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Literature / The Spider (1908)

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"The Spider" ("Die Spinne") is a Short Story belonging to the genre of Gothic Horror with a sprinkling of Black Comedy. It was written by Hanns Heinz Ewers in 1908 and published that same year in Die Besessenen. At the time, Ewers was staying in Ault, Somme in France, hence why the story takes place in France and stars French characters. It's generally assumed that "The Dead Leman" and "L'oeil invisible" by Erckmann-Chatrian played a role in Ewers' creative process, to the point that similarities between "L'oeil invisible" and "The Spider" led to plagiarism allegations.

In room #7 of Hotel Stevens in Paris, three men have hanged themselves on three successive Fridays, each time between five and six o'clock. Enhancing the mystery, each man was found hanging from a curtain cord attached to a hook embed in the window's cross-bar. Like this, their knees were as good as touching the floor, making the suicides particularly dedicated ones. The three all led fulfilling lives and the third even was an officer investigating the case. Richard Bracquemont, a student of medicine, hears of the mystery and manipulates the inspector of police into letting him be the next field agent. Once established in room #7, he begins a journal so that whatever may come will be recorded. Against all expectations, he survives the first week and with his new sense of ease he seeks contact with the spinstress behind the window across the street from his. Her name is Clarimonde, or so he is convinced. And despite not thinking himself the type for love, he's attracted to her. During this second week, he spends his hours observing her and communicating with her through the window, though never by talking. He survives the second week too, and from then on makes work of his relationship with Clarimonde by spending his days playing copycat games with her from behind their windows. Then, once more, comes Friday, and this time Bracquemont is afraid that maybe tonight he'll hang himself. Perhaps the one thing that made it not so was a timely call by the inspector, who comes over and invites Bracquemont out for the evening as a distraction from his work. Bracquemont accepts and enjoys himself, but finds himself working even harder for Clarimonde's favor during the fourth week of his vigil. By Thursday, he realizes he is completely under her control and only delaying his ultimate fate on Friday six o'clock. Yet when he goes to hang himself, what remains of his will allows him to bite down on a spider crawling in his mouth. At five past six, Bracquemont is found dead by the inspector, who storms out to the flat across the street upon reading Bracquemont's journal. As it turns out, no one has lived there for many months.

Tropes found in this story include:

