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5.0 out of 5 stars Possibly not for arachnophobes..., 24 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: The Black Spider (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
The Black Spider is an allegorical tale seeking to demonstrate the benefits of a fervently God-fearing life and the contrasting hell-on-Earth that results from dealing with the Devil. And I do mean God-fearing because the book's closing sentence is explicit that God is the source both of the powers of men and of the evil done by The Black Spider! Written in the first half of the 19th century, the tone of the book is almost mediaeval (bringing to mind those vivid altarpiece paintings of the torments of hell). The author was born in 1797, the son of a pastor, and himself became a pastor in the Emmental. Jeremias Gotthelf (pen name of Albert Bitzius) has written a narrative that is genuinely disturbing, quite frightening at times, and that I think will lurk for a long time in the mind of most who read it. Anyone who has felt uneasy when a house spider streaks across the floor on long flickering legs will be quaking in their shoes at times. But the reader must be prepared for an opening 20 pages or so of bucolic scene-setting (becoming a little tedious...), lots of in-your-face sermonising, and a fundamental misogyny. Of course, the period feel is part of the book's interest. The story of the Black Spider, and its depredations in the distant past, is related by an aged grandfather. The trouble started when a woman with ideas and dynamism above her station in life (adding xenophobia to misogyny, she's identified as an immigrant to the cosy little valley) tried - by negotiating with the devilish Green Huntsman - to relieve the village men of an immense and impossible task they had been set by a cruel nobleman. Almost unwittingly she creates a pact with the Devil that results in the birth of the Black Spider when the pact is broken, and the spider proceeds to spread death and destruction to man and beast alike throughout the region. I shouldn't reveal more of the plot. The NYRB is to be congratulated for publishing this important work in English, and for the quality of the book production. The cover is particularly apt, showing a waxwork image of an 18th century "Allegory of Vanity", ie. half a charming female face and half a worm-ridden skull (but I'm too childishly literal-minded not to be irritated by the fact that the spider-like creature on the skull appears to have only six legs instead of eight; perhaps it is a beetle?).
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