple, proper devotion to and embrace of god as the safe and sensible way to go. Get those kids in the fold as soon as possible (via baptism), and then don't be tempted by grand promises beyond one's station. The untenable situation of the peasants forced to serve lords like von Stoffeln is unfortunate, but, hey, what can you do ? Looking for the 'easy' way out -- deals with the devil -- remains a no-no, whatever the circumstances. And, regardless of what situation one has gotten into, acting honorably and trusting in god -- rather than, say, trying to pull a fast one on powers far greater than you, or abandoning your fellow men to their fates -- remains the way to go.
       The horror part of The Black Spider is very good and even feels pretty modern; Gotthelf had quite the imagination, and spins his story out well. It's been filmed before, but there's certainly room for proper Hollywood treatment of this very cinematic story. The contrast with the framing story is also nicely done and effective.
       All in all, a fine -- and very memorable -- story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 October 2013

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The Black Spider: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Jeremias Gotthelf (actually: Albert Bitzius) lived 1797 to 1854.

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