Thursday, August 23, 2012

M.R.James and Spiders

                                                        Above: a large spider. Yuk. 

I'm posting another article which I wrote for the M.R.James Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter because, like the one about wells, it is not available online and the issue in question (number 10, September 2006) is now out of print. It's been a rather spidery week, as we went to Deep Sea World in North Queensferry yesterday and saw their colony of pink-toed tarantulas. Aptly, this article is about spiders. 
M.R.James wrote a story called The Ash Tree which features huge venomous spiders of supernatural origin; elsewhere in his work spiders are used as a metaphor for all that makes the flesh creep! The article was the result of a little research I did into other chilling tales about spiders which may or may not have influenced him. 

The Black Spider
Antecedents of "The Ash Tree"
by Helen Grant

"Other people have written of dreadful spiders – for instance, Erckmann-Chatrian in an admirable story called L’Araignée Crabe..." In his introduction to the Collected Ghost Stories, M.R.James himself acknowledges the antecedents to "The Ash-Tree", his tale of vengeful witchcraft expressed through the agency of enormous venomous spiders. MRJ was a known arachnophobe, and his loathing of spiders is apparent not only in those stories which actually feature spiders, such as "The Ash-Tree" and the incomplete "Speaker Lenthall’s Tomb"[i], but also in his use of spider imagery to describe the demonic apparition in "Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book"[ii]. Were the horrific spiders of "The Ash-Tree" simply a product of MRJ’s arachnopobia, or were they inspired by a particular event or previous work of fiction? In her article, "Spiders in 'The Ash-Tree' "[iii],  Jacqueline Simpson eloquently argued that their creation was influenced by the "true" story of a horde of spiders which besieged the house of a Mr. Duncomb until destroyed by fire; the spiders’ appearance was attributed to witchcraft by the intended victim. There is, however, another possibility, cited by MRJ himself when he raises the question of whether his stories were "suggested by books". Did some fictional antecedent inspire the spiders of "The Ash-Tree"?
MRJ gives Erckmann-Chatrian’s[iv] "L’Araignée Crabe" as an example of other spider stories. There are certainly some points of similarity between the attacks of "L’Araignée Crabe" and that of MRJ’s spiders, but it would be hard to say that it inspired "The Ash-Tree", since the setting, range of characters and the spider itself are very different. "L’Araignée Crabe" is set in the spa town of Spinbronn (the name means "spider spring“ in German) where the business of the local doctor, Hâsselnoss, is ruined after a human skeleton, and then the corpses of animals and birds, fall out of the cavern where the spring originates, and frighten away the patients. A new young doctor, Weber, arrives from French Guiana with his black servant Agatha in tow, and takes over the business and the one remaining patient, Sir Thomas Hawerburch. Sir Thomas reveals a loathing of spiders after seeing one of Weber’s specimens brought back from Guiana. Later, after rashly deciding to bathe in the waters before the cavern, he is attacked and killed by something. Weber uses some kind of hypnotic magic to find out via Agatha what it is that has happened: a gigantic spider, far bigger than those she ever saw in her native Guiana, has bitten him whilst he bathes; he has cried out and died, and the spider has drawn him into its web. "Maintenant il est tout noir,[v] exclaims Agatha. The villagers then employ the time-honoured device of burning the creature out. The spider is consumed in the flames.
Erkcmann-Chatrian’s spider is described by Agatha as being "grosse comme ma tête!“ – as big as her head. When the spiders in "The Ash-Tree" are burnt out, the watchers see "a round body covered with fire – the size of a man’s head – appear very suddenly". Erckmann-Chatrian’s spider leaves its victims dead and black. "So with Sir Richard – dead and black in his bed!" MRJ tells us. "L’Araignée Crabe" features the mysterious Agatha, who is seen as impossibly exotic by the inhabitants of Spinbronn, and who appears to have supernatural powers, since she can be made to see what has happened at a distance and in the past. "The Ash-Tree" features the witch Mrs. Mothersole, who directs the spiders’ revenge upon the Fells. The spiders in both tales finally meet a fiery end. This is, however, as far as the similarities go. The spiders of Castringham Hall are numerous; the spider of Spinbronn is a single monster. MRJ’s spiders, although living creatures, are quite clearly of supernatural origin, somehow directed by the will of Mrs. Mothersole, whose desiccated corpse shares their lair in "The Ash-Tree". Their motive is to wreak revenge upon the Fells. "L’Araignée Crabe", by contrast, though loathsome and deadly, appears to be a natural phenomenon; at the end of the story, the explanation is suggested that the thermal waters of the spring produced the same localised climate and temperature as that of Africa or South America, and thus enabled the spider to grow to its unusual size. There is no suggestion of any motivation other than the mindless aggression of a predatory animal; the only thing that the victim, Sir Thomas, does to provoke his horrible end is innocently to bathe in the spring waters near its cave.
