It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There's no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.
Jeremias Gotthelf, the pen name of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854), was a Swiss pastor and the author of novels, novellas, short stories, and nonfiction, who used his writing to communicate his reformist concerns in the field of education and with regard to the plight of the poor. After the success of his first novel, Der Bauernspiegel oder Lebensgeschichte des Jeremias Gotthelf: Von ihm selbst beschrieben (The Peasants' Mirror; or, The Life History of Jeremias Gotthelf: Described by Himself; 1836) the author adopted the name of the story's protagonist. Among his major works to have appeared in English translation are The Black Spider; Ulric, the Farm Servant; and The Story of an Alpine Valley.
Susan Bernofsky is the translator of six books by Robert Walser as well as works by Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, Hermann Hesse, Gregor von Rezzori, and others. The current chair of the PEN Translation Committee, she teaches at the Writing Program at Columbia University, where she is director of the Graduate Translation Program, and is at work on a biography of Walser.