The Horrors of Spider Island: John Wyndham’s Web

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Going strictly from its premise, one might easily be forgiven for considering John Wyndham’s Web a bit schlocky. At face value his oddball tale of a small Pacific island whose cultivation as a new Utopia is cut short by a blight of intelligent spiders veritably demands comparison to some of the hokiest of sci-fi hokum, but judging things on first perceptions alone can be a dangerous business. Published posthumously a full decade on from the author’s death in 1969, the brief Web may never reach the same heights as the author’s greatest work – The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, Trouble with Lichen and so on – but it finds him in no less sound or contemplative a mind.

Unusually for Wyndham, the characters of Web are more just framing for its (considerable) fictitious history than any great narrative necessity, and the plot is rather scant indeed. The primary player, from whose perspective the novel unfolds, is one Mr. Delgrange, a man whose aimlessness in life following the tragic loss of his wife and daughter leads him to the Project, an effort by the aristocratic Lord Foxfield to establish a new freethinker’s empire (and a memorial to his own greatness) wholly independent of the distractions and humdrum of Western civilization. An uninhabited island in the Pacific is purchased just for the purpose, and Delgrave and a few dozen ill-fated fellow pioneers swiftly descend upon it in hopes of jump starting a new brand of society.

Unfortunately for Delgrave and his associates a new society has already sprung up on remote Tanakuatua, which has become a seeding ground for the imperial ambitions of a new species of highly social arachnids. Utterly ordinary but for their remarkable habits, the modest creatures (no giant mutants here) organize into pseudo-militaristic squads and conquer the island a bit at a time, enshrouding their swiftly expanding territory in an impenetrable pall of web.

The plot for Web is pretty thin, and dominated more by historical exposition than any degree of action. Indeed, those expecting even Wyndham’s typically subdued brand of thrills and chills may find themselves disappointed, as it is the island itself and not its creeping, crawling inhabitants that draws the bulk of the author’s attention.

With a history that spans from its earliest description by wayward mariners to its stint as a home for unruly cannibals to its conquest by a nomadic South Seas tribe (who see it as their promised land) and eventual subjugation under the British flag, the fictional Tanakuatua is Web‘s greatest asset, at once entirely plausible (how many tiny Pacific islands there must be that share a comparable history) and ready-made for Wyndham’s wry observation on the waning empire to which he belonged. For generations Tanakuatua is precisely the promised land its settlers had longed for, an eternal home for a tribe who took the spider as its emblem, and aside from the occasional hiccup of a World War little of cataclysmic import ever threatened to unsettle it. But as with Bikini before it, Tanakuatua finds itself embroiled in the Western world’s descent into atom-splitting madness, and its population forced to evacuate for fear of fallout from a nearby nuclear test. Only a lone witch doctor remains, sacrificing himself in a blood oath with the vengeful god Nakaa that the island might be cursed, and thereafter visit death upon any who dare venture upon its shores…

As with in Wyndham’s best work Web‘s central speculation, that the foibles of one empire might give rise to another less human, and wholly capable of toppling human kind from its Earthly domination, is a fascinating one. While certainly more fantastical in nature than the island that birthed them, even the spiders of Web aren’t so implausible as one might think, as a quick search on “social spiders” should attest – there are any number of varieties that have evolved social characteristics to varying degrees. Web‘s only truly fantastical notions are the scope of that socialization and its foundations in a brand of rational thought (conveniently sparked by fallout from man’s own supposed progress). On the latter point I have only to say, that spiders are perhaps smarter than you think.

While the concept is certainly ripe for exploitation, Wyndham unfortunately takes little advantage of it. The spiders are observed with a fearful curiosity by Delgrave and young biologist Camilla, who soon find themselves the only surviving members of the Project’s pioneers, but little is really made of any of it. The action of Web plays out in an almost footnote fashion, and while it frames the novel’s admittedly intriguing concepts well enough it’s glossed over to such an extent that it is only rarely satisfying. Delgrave and Camilla’s survival exploits could have formed the foundations for a book all their own, but are instead limited to a few scant paragraphs. The potentially epic struggle of two against a foe millions strong is thus rendered utterly perfunctory, just another brief, requisite step on the way to wrapping up the novel’s loose ends as swiftly as possible. It’s enough to make one wonder if the novel was ever really considered complete – Wyndham’s untimely death a decade prior to its publication would have put a swift end to any potential revisions.