The most interesting point for the MRJ enthusiast is probably the contrast in styles between Erckmann-Chatrian’s tale and "The Ash-Tree"; taking similar subject-matter, they have produced vastly different works. "L’Araignée Crabe" ranges from the jovially humorous – as we hear that Sir Thomas, who does not flee with the other patients, would have drunk "bouillon de squelette“ (skeleton soup) if he had thought it would cure his gout – to the melodramatic, as one of the villagers hurls an axe at the burning spider and showers the scene with gouts of blood. It is, indeed, an "admirable story" in its own way, but it cannot help but throw MRJ’s understated style into sharp relief!
Although "L’Araignée Crabe" (published in the second half of the nineteenth century) is the antecedent to "The Ash-Tree" cited by MRJ himself, it was in fact preceded by another, considerably longer work: Gotthelf’s Die schwarze Spinne. The Black Spider, published in 1842, was the work of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854), under the pseudonym Jeremias Gotthelf. The son of a Swiss Protestant pastor, Gotthelf studied theology and later became a pastor himself. He wrote many works of fiction and essays, of which Die schwarze Spinne is undoubtedly the most famous; the German writer Thomas Mann said of it that he admired it more than nearly any other piece of world literature[vi].
Set in Gotthelf’s home, the Swiss Emmental, the novel opens with a christening at which a cousin asks the grandfather of the family why the house incorporates an odd piece of black wood. The grandfather then relates the tale of the Black Spider. Many generations before, the area was under the control of the cruel knight Hans von Stoffeln, who built himself a great castle on the Bärhegen hill. The knight declared that the men of the village must uproot one hundred beech trees from Münneberg and plant them on the hill leading up to the castle, to form an avenue. If they failed to do this within the specified time, they would be flogged to death and the dogs set upon their wives and children. As the villagers lamented the impossibility of the task, a mysterious gaunt huntsman dressed all in green appeared to them and offered to complete the work fort hem – the payment required being a single unbaptised baby. No-one dared accept the unholy bargain, and all continued to lament their situation, apart from one Christine, an outsider born in Lindau, a woman with "wild black eyes" who "had little fear of either God or man."[vii] Christine daringly met with the huntsman and agreed to his terms, which he sealed with a kiss; but where his lips had touched her face, she was left with a terrible burning sensation. Well, the work was completed as the huntsman had agreed, but the villagers soon fell to finding a way to cheat him of the promised baby. When the next child was born in the village, they had it baptised immediately to protect it. As the baptism was carried out, Christine suddenly felt an intense burning pain on her face where the huntsman had kissed her, and soon a black spot began to grow there. As the time came nearer for a second child to be born in the village, the black spot, which was growing ever larger, sprouted legs and flashing eyes, and the horrified villagers recognised it for an enormous poisonous spider. After the birth of the second baby, Christine tried desperately to interfere with the baptism, but was restrained. Whilst the villagers celebrated, Christine fell to the ground, wracked with terrible pains; her face split open and out poured a multitude of long-legged venomous black spiders which ran off into the night. Soon the villagers were disturbed in their revels by the sound of the cattle bellowing in their stalls. Upon investigating, it was discovered that the cattle were dead or panicking with fear; by morning all of them had succumbed and the cause was plain to see: swarms of poisonous black spiders. As the herds were ravaged, the villagers began to think that after all they might have to deliver up a baby to the huntsman; however their plans were thwarted at the last minute when the priest sprinkled holy water over the newborn at the moment when Christine prepared to hand it over.
Then followed a scene of gruesome horror: as the holy water splashed Christine, it shrivelled her up "with a hideous sizzling, like wool in a fire, or lime in water"[viii], until she dwindled down to a huge spider, perching on the child. At last the priest was able to pick the spider up and hurl it away. The child died, badly scorched, but its soul was saved through baptism. Meanwhile the priest suffered agonising pains in the hand and arm he used to hurl the spider away. The spider then conducted a reign of terror against the villagers, no longer just attacking cattle but now going for people, even the very old and babies in their cribs. It attacked in broad daylight, scuttling from person to person at the breakfast table; its bite brought burning pain and death, the victims turning black. It appeared at the castle and brought agonising burning death to Hans von Stoffeln and his men. Finally the reign of terror was ended by the selfless action of a mother: a woman in the village sought to protect her two children from the spider by making a hole in the timber in her house and preparing a peg blessed with holy water to seal the hole. When the spider appeared and went to attack her children, she picked it up, thrust it into the hole and sealed it inside with the peg. She died from its venom, but her children were saved.
This is the main narrative of the novel. The grandfather then relates how many years later the villagers had become complacent again and let the spider out; only by the personal sacrifice of a father was it imprisoned once more. His message is clear: the threat from the spider is ever-present, and only those who trust in God are safe from it.