  • Action Girl: Bracquemont notes that among the twenty-seven people that tried to be picked to solve the case, there were three women.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Little is certain about Clarimonde, but at least it's a safe bet that her human form isn't real, because any physical evidence denies its existence and the inability to truly memorize her appearance, fantasize her differently, or imagine her home or her life outside of her flat all point towards the human form being a facade put in the victims' mind. The human form is needed to keep the victim compliant.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Due to Clarimonde being written as a classic monster despite not being one, a lot of uncertainty remains regarding her identity, motives, and if she met her end or not. There's a vampiric element to her, firstly for sharing a name with the vampire from "The Dead Leman" and secondly because Bracquemont observes a female spider draining a male spider. But there's no hint what Clarimonde would feed on. There's no mention of the corpse's blood (or lack thereof) nor is any flesh missing. Given the curious fact a spider is twice found in a victim's mouth, she might as well be a final breath-eater. And that makes for the second big question: is Clarimonde dead with the death of the spider between Bracquemont's teeth, or is there more of her? The story seems to want to wrap up with the dead spider, but earlier the one paragraph spent on Clarimonde's spider form declines to confirm each spider sighting as the same spider. Thirdly, it is not explained why Clarimonde only kills on Fridays between five and six o'clock. The hour is given as being the time it gets dark, but while that is true for winter, the story lasts until the end of March, at which point it's no longer true yet six o'clock remains the deadline.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The story is mostly told through the journal of Richard Bracquemont.
  • Arachnid Appearance and Attire: Clarimonde's human form is an Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette whose hair is black and wavy and whose eyes, framed by long and dark eyelashes, are big and dark with an intense glow. She also follows Evil Wears Black with a black dress embroidered with a lilac motif, as well as black gloves. For the record, her spider form is a huge black spider whose body is dotted with purple spots.
  • The Calls Are Coming from Inside the House: A version without telephone, but still within the trope's spirit. For all the time Bracquemont understood Clarimonde to be dangerous, he still thought there was a street between them. It'll have been in his final moments that he understood she had always been in the same room as he.
  • Cassandra Truth: Invoked. The third death is Charles-Maria Chaumié, who volunteered to stay in room #7 specifically to solve the case. He was to report his findings every morning and evening at the police station. By Wednesday, he already had a bad feeling about Clarimonde, but for fear of looking foolish only relayed that he had a clue. After that Clarimonde's influence grew too big for him to ever rat her out.
  • Cut Phone Lines: On the Friday of the fourth week, Bracquemont cuts the telephone cord. He doesn't "wish to be continually disturbed by the idiotic inspector just as the mysterious hour arrives", knowing very well that line of thinking isn't his own.
  • Da Chief: The inspector of police meets the criteria, although he is mellow with Bracquemont once the other bluffs himself into the case.
  • Fattening the Victim: There's some implication that a reason Bracquemont lasted longer than the others is because he's a Starving Student, while the others were well-fed. On the Monday of the second week, Bracquemont mentions he's "fattening up nicely" in the care of Madame Dubonnet.
  • Femme Fatale: Clarimonde, who will seduce you, ensnare you, and then kill you. By the time you realize she's dangerous, you're in no position to change your fate.
  • Foreshadowing: On Sunday past the second Friday, Bracquemont witnesses a male spider court a female spider and then get eaten by her despite his best efforts to escape. This is followed by Dramatic Irony when Bracquemont concludes he's lucky not to be a spider himself.
  • Good Luck Charm: After Madame Dubonnet lost nearly all her guests and regulars, opera star Mary Garden drops by to purchase the curtain cord Chaumié killed himself with as a good luck charm for a whopping two hundred francs.
  • Gossipy Hens: Madame Dubonnet is one. As Bracquemont puts it: "The whole neighborhood knows I am here, and why. Madame Dubonnet has seen to that."
  • Hope Spot: At 6 o'clock on the Friday of the third week, Bracquemont is far gone and realizes there is a chance he might hang himself that night despite that he has no desire to do so. Then the inspector calls, as he had been doing every Friday to make sure Bracquemont is okay. In a moment of clarity, the student screams at him to come at once, which the inspector does. By then the clarity is gone and Bracquemont denies there having been trouble, prompting a fourth week of surveillance. Oh, Crap! enters the scene when on the fourth Friday, Clarimonde demonstrates cutting the phone line and Bracquemont has no choice but to do the same.
  • If Only You Knew: Overlaps with Posthumous Character. The second to last paragraph before the journal starts is about the spider found in the vicinity of each hanged man. The words are from the narrator and are aimed at the audience, lamenting that Bracquemont wasn't told about the spider or else he might've stood a chance.
  • I Lied: Bracquemont's very first journal entry dedicates seven of its ten paragraphs to how he totally lied to the police about having a plan to solve the case, to the point he barely understands that it worked, and that he considers this a good start of his investigation. Mind that the journal is meant to be read by the police when either the case is solved or Bracquemont's become the fourth victim.
  • It's All About Me: Madame Dubonnet shows signs of this. She's only concerned about the deaths insofar that they keep the guests and their money away from Hotel Stevens. Her lack of sympathy for the dead men becomes evident when she shares her theories on why each one killed himself: the first she doesn't know (but he was a traveller, so anything could be the cause), and the second she has seen with a young woman and so an unhappy love affair must be the cause. The third, the police officer who was to solve the case, must've done it just to annoy her. When the first Friday of his stay arrives and Dubonnet asks him to leave room #7, Bracquemont's wryly notes that she probably doesn't want him to annoy her for the heck of it too.
  • Mind Manipulation: Clarimonde can slowly but surely take control of her victims until she can move their bodies against their will. It comes to a head on Tuesday of the third week when Bracquemont describes a peculiar game he and Clarimonde have come up with and play all day long. It involves him coming up with all kinds of movements and combinations thereof and rhythms to perform them in and Clarimonde copying them faithfully. She does so flawlessly and instantly... almost as if she knows ahead of time what gesture is to come. It takes Bracquemont until the Thursday of the fourth week to realize he never directed Clarimonde's movements but that she directed his. And for that matter, that he can't refuse her anymore.
  • No Name Given: Neither the first victim, a Swiss travelling salesman, nor the inspector of police are given any sort of name. The latter is a major character, while the former is the only victim who goes unnamed.
  • Numerological Motif: The numbers 3, 5, 6, and 7 are a recurring element in the story. Between five and six o'clock is when the suicides take place, and Bracquemont is found dead at five past six. As well, the events occur within the sixth arrondissement of Paris. Rule of Three goes because there's three victims when the story commences and Clarimonde's flat is said to have three windows. Rule of Seven goes because there's seven days between the suicide hours and the suicides happen in room #7.
  • Only in It for the Money: There's an element of excitement too, but Richard Bracquemont is foremost a Starving Student, who by being assigned to the case has a free roof over his head, free food in his stomach, and all the time to devote to his medical studies. He believes that the others who tried to insert themselves in the investigation also are "poor devils like [him]".
  • Rule of Scary: Clarimonde waves so many red flags before she truly has control over her victims that only the fact she's unnatural and therefore unbelievable ensures her success. She makes her victims know her name without ever communicating it. Yet for as sure as her victims are of her name, her appearance is something they can't keep a clear mental picture of or fantasize any alterations to. Of the three windows of her flat, she only ever sits behind the one right across of the window of room #7. She spins all day on a spindle that hasn't been common since three generations ago and then she abruptly stops at five o'clock when the sun goes down. No light is ever seen in her flat and even after two weeks of observing her, she's never seen leaving her room.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Clarimonde is likely named after the vampire of "The Dead Leman", which makes hers a Meaningful Name.
    • Mary Garden is a Historical Domain Character, a successful operatic soprano in her time. In "The Spider", she buys the curtain cord Chaumié killed himself with as a good luck charm.
  • Sneaky Spider: Clarimonde plays the long game to gain control of her victims and all that time makes it look like she's something she's not, not to mention like she's at a distance when she's not.
  • Taking You with Me: The Hero Dies, because Richard Bracquemont ultimately can't save himself from Clarimonde, but he can maul that damned spider between his teeth when she comes for him.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Clarimonde presents herself as a spinstress, capable of creating the finest threads.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Madame Dubonnet believes that spiders bring luck and therefore won't have any removed from Hotel Stevens. This certainly is convenient to Clarimonde. As is the fact that Madame Dubonnet feeds her guests well.