“The Waters of Death”

This week’s subject of future discussion at the Deep Ones group over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Waters of Death” aka “The Crab Spider”, Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian. 

This story strikes me as being from an era where speculations derived from science and exploration was common grist for rationalized weird menaces, a period I would say extended from 1880 to 1905.

It’s a chatty and discursive story because it is a tale told by one of the principals, the young boy (at the time of the story) Frantz. 

The year is 1801, and the place is Spinbronn, a place renowned in Germany for its mineral waters. The ill, especially those with gout, like to go there. But, in 1801, the spring rains are heavy, and, out of the cavern from which the mineral waters flow, they disgorged a human skeleton. That drives most of the crowd away. 

But the discharge continues with slime and rubbish and the bones of many different kinds of animals. The human skeleton is thought to be a girl who disappeared and was murdered a hundred years ago. The local doctor even issues a pamphlet stating the skeleton was so dry that it was probably centuries old. He even puts forth the theory that the bones date back to the biblical flood. 

One guest doesn’t go away, the gouty and overweight Englishman Sir Thomas Hawerburch, a commodore.

In town since 1784 has also been Dr. Christian Weber, Frantz’s cousin and tutor.  Weber escaped the massacre of the French on Haiti along with his money and an old negress named Agatha.

Initially, Frantz is scared of Agatha, but he comes to love her. She is afraid of Weber, and Frantz senses Weber “exerts a singular influence” over her. Weber is a collector of insects and has preserved speciments he’s picked up in his travels through the Americas. 

One day, in July 1802, Weber is showing Hawerburch and Frantz what they find to be a particular disgusting specimen, the bird-eating crab spider. So, they decide to go for a trip on a carriage along the spring that emerges from the cavern. They come across a pool the commodore decides to bathe in, and he tells Frantz to come back in about an hour. 

Frantz does, but he sees no Hawerburch. He does see something strange under the water: 

“Then I saw long lines wavering in a strange manner in the midst of the darkness, and that at a depth where no human eye had ever penetrated.” 

(Spoilers ahead)

Frantz runs to Weber and cries out Hawerburch is in the cavern and faints. 

Weber goes off to lead a search party, but nothing is found. 

When he gets back, Weber merely looks at Agatha, who, in horror, begs that she doesn’t want to do something. And what she doesn’t want to do is made clear when she goes into a trance. She reports Hawerburch is dead in the cavern, and she sees a “spider crab”. She also sees what happened to Hawerburch. When he was bathing, the giant spider jumped on him, bit him, and he died. Then the spider dragged him into a cavern and encased him in a web. 

Weber confirms with Frantz that Hawerburch was bathing and immediately figures out that all the recent disgorgement of skeletons are from the spider’s web. He leads a party which blocks the stream and smokes the spider out of the cavern, and it is killed. It is “violet red” and the size of Frantz’s head. 

The rationalization is that, as we are told when the crab spider is first introduced with that specimen, the spider requires heat and humidity in its usual South American habitat. The hot waters and humidity of that cavern provided such an environment. It’s implied the spider, or its ancestors, have been in the cavern for hundreds of years. 

We also learn that the final incident killed Spibronn’s reputation as a therapeutic retreat. We also are told, in the final line, why we never heard all this before:

 The great political events of the epoch then absorbing the attention of Germany and France explain why the affair I have just told you about passed completely unobserved.

It’s an ok story, but, to a modern reader, it comes off as a bit of an antique and not very frightening or mysterious.

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