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Literature / The Black Spider

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The Black Spider (German: Die Schwarze Spinne) is a 1842 Fantasy/Horror German novel written by Swiss Jeremias Gotthelf (real name Albert Bitzius).

A peasant's family is throwing a party, when one woman asks the grandfather about a strange black window post in his house, prompting the grandfather to tell the story.

Six hundred years ago, the valley was ruled by a ruthless baron called Hans von Stoffeln, who worked the villagers nearly to death. When one of his ludicrous demands entailed the peasants' probably death by starvation, the village was visited by a wild huntsman, who offered his help... in exchange for a yet unborn unchristened child.

The villagers quickly realized who they were dealing with and rejected his offer, but the devil tried to force the issue by sabotaging their work. Eventually, a farmer's wife called Christine convinced everybody to take the deal, arguing they could wiggle their way out of it by baptizing every newborn right away. The Devil sealed their deal by giving Christine a kiss on her cheek, and the replanting of trees was finished quickly and easily.

Things began going wrong, though, when the villagers tried to renege on their agreement. The first time they baptized a baby before the Devil could claim it, a spider-shape mark appeared on Christine's face; the second time, a swarm of black spiders sprouted from the mark, and started killing the villagers' cattle. the third and final time, the Devil was driven away, but Christine transformed into a black spider, and started terrorizing the region, killing both men and animals. Her rampage was stopped when one of her victims' mother managed to trap the black spider in a window post, at the cost of her own life.

Several generations later, though, people had stopped believing in the tale and become decadent, and a bragging servant pulled out the peg on a drunken bet, releasing the devil spider again.

The Black Spider was obscure for many years, but it is now considered one of the masterworks of the German Biedermeier era (1815-1848), and it has been enthusiastically praised by writers like Thomas Mann, who admired the novella "like no other piece of world literature."

Tropes found in this work:

  • And I Must Scream: Christine is permanently transformed into a mindless, immortal large black spider, and sealed away in a hollowed-out wood beam. By the time the story starts, she has remained imprisoned in her narrow hole for six hundred years.
  • Anywhere but Their Lips: The Devil seals their deal by kissing Christine on her cheek (stealthily putting a cursed mark on her in case she tries to scam him out of his prize later).
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Hans von Stoffeln, the knight baron who ruled over the valley six hundred years ago, was a nasty piece of work: he worked the farmers nearly to death, imposed high taxes, demanded ridiculous tasks from his serfs and punished dissent and criticism very harshly.
  • Asshole Victim: One of the victims of the black spider was von Stoffeln. He was not mourned.
  • Book Ends: The story starts and ends with the grandfather telling a story during his family's party.
  • Buried Alive: A woman manages to lure the black spider into a hole in a wooden beam; then she hammers a peg into the hole to seal it away forever.
  • Curse: The Devil puts a curse on Christine by kissing her cheek. First, a black spider-shaped mark appears on her face. Later, a swarm of tiny venomous spiders sprout from her face and slay the villagers' cattle. After the Devil is driven away, Christine transforms into a huge black spider.
  • Dark Is Evil: The black spider is a demonic monster which rampages through the valley, killing both humans and animals.
  • The Dark Side Will Make You Forget: After being turned into a monstrous spider, Christine loses her personality, memories and identity and completely forgets her well-meaning goals, becoming nothing but a merciless killing machine.
  • Deal with the Devil: The devil offers to help the farmers fulfill von Stoffeln's outrageous demands in exchange for an unbaptized child. When they refuse, everything starts going wrong with their work. Eventually, Christine convinces the villagers to accept the devil's bargain, arguing they could escape it by baptizing every child immediately at birth.
  • Did You Just Scam Cthulhu?: Deconstructed. The villagers think they can cheat the Devil out of his reward, but it turns out you cannot outscam someone who was already a liar and scammer long before humans ever existed.
  • Forced Transformation: Christine is turned into a huge, demonic black spider when she tries to renege on her deal.
  • Giant Spider: The black spider is as large as a human child, and its skin is poisonous.
  • Good Shepherd: The priest tries to help the beleaguered villagers to the best of his ability, and he gets killed as trying save a baby's life and soul.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The black spider's first rampage was stopped when a woman imprisons the spider in a window post. Several generations later, a farmhand releases the spider, and his master Christen dies in the process of sealing the spider away again.
  • Holy Burns Evil: Played with. The priest drives the devil away with a prayer, but when he tries to burn away Christine's cursed spider-mark by sprinkling holy water on it, the woman transforms into a black spider and kills him off.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Devil presents himself as a human wild hunter.
  • Impossible Task: The whole mess happened because von Stoffeln demanded the peasants replanted the trees of a distant mountain to form a shaded path on his state, and he demanded this job be done in such a short period that the peasants could never complete it without abandoning their own harvest and going hungry.
  • Karmic Death: Von Stoffeln is killed off by the black spider, a monster which was created because his outrageous demands pushed desperate farmers to bargain with the Devil.
  • Legend Fades to Myth: The black spider is imprisoned alive, but several generations later it is set free by a farmhand who believed the original story to be a myth. The monster is again locked away in a hollow beam, and six hundred years later, a man tells his clueless family the whole story so they know why they must not tinker with an strange, old window post.
  • Leonine Contract: If the villagers do not take up the Devil's offer to give him a newborn baby in exchange for helping them fulfill the baron's task, they will likely starve to death. When they initially turn his offer down, he forces the issue by sabotaging the replanting.
  • A Magic Contract Comes with a Kiss: The Devil seals his deal with the villagers by kissing Christine on the cheek; in reality, he is putting a curse on her to ensure the villagers will not renege on their agreement.
  • Mama Bear: The first time around, the black spider was not defeated by any soldier or hunter... but for mother whose son was being threatened.
  • Redhead In Green: The Devil takes shape of a red-haired, green-clad human hunter.
  • Rule of Three: The villagers cheat the Devil out of his payment three times before Christine is turned into a monster.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The black spider is sealed away when a mother, to protect her own newborn, grabs it and, dying, imprisons it in a hole in a wooden beam of her house, into which she hammers a peg to seal away the spider forever. Generations later, when people have stopped believing in the tale and become sinful, a bragging servant pulls out the peg on a drunken bet and releases the devil spider.
  • Spider Swarm: When the villagers refuse to hold up your end of the bargain for the second time, a swarm of tiny, poisonous spiders sprout from Christine's face mark and start killing the village's cattle.
  • Touch of Death: People die when they touch the black spider.
  • Was Once a Man: The giant black spider used to be a farmer's wife who tried to wiggle her way out of a deal with the devil.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The only reason Christine talked the farmers into making a deal with the Devil was because she was sick of the baron's abuse of power, and she thought they could scam the Devil out when their current predicament was over.
  • Yodel Land: The setting is a remote Swiss valley. The village and the surrounding forests and prairies are picturesque but not even remotely peaceful, what with the local baron crushing the peasants, and the demonic giant spider terrorizing the valley.