Albert Bitzius (1797-1854) was a Swiss pastor and author, who is better known by his pen name of Jeremias Gotthelf. Gotthelf was a prolific writer whose novels and stories were based on the people of his village, Luetzelflueh, in the Bernese Emmental.
Gotthelf is considered an important writer not only in Switzerland, but also as an important writer throughout the German-speaking world. Gotthelf’s works were primarily what we would today consider mainstream literature, but he did write one short novel that would be considered horror and for which he is renown: The Black Spider. Wikipedia notes:
The Black Spider is Gotthelf’s best known work. At first little noticed, the story is now considered by many critics to be among the masterworks of the German Biedermeier era and sensibility. Thomas Mann wrote of it in his The Genesis of Doctor Faustus that Gotthelf “often touched the Homeric” and that he admired The Black Spider “like no other piece of world literature.” [Thomas Mann quotation from One World Classics.]
I read The Black Spider as an undergrad around 1979. It sticks in my mind to this day. Admittedly, I had to read the Wikipedia synopsis to recall all the details, but over the decades I can still picture the hunter/the devil kissing Christine on the cheek knowing something evil would come from that simple, slightly stinging kiss and then the outpouring of thousands of murderous spiders from that spot when she breaks her oath to him. Somehow I can still recall how I felt the loathsome horror of that moment for her, not as if it were happening to me, but almost as if it were happening to someone standing next to me, as if it were happening to someone I knew. Perhaps this is because I sympathized with her goal. Christine was trying to save her village, her friends, and her family from starvation and overwork at the hands of a merciless overlord. The only way she could do it was to try to outwit the devil at the risk of horrendous consequences if she failed…and she did fail. I think it was the nobility and selflessness of Christine’s altruism that still sticks with me emotionally after thirty years. The Russian author Anton Chekhov once advised writers to write with “sympathetic characters”; this is undoubtedly a terrific example of that principle.
One writing class I had several years ago advised to establish an “intellectual and emotional connection” between the audience and the subject. That has always proven to be excellent advice. In the case of “The Black Spider”, Gotthelf certainly established an emotional connection between Christine and myself. There have been times in my life, as in the lives of everyone else, when I have made sacrifices for the good of others (though of course not with the horrendous consequences that Christine suffers). Perhaps that is what enables us, the audience, to sympathize with Christine’s plight and to experience her torment vicariously.
Thinking back, it is with the characters with whom I have some type of shared experience, that I sympathize the most when something horrific happens to them. If we, as writers of horror, are to give our stories great emotional impact, then we have to develop characters that have their foundations in everyday experiences which our audiences can share. Lovecraft advised having average people as characters, because this made the supernatural appear truly supernatural. In “The Black Spider” all of Gotthelf’s characters are quite average, thus the supernatural events of the story strike home with great impact. Perhaps that is because we can visualize these events more clearly on some level as if we were watching them occur to our neighbors. Most of the characters in Stephen King’s writing seem to me to be quite average and we feel the same sympathy for their predicaments, because they are average..like us.
Sometimes, when I am reading an engrossing text in a quiet environment where I can fully concentrate on the text, I seem to almost slip into a nebulous world where I am experiencing the story as if I were in a lucid dream. With sympathetic characters like Christine, what little remains to separate myself from that dream world is shattered and I feel their sufferings much more acutely, as if they were happening to me, as if I were actually living the experience.
For me, being able to shatter that barrier between dream world and reality for my audience is part of the magic of writing. After all, isn’t magic the creation of illusion?