I’m sure I’ll never know, as information on Web‘s pre-publication history is scarce indeed. Still, unsatisfying as it can be with regards to its lukewarm thrills it’s certainly not a bad book. Even the worst of Wyndham has plenty to offer, and Web‘s more interesting points are well worth investing what little time it takes to read it. One only wishes more could have been made of it, or its esteemed creepy crawlies.

Web is out of print for the moment (natch!), but is available cheaply enough through third party resellers on Amazon and elsewhere. Beware the various Penguin Reader editions, which abridge the novel for younger readers. I hazard to think what might be lost if Web were cut any shorter than its already modest 140 pages.

The Bert I. Gordon Book Club: Empire of the Ants

“To your greater glory, Queen Mother.
That the whole jungle may know, Queen Mother.
Queen Mother, we have only just begun…”

So go the ants in this peculiar film novelization, a more-or-less faithful narrative adaptation of John Turley’s more-or-less unfaithful screenplay for Bert I. Gordon’s lovably dreadful 1977 H. G. Wells adaptation Empire of the Ants. Yes, you read that correctly. Penned by Lindsay West (seemingly an unknown save for this) and published by Ace Books to coincide with American International Pictures’ theatrical release, this is in fact a book-length take on the screenplay for a low-budget monster film based loosely on a short story by sci-fi pioneer Wells from some 70 years earlier. It’s a convoluted lineage to be sure, even by movie tie-in standards, and an amusing example of the lengths to which studios will go to put asses in the seats – even for something so marginal as a late career Bert I. Gordon picture. While I believe we’d all like to think things have improved in the decades since, they really haven’t. Forget the absurdity of Battleship: The Movie. How about Battleship: The Book?

It’s worth noting that, just like the film, similarities between West’s Empire of the Ants and Wells’ original story are more coincidental than substantive, amounting essentially to the presence of ants, people, boats, and a river in each, which leaves at least some room for justification for the later book’s existence. It’s something, eh?

“Mary Lawson’s head lay on the ground like some obscene fragment of an ancient ritual object hacked out of stone by a demon-crazed sculptor. The eye sockets were empty hollow. Her skull gaped through the blood-caked, torn-away flesh…”

Aside from some slight deviation in the details of events and a juicier approach to the frequent ant violence (example above) West’s Empire of the Ants sticks well to the story as it is presented in the finished film: A real estate con-artist lures a gaggle of easy marks to a nowhere development in rural Florida with every intention of bilking them for every cent they have, but runs afoul of a horde of giant man-eating mutant ants in the process. Lots of poorly-introduced characters die, all horribly, and the handful of survivors are routed through the Florida backwoods to a sugar-rich farming community whose local council has gone a little… buggy.

It’s not art, not by a long shot, but for his part (or is it her part?) West approaches the material with wry cynicism and a welcome humor. “Ants do not read,” begins the first chapter, a bland entomology mini-lecture in the film, which continues in the text: “This pronunciamento doesn’t exactly come as a shocker, right? Who expects to see an ant curled up with a good book?” It makes for quite a shift in tone compared to the dull sincerity with which the same material is tackled in the film, a shift that makes the book an easier read then the film is a watch. Gordon’s almost compulsive fondness for combination monster-vision shots and shock cues, a consistent fixture of his filmmaking style since 1957’s The Cyclops at least, gets a proper (and oddball) literary update as well. Gone are the film’s plentiful voyeuristic bug-vision interruptions, replaced with, of all things, talking ants (To thy greater glory, Queen Mother!). It’s enough, taken in total with West’s colorful style, to keep his Empire of the Ants a fun and digestible time-waster, and thus a much better read than it really has any right to be.

“The homicidal colossus howled out its final agony and stiffened in a grotesque death pose. What once had lived was now a bent and broken cylinder of flickering char, like a frankfurter left unattended on a suburban cook-out fire…”

First published in July 1977, like most movie tie-in publications West’s Empire of the Ants hasn’t seen the light of day since, but don’t let that keep you from seeking it out if you’re interested. In this case “out of print” hardly translates to a hot commodity, and West’s Empire of the Ants can be had for a few bucks or less through Amazon third parties. Meanwhile the Wells original has long-since lapsed into the public domain, and is readily available for free in this kindle collection and elsewhere.

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