The Black Spider

Jeremias Gotthelf
The Black Spider Cover

The Black Spider


Above the mountains rose the sun, shining in limpid majesty down into a welcoming but narrow valley where it woke to joyous life creatures that had been created to take pleasure in the sunshine of their days.

Readers are right to feel they are being set up by this opening sentence. Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider is one of the great horror tales of the nineteenth century. He maintains his bucolic tone for the first third of his novella. There is to be a baptism this day. A feast must be prepared, neighbors gather for a parade to the church, there is some mildly comic confusion among the participants. Life is good in this prosperous Swiss farming community.

But once the meal and toasts are over and the company settles down for an afternoon of lazy talk, a young woman asks the meaning of an ancient, blackened brick set into the wall of the large farmhouse. A chill falls among the older guests, but the grandfather agrees to tell the tale.

The story begins in the time of the crusades. There is a deal struck with the devil, and what follows could more properly be titled An Enormous Number of Black Spiders than the modest title it has. Gottheld's themes promote his reformed, Protestant theology over Catholicism and then later worldly decadence. But no sermonizing gets in the way of the creepy good time he serves up.