So, did Gotthelf’s spiders inspire the monsters of "The Ash-Tree"? It is unlikely that we will ever be able to give a definitive yes to this question; it is more likely that Die schwarze Spinne will remain one of a number of possibilities, which include Mr. Duncomb’s spiders in Bury St. Edmunds. There are however quite a lot of points in its favour. M.R.James travelled in Germany and Switzerland; he read German (though unenthusiastically). Gotthelf’s work was therefore quite accessible to him. There was much to interest MRJ in the novel; the main narrative has a mediaeval European setting, and the whole book teems with colourful details of local culture and landscape. The central theme, that of mortals meddling with diabolical forces and subsequently being pursued by an implacable assailant, is one that features again and again in MRJ’s own tales. Although the book has a very different style and tone to MRJ’s stories, Die schwarze Spinne has, as they do, very definite rules. There is nothing random about the supernatural element in the novel – in fact it has a strong moral compass: no matter how dire the circumstances, a pact with the forces of evil can only ever lead to trouble; those same forces of darkness can only be overcome by trust in God, and self-sacrifice. By comparison, the loathsome monster of  "L’Araignée Crabe" was a real animal rather than a manifestation of evil, and merely indulging the appetites of its predatory nature.
There are also some striking similarities between the narrative details of  "The Ash-Tree" and Die schwarze Spinne. Both feature a multitude of spiders, rather than a single outsized one as in "L’Araignée Crabe". In both cases the spiders are the instrument of revenge; in "The Ash-Tree" they slay members of the family who brought about the execution of an old woman as a witch, and in Die schwarze Spinne they punish the villagers to failing to honour their diabolical pact. Each story has a central female figure who in some way controls the spiders; MRJ gives us the beldame Mrs. Mothersole, Gotthelf the presumptuous "woman from Lindau", Christine, who gives birth to the creatures. Each of these female characters is "venomous" in personality, Mrs. Mothersole having "the living Aspect of a mad Divell", Christine uttering savage howls as she circles the house where a baby is being baptised, desperate to lay hands upon it. The ends of these women bear striking similarities; after the ash tree burns down, Mrs. Mothersole’s desiccated corpse is found under the roots of the tree, the skin clinging to the bones; Christine herself shrivels up into the form of a spider, burnt by the holy water.
In each story, the spiders prey upon the local cattle. In "The Ash-Tree" the livestock of the Fells is subject to the "Castringham sickness" until Sir Richard moves into the fated bedroom and falls victim to the spiders. In Die schwarze Spinne the spiders’ first victims are the villagers’ cattle, as a warning of the devil’s wrath if the pact is not honoured. Gotthelf describes in horrific detail how the animals bellow and rampage in their stalls, desperate to escape, as the spiders swarm over everything. When the villagers drive the cattle outdoors in an attempt to save them, the spiders spring up out of the earth in the meadows, as thick as alpine flowers, and continue their venomous attacks[ix].
In both tales, the effect of the spiders’ attacks is the same: terrible agonies, as evinced by the details of Sir Matttew Fell’s death. "The Body was much Disorder’d as it laid in the Bed, being twisted after so extream a sort as gave too probable Conjecture that my worthy Friend and Patron had expir’d in great Pain and Agony," report Mr. Crome’s notes. Die schwarze Spinne abounds with descriptions of the terrible burning pains suffered by those whom the spider attacks, its preferred method being to crouch upon the victim’s head and bore into his brain with fire. The venom of the creature is so virulent that the mother who saves her children from it suffers a thousands agonies even from picking it up[x], and the priest who touches it erupts with painful black boils[xi]. We might compare the sufferings of the women who lay out Sir Matthew’s corpse and are smitten with pain and immoderate swelling for many weeks. The intolerable agonies of the spiders’ bites are accompanied by a hideous blackness: in "The Ash-Tree" Mr. Crome describes the "great Swelling and Blackness" of Sir Matthew’s corpse, and Sir Richard is also later found "dead and black in his bed!" In Die schwarze Spinne the first human victim is bitten in the foot, which instantly turns black[xii]; later Christian, the father who imprisons the spider a second time, finds his wife and mother dying, with black and swollen faces[xiii].
There are many points of similarity between "The Ash-Tree" and Die schwarze Spinne – but can we know for sure whether M.R.James’ story was influenced or even inspired by Gotthelf’s? Probably not. But one thing is certain: once read, Die schwarze Spinne is not easily forgotten. The Bulgarian-born German novelist Elias Canetti describes in his autobiography[xiv] how, after reading it, he found himself tormented by imaginary tickling sensations on his face, compulsively washed himself and checked his reflection in mirrors. What the novel would mean to an out-and.out arachnophobe can only be imagined! And to those who love the ghost stories of M.R.James, it is definitely worth taking time to read Die schwarze Spinne – if for no other reason than to see how another literary master handles the subject of spiders so effectively treated in "The Ash-Tree".


