One of the more interesting recent translated titles from New York Review Books, The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by Susan Bernofsky, resurrects a classic tale of horror from a Swiss pastor and sometime author who in his lifetime was one of the most popular German-language novelists of the Biedermeier period. The story concerns a village in a Swiss valley once ruled by the Teutonic Knights, which (literally) houses mementos of an unearthly plague centuries ago, when a Satanic black spider persecuted and poisoned most of the inhabitants. The story is renowned as one of the scariest and most horrific of its era, and the darkest parts haven’t significantly dated: Thomas Mann said he admired The Black Spider like no other as a piece of world literature.
Gotthelf himself (real name Albert Bitzius) was a social conservative, and those attitudes are intrinsic to the novel. Christine, the woman who spawns the Black Spider itself and later merges with it in a monstrous fusion, is presented in detail as a strong independent woman from outside the community, often critical of the menfolk, whose nature is implicated in the pact with Satan that unleashes the monster. And women “from foreign lands … devoted to vainglory and pride” are the agents of the second release of the Spider, when the wife and mother of the latter hero Christen conspire to henpeck him and bring down the house where the beast is imprisoned. The Other and the Dangerous Female are the agents sent to destroy the tranquil Swiss valley.
Structurally, the story is also one of those where a framing narrative gets implicated in the events being recounted, with that extra frisson when the listeners realize that the narrator’s hands have actually touched the block of wood where the cursed spider is imprisoned. This may also mean that modern readers get a little bored by the framing story, detailing a christening party in a Swiss farm, but they should stick with it: the central scenes of the woman’s transformation and the subsequent spider-borne plague are creepy enough to be worth it. The translation is also excellent: racy and idiomatic without losing the appropriate period flavor.