Thursday, July 04, 2019

"The Spider" (1908)

This fine and widely collected story by the German writer Hanns Heinz Ewers is approximately where my shallow grounding in fantasy and speculative fiction begins to show. It's all I know by him, though he wrote many other stories and is actually best known for a novel, Alraune, which is part of a trilogy. He kept himself otherwise occupied in a number of useful ways, such as editing an eight-volume collection of horror and fantasy literature, preaching Satanism on the lecture circuit, and likely loading up on absinthe a lot. He was probably gay and dallied long enough with German Nazis to destroy his own reputation, even though the Nazis personally destroyed his life because he was homosexual.

In many ways Ewers trucked with his own disreputability (like Mick Jagger or Marilyn Manson), and some of that is seen in "The Spider," which for example helps itself to ideas and signifiers from a couple of other very specific sources. In one case it verges on plagiarism. Ah but what is it that Ewers's Spanish contemporary, Pablo Picasso, is reputed to have said? Good artists copy. Great artists steal. Ewers makes vast improvements on what he steals. And then, in an amazing feat of something like time travel, he rhymes details in this story in uncanny ways with Roman Polanski's 1976 movie The Tenant and reminds us we shouldn't stay up all night on the internet.

The story begins with a strange problem, borrowed directly from the 1857 story "The Invisible Eye" by Erckmann-Chatrian, a pair of 19th-century French writers who published under their joint surnames. Suicides are occurring in a particular apartment at the rate of one per week. The people are taking their lives in the same strange way and at the same hour and day of the week, between 5 and 6 on Friday afternoons. Contrary to what you would think, the publicity and strange challenge have made the apartment in this story more sought after rather than less, even though the rest of the building has virtually emptied out. The first place it reminded me of The Tenant was in the cold-blooded way the main character pursues getting into an apartment recently vacated by unexplained suicide.

About those suicides. The men (all men) have been hanging themselves from a hook in a specific window sash using curtain cord. Identical multiple suicides are the basic premise of "The Invisible Eye" too (and for that matter also occur at one point in Arthur Machen's long 1894 story "The Great God Pan"), but Ewers dresses his up with a remarkably macabre detail: "Since the window was rather low, [the suicide's] legs dragged on the ground almost to his knees. The suicide must consequently have exercised considerable will-power in carrying out his intentions."

The structure of "The Spider" is more 19th-century in style, the story is more verbose, longer and more ranging, though its voice is modern in certain distinctive ways. It starts with a neutral third-person narrator reporting the facts of the first three suicides—the third is actually a policeman working the case (don't ask why they don't post two). Then the classic old tired device of a diary is introduced, telling the story first-person of the fourth occupant of the apartment, who somehow manages to make it a few weeks longer than the recent cases. I'm unconvinced by the diary device in general, but "The Spider" redeems it by giving this journal keeper, a medical student, a kind of fascinating reptilian character and voice.

For example, getting into the apartment in the first place. He competed for it with dozens of others, and congratulates himself on his cunning, announcing his lie to the police proudly as he records it in his diary. The police had been demanding specific plans of action for entry. "So I told [them] I had exactly that kind of plan," the medical student writes. "Of course I had no such thing.... I told [them] the most glorious nonsense, of which I myself hadn't had the least notion even a second beforehand. I don't know even now how I came by this unusual inspiration so opportunely. I told him that among all the hours of the week there was one that had a secret and strange significance. That was the hour in which Christ left His grave to go down to hell: the sixth hour of the afternoon of the last day of the Jewish week."

Sure enough, it gets him in. Ewers has set a hook deep with those suicides. It's a mystery that must be solved, even if badly. When a writer paints himself into a corner like that you want to know how it pays off. The expectation is that it will be badly, but a detail like that is taking out a loan on its own credibility. Sooner or later it owes an explanation. The question simmers and gnaws away in the back of the head. One reason we're more open to the diary is because we want so badly to know. We want to see how this thing happens. The momentum is irresistible. It doesn't hurt that Ewers's language (at least in the translation by Walter F. Kohn in The Weird, which is better than the others linked below) is seductive, confiding, and charmingly arrogant. There are things not working in this story as well, such as the spider theme itself, which does seem rote and overdone, attempting to evoke the uncanny rather than simply being it, as with the suicides. Maybe that's because spiders don't bother me. If it were cockroaches, that would be different.

Then the medical student sees a woman in the window of an apartment across from his. He notices her sitting there at her work (spinning thread, of course). She is looking at him. This was the other primary touchpoint for me with The Tenant. One of that movie's most memorable scenes is a nighttime visit to a shared bathroom down a hallway, from which Polanski's tenant can see a woman sitting in a similar bathroom across the way, with the light on, watching him. It's one of the most unnerving things in the movie, and I was reminded of it by the medical student's early sightings of the woman.

Somehow he knows her name is Clarimonde, which is such an unusual and lovely name that I was prompted to search on it. The result, practically the only result, led me to an 1836 vampire story by the French writer Theophile Gautier, "La morte amoureuse," whose title alone has a wonderfully suggestive range of translation: "Clarimonde" (the name of the undead creature in the story), "The Deathly Lover," "The Amorous Corpse," "The Dreamland Bride," and "The Beautiful Dead," among others. It's about what you'd expect—beauty, seduction, blood-sucking, no remorse, etc. I haven't read that many vampire stories. I have nothing against them, they can work well, but this is more evidence of my shallow roots in fantasy.

For those who do know their way around it, the name Clarimonde along with the spiders likely signal a whole host of expectations, which Ewers thus never has to go into. The word "vampire" never occurs in this story, for example. It's possible, in the passage above about conning his way into the apartment, that Clarimonde was already in the medical student's head with that weird story about Christ going down to hell. The medical student and the woman begin a relationship across the way between the windows. Soon she is clouding his mind and he is falling in love with her. "I light my pipe and bend over my books. But I don't read a word. Of course I always make this attempt, but I know beforehand that it won't do any good. Then I go to the window. I greet Clarimonde, and she returns my greeting. We smile and gaze at one another—for hours."

They develop a game, the details of which are there to be discovered, including a brilliant inversion of perception on which the whole story turns. It's another great part of this story. Ewers strikes these modern chords so effortlessly it's uncanny. The medical student's obsession with the game reminds me of nothing so much as days and nights lost to the internet. Here's a telling series of diary entries:

Sunday, March 20
Today I can only repeat: we played all day long.

Monday, March 21
We played all day long.

Tuesday, March 22
Yes, and today we did the same. Nothing, absolutely nothing else.

Eventually, and it creeps up on us as insidiously as him—this story is quite skillfully done—the medical student realizes he is going to commit suicide. It's a nearly perfect note of dread as it emerges. He knows it's what she wants and how she wants him to do it. And he knows he's going to do it. We all do. "I feel this uncanny thing getting stronger every minute," he writes, while he is still able to resist. We have known he died since the earliest part of the story, and the manner too. And so, meticulously dotting every i and crossing every t on the way, Ewers brings it home with a final revelation about the apartment across the way. "The Spider" is a relatively long story, categorized as a novelette by some sources (whatever). It reaches far back and far forward in time, offers up a rainbow of the uncanny, and is always urbane, entertaining, and completely amazing in some of its effects.

The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

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