Friday, May 4, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #15: A review of "The Spider" by Hanns Heinz Ewers
Even though there have been a number of stories purposely vague so far in this volume, this is the first to go one step beyond that and rely on subtlety to get its point across. There is nothing scary happening on the surface of this story. Everything meant to creep the reader out is between the lines.
This is the tale of a hotel located at 6 Alfred Stevens Street, room 7. There have been a series of suicides by hanging—three to be exact—and they go out the same way, from the same beam, the same hook, and the same cord, and they die on consecutive Fridays, all at six o’clock. None of them were suicidal in the slightest. In fact, the third was a police officer investigating the deaths, only to become a victim himself.
Enter student Richard Bracquemont. He’s not afraid of anything—in fact, he pulls a scam on the constable and the woman who runs the hotel in order to get the room—and while he’s intent on solving this mystery, he’s also focused on using this time to study. As he does so, he is constantly bothered by everyone who wants to know if he's all right, especially on the dreaded Friday.
Yet, somehow he survives this Friday, and the next, as well. In the meantime, something, or rather someone, has caught his interest. He gives up on both mystery and studies because he has fallen in love with the woman across the alley from his window. She sits at her own window, spinning something on a spindle. At first, they merely acknowledged each other, but soon they have developed a game in which she imitates every movement he makes. Before long, he devotes much of his time to coming up with complicated gestures for her to mirror, and she always does an excellent job. Before long, they are blowing kisses to each other.
Doesn’t sound very scary, does it? In fact, only the first part sounds like a horror story. But if you haven’t surmised what is going on by this point, perhaps you’re unfamiliar with how seemingly normal things can take on insidious meanings in horror fiction.
SPOILER ALERT: As unfortunate as it is, this story probably seemed more frightening to people in 1915. Modern readers would understand what is going on right away, especially when Bracquemont mentions the spiders. On the window through which he usually contacts Clarimonde, the woman in question, he sees a giant spider web. There are two spiders on it, one male and one female. The male seems frightened of his mate, and somehow the female manages to seduce the male into coming back to her after he tries to run away. There is a weird hypnotic thing going on between them, and finally, when he realizes the danger he’s in, he tries to flee again. The female catches him, wraps him up, and sucks the life out of him.
Predictably, that is exactly what is happening between Clarimonde and Bracquemont. Before long, he recognizes that it is not she who is imitating him, but he who is imitating she. She is exerting some kind of mental domination over him, and naturally this leads to his suicide by hanging on Friday, at the predictable time of six o’clock. END OF SPOILERS.
Sometimes, the finest horror fiction exploits the very basic human fear of being unable to control oneself. This is the finest example of that kind of tale. It’s a shame that Ewers is practically forgotten today. Once again, a big thank you to Mr. Pelan for aiding in the continued survival of a master of horror.
[This is not confirmed, as it is very difficult to find this information, but I think this story might have first appeared in a magazine called ZEITGEIST. However, during my research, I found out a lot of interesting things about Ewers. For example, he was an early member of the Nazi party, despite the fact that he was not anti-Semetic. In addition to that, he was also gay (another big no-no for a Nazi) and a Satanist who liked hanging out with Aleister Crowley. As a result of this, his work was banned in Germany, and his property was seized by the Nazis. He died destitute of TB. In addtion to all of this, he was also a nudist and a cabaret performer. Quite the lively fellow, no? He also wrote an interesting book about using a hanged man's cum to impregnate a prostitue, who gives birth to a crazy woman with a bad murder habit. Ewers was waaaaay ahead of his time. Anyway, "The Spider" can be read here.]