Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Spiders (1978) & The Web (1981) by Richard Lewis




UK Paperback 1978
For years and years I've had this vague memory of a killer-spider novel I read when I was twelve or so, but all I could remember was the book's first scene:

A cranky old man in a New York suburb smashes a weird-looking spider in his garden after it bites his arm. That night he wakes up with his arm all purpley-swollen and realizes he's paralyzed, as hundreds of spiders swarm onto his bed and eat him alive. (Yikes! Pretty gruesome.)

Anyway, as an adult I've looked for that book for-ev-er, but since I couldn't remember the title or who wrote it, I never had much luck.

Until I did find it.

Turns out the garden was in England instead of New York. And rather than being a cranky old guy, he was the kind elderly father of the book's protagonist. Also, the spiders didn't paralyze him, but by the time he woke up he was so stuck to the bed by gazillions of spider webs, he couldn't move.

He definitely got eaten alive, though. I had that part right.

And as much as I got wrong, I knew it was the same book because when the old guy first tried to squash that spider in his garden, he didn't quite kill it and it glared up at him from the ground, "thinking hate." Plus, later as he was being eaten in his bed, he saw this humongous spider "the size of a large crab" sitting on his window sill, seemingly giving directions to the smaller ones that were eating him. (I remembered those parts, too. Creepy.)

So yeah. The book was called Spiders, and it was by a guy named Richard Lewis. Actually, it was by a guy named Alan Radnor, who's pseudonym was Richard Lewis. He even wrote a sequel to the book, called The Web, a few years later.

At any rate, the spiders didn't look anything like that glowy-red-eyed tarantula on the cover up top. They were actually, according to the book's scientist-guy protagonist, a hybrid of "Stegodyphus pacificus" and a few other exotics. Apparently the real life Stegodyphus is social, in that it lives and hunts in groups (which is central to the book's plot).

Just for fun I did an image search and got this:


Ack! I know there are plenty of folks who can look at a photo like this and see something beautiful, but with all the killer-spider movies and books I took in during my formative years (and afterward), I'm just not one of them. But I'm working on it.

Anyway, most of the spiders in the book are regular-sized (less than an inch long), but we also get the bigger crab-sized ones I mentioned, and even meet some monstrous six-footers towards the end of the book. And I'm just gonna come right out and say that millions of regular-sized spiders are way scarier than one giant-sized spider. Am I right? (I am so right!)

The plot of the book is pretty standard nature runs amok: These deadly poisonous spiders were all part of some super-secret government experiment, but when the lab coats finished up they only thought they destroyed all their critters, and a few escaped. So the escapees have been living underground and breeding, breeding, breeding, waiting for just the right time to launch spiderpocalypse.

It all starts with a few isolated attacks in the country, but soon more and more people are dying as the spiders make their grisly way toward London. Will the entire continent be over run before scientist-guy protagonist can stop them? Of course not. He saves the day at the last minute (and after a lot of people have died) and we finish up with the obligatory epilogue that raises the possibility for a sequel.

As you read along, the author comes off as a little unsure if these spiders are just average eight-legged joes following their instincts, or whether they have some kind of acrimonious near-human intelligence and have declared war on all us two-leggers. He writes it both ways, depending on the paragraph you're reading.

Near the end of the book, though, he (sort of) clarifies that the spiders are all running on some kind of hive-mind that makes them more intelligent than your average killer-spider, but it's still basically spider instinct and not some "let's annihilate the entire human race" thing going on. At least that's how I took it.

UK Paperback 1981
The Web picks up a few years after Spiders ends, and more or less just continues the story. Yes, a few eight-leggers did escape and they've been hiding out and breeding. 

This time there are a couple of species working together, the ones from the first book and a larger, lighter brown type whose venom drives people homicidally insane instead of just killing them outright. 

But basically it's the same story (spiders march toward London), with some homicidal maniacs running around and a few more giant-spiders mixed in with the regular-sized ones than the last book had.

Well. For a book that made such an impression on me as a twelve year old (and that I searched for, for so many years as an adult), it was actually a little tiresome getting through both these books as my current self. 

It was only the first one I'd read as a kid. I didn't know there was a sequel until I finally figured out the first one's title and author. At any rate, while both books had great creepy-crawly subject matter, the writing was mediocre at best. 

And reading them back to back, it literally felt like reading the first book over again. None of which means they aren't worth a read if you're a nature-runs-amok fan. You just have to head in with all eight eyes open and take them for what they're worth. (Ooooh, that was a zinger! Bada-BING!)

At any rate, these books are only worth TWO CREEPY-CRAWLY BRAINS. (Which then makes me wonder, what would be the monetary value of a brain, anyway? And would a creepy-crawly brain be worth more than your garden variety brain? Hmmm....)

Okay. Nothing to do with spiders now, but I'm always curious when I read older fiction, to see how women and ethnic groups are portrayed. Not much happening ethnically here, but both books definitely got the female stereotypes of the time right. Lots of (I thought) intelligent women stuck serving up coffee and helping the menfolk by typing their notes and so on:
"'I feel so helpless,' she murmured. 'I don't know what to do... what to say.' 'You can get me a drink for a start,' he chuckled."
Spiders was also big on categorizing all (and I mean all) its female characters according to their breast size and shape. I don't know how many times I read something like "her breasts were well-formed, though beginning to sag a little" or "if her breasts were on the small side, at least there was no hint of sagging." But it was a lot. Sagging versus not sagging--very important to this book.

The Web didn't have much (comparatively) to say about breasts at all. I did notice a disproportionate number of insecure and manipulative female characters, who seemed to be at the root of all their men's troubles:
"There was no doubt Jenny was beautiful.... She couldn't bear to think she was anything else, needed to be told all the time. And if [he] wasn't about to tell her, then she found someone who was."
or
"Now, as he sat in prison, he reckoned Mary's jibes and accusations had been the start of his downfall."
Can't say I hold stereotypes like these against an author personally. It's pretty tough seeing past a culture's blind spots when we're all steeping in the middle of it. It is interesting to look back and notice blind spots from the past that are more obvious now, though. Or is that just me?

Okay. That's about it for me on this one. I'll say goodbye with some alternate covers. The Web only ever had the one edition (UK), as far as I could tell. But Spiders ended up with a couple more releases over the years. It was first published in the UK in 1978. It followed that up with a U.S. release (retitled as The Spiders) in 1980, then with another UK release in 1987. Pretty sure it was the 1980 American edition I read back in the day.

US Paperback 1980UK Paperback 1987

Oh. And let's throw in the back covers for those two first editions (since I actually have 'em to photograph), so you can click through and read the back copy. Always a treat.

Spiders UK Back Cover 1978The Web UK Back Cover 1981

And now it really is the end of this post.

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