Die schwarze Spinne (German) by Jeremias Gotthelf is available in various editions; I used that of Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, ISBN 3-423-02633-2.
The Black Spider (translation into English by B.O.Adefope) is available from Knightcross Books, ISBN 1-874373-05-1.

[i] The most complete published version of this story appeared in the G&S Newsletter 7 (2005).
[ii] "Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form…and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this appalling effigy.” Later, the hero Dennistoun momentarily mistakes the thing’s hand for an enormous spider.
[iii] G&S Newsletter 5 (2004), pp. 16-17.
[iv] Émil Erckmann (1822-1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826-1890); born in the east of France, they met as students and later collaborated on a number of works of fiction including tales of the occult.
[v] “Now he is all black.”
[vi] "Ich bewundere (Die schwarze Spinne) wie kaum ein zweites Stück Weltliteratur.”
[vii] "Sie hatte wilde schwarze Augen und fürchtete sich nicht viel vot Gott und Menschen.”
[viii] "…schrumpft mit entsetzlichem Zischen Christine zusammen, wie Wolle im Feuer, wie Kalk im Wasser…”
[ix] It is interesting to note that the theme of dead cattle being the first sign of attacking spiders did not end with "The Ash-Tree”. The motif has featured in several horror films, including Kingdom of the Spiders (1975) starring William Shatner!
[x] "Unter tausendfachen Todesschmerzen drückte sie mit der einen Hand die Spinne ins bereitete Loch…”
[xi] "Hoch auf schwoll der Arm, schwarze Beulen quollen immer höher auf…” The priest’s sufferings are also highly reminiscent of the girlish experiences of "The Grandmother” in "An Evening’s Entertainment”: stung by a "black thing”, her arms swell up terrifically, the swelling accompanied by indescribable pain.
[xii] "under der Fuß ward Schwarz…”
[xiii] "(Die) hatten schon keine Stimme mehr in den hochaufgelaufenen schwarzen Gesichtern.”
[xiv] Entitled Die gerettete Zunge. Canetti first read Gotthelf’s novel in 1920.

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