Hanns Heinz Ewers was a German horror writer, and the introduction notes that much of his work has a decadent feel to it. Yet what strikes one immediately about this story is that it seems more like a detective story. A series of inexplicable suicides in the same hotel room, on a Friday afternoon, between the hours of five and six, brings a young medical student, Richard Bracquemont, to the Hotel Stevens, determined, so he says, to solve the mystery, and claiming particular knowledge that will enable him to do so.
That is one version of the story; another unfolds as we read Richard Bracquemont’s diary, which chronicles events which occur during his sojourn in the room. What we quickly learn is that at this stage, Bracquemont doesn’t have any idea what might have happened. He can bring his observational skills to bear on the situation and hopes that he may perhaps make his name if he can solve the mystery, but there is also an element in his character that suggests he is a clever young man who has worked out a way of getting free board and lodging for a while; his lack of resources is emphasised a number of times, perhaps most poignantly when he explains how poverty has got in the way of his falling in love.
This is significant because while Bracquemont’s account is initially a breezy recitation of his experiences in the room, the tenor of the story shifts suddenly, with the appearance of Clarimonde. Before that, however, it is worth taking a look at the account of the policeman, the third of the suicides, who also was also there to solve the room’s mystery. We cannot know how reliable a narrator he was, but the implication is that as a policeman, his approach would have been rational. His experience is uneventful until two days before he dies, when he expresses the view that he may have found a clue, though what remains unknown, and that on the Friday morning ‘he ventured the statement that the window of the room certainly had a remarkable power of attraction’ (78). By that evening he is dead.
On the first Friday after his arrival, Bracquemont waits, revolver and telephone to hand, but nothing happens. By the following Monday, he notes that he is ‘gaining considerably in health and weight’ (81), suggesting he had been unwell before, but here he also indicates that something has happened. On the Wednesday we learn of the existence of Clarimonde. From the outset there is something odd about this person who sits in her window, across the street, spinning. The reader, alerted by the title of the story, will probably already be suspicious of Clarimonde, particularly when it has been noted that a spider was associated with the corpse of the dead police sergeant, although Bracquemont himself does not know this. Clarimonde, improbably, ‘spins at a little old-fashioned distaff’ – Bracquemont particularly notes just how old-fashioned it is – ‘a very tiny, fine thing, white, and apparently made of ivory. The threads she spins must be infinitely fine’ (81). Nothing about Clarimonde rings true, and everything about her is so vague. Bracquemont can barely describe her: ‘I seem to sense rather than to know all this’ (81). Again Bracquemont’s diary prepares the reader for a strange encounter when he tells the story of observing the deadly meeting between the male and female spider, but obviously does not make any connection between himself and the strange Arachne-like figure he can see from his window.
Gradually, inexorably, Bracquemont abandons everything, to spend hours ‘playing’ with Clarimonde, as they stare at one another, or mirror one another’s movements through the window. This goes on, literally, for days. Bracquemont seems unable to help himself, as though all his willpower has been drawn from him. Yet the story isn’t that simple. The dichotomy in his character that I noted earlier seems, perhaps, to be exacerbated by this experience, one possibility why Bracquement lasts longer than the other men, because he can watch himself fighting Clarimonde's influence. What is also striking is the way in which Bracquemont comes to realise that he is being played with. The moment of realisation that he is no longer fully in control of his own actions is so sharp, so certain, as is the knowledge of what he needs to do to counteract the effect of Clarimonde, and yet he can’t leave the room.
There is a temptation to assume that Bracquemont is documenting his own descent into madness, but the manner of their deaths suggests that the three other men had similar experiences to him, at least to some degree. The manner of Bracquemont’s dying is what marks his experience as different, that and his destruction of the spider, a final gesture on the part of the man trapped within the man. But questions remain, utterly unanswerable questions. Is there something about the window itself, thinking back to that remark of the police sergeant’s? Does it possess some strange power to transform objects? Suppose there had not been a spider …?
In the end, what I find so attractive about this story is that sense of uncertainty. Spider women may be redolent of decadence, of sex and death and death-in-sex, but this story somehow continues to resist that easy conclusion in the same way it resists a more straightforward explanation of a haunting. (I was strangely enough reminded of William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Whistling Room’ (1913), for that same sense of something uncanny being somehow embedded in the room itself, although the two stories are in other ways very different.)