What a good story The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf turned out to be. What’s not to like about a story with the Devil himself and spiders in it? It was even a little creepy at times.
The story begins with a christening. After much eating, the celebrants push themselves away from the table for a little walk to make room for more food. One of them notices an old black post in the window frame of this lovely new house and asks Grandfather about it. And boy, does Grandfather have a tale to tell!
Long ago a powerful knight named Hans von Stoffeln took possession of the land and the peasants of the area. He decided he needed a new castle, bigger and better than the old one, and forced the peasants to build it for him on top of a barren hill. After long and hard labor during which the peasants were forced to neglect their own fields and families and come near to starvation, the castle was finished. But the knights made fun of von Stoffeln and his castle on the barren hill, so von Stoffeln decided he needed an avenue of one hundred trees. He ordered the peasants to uproot trees from miles away and bring them to the castle and plant them in an avenue. This work had to be done within a month’s time. The peasants were beside themselves, worn out and hungry their carts and tools and animals on the verge of falling apart and collapse, what were they to do?
Suddenly in their midst appears a hunter dressed in green with a “beard so red it seemed to crackle and sparkle like fir twigs on the fire.” He offers to help but the peasants, unable to see how a huntsman could help them, refuse. The green man chides them, tells them he can make their work fast and easy for only a small payment: an unbaptized child. Horrified, the peasants refuse again.
The next day they begin their work and it quickly becomes clear that they will not be able to complete the task in the allotted time. But Christine, a “frightfully clever and daring woman” decides that they can beat the Devil at his own game and convinces the men to agree to the offer of help. The Devil seals it with a kiss on Christine’s cheek. Suddenly the work becomes easier and the peasants complete their task so quickly that they have time to start work in their own fields.
But soon the time for the first baby to be born draws near. Christine, who is the midwife, plans on having the priest present at the birth so the baby can be immediately baptized and saved from the Devil’s clutches. The plan works. But then Christine’s cheek where the Devil had kissed her starts burning. A small black mark appears on it. As the time for the birth of the next baby arrives the black mark has grown bigger. As the woman gives birth inside the house with the Priest present, Christine is outside in the midst of her own labor except instead of birthing a baby, she gives birth to one large spider and thousands of tiny ones from the black mark on her face. It is a gruesome scene:
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.
These spiders first killed all the peasants’ livestock. And the peasants, placing all the blame on Christine, now start to plan on how to get their hands on the next baby before the priest can baptize it.
Isn’t this a delicious story? You will have to read it yourself to find out what happens and what it has to do with the black post at the beginning of the story. It is safe to say that the Godly win. And, of course, as long as the people in the valley remain Godly they have nothing to fear from the spider. We are reminded that inborn purity, like family honor,
must be upheld day after day, for a single unguarded moment can besmirch it for generations with stains as indelible as bloodstains, which are impervious to whitewash.
Of course it is the clever woman, Christine, who persuades the men to allow evil into the community. And generations later when the spider strikes again it is also women who are at the root of its reappearance. But you know Eve set the precedent in the Garden so the fault is always with the women because men just can’t say no to their persuasive powers. Given that the story was originally written in 1842 the sexism can be noted but tolerated and the story enjoyed for its delicious horrors.
I can chalk this one up as another RIP Challenge read as well as mark it down as my NYRB subscription October read. Woo! Two birds, one stone and all that. The Mysteries of Udolpho is almost done too. Next week for sure. I’d say I am doing really well with my October reading plan but I don’t want to jinx myself. Oops, I think I just did.