Warner Munn's "The City of the Spiders"
early issues of Weird Tales are full of surprises.
They leap out at you when you aren't expecting them.
The stories before 1935 are especially hard to locate
unless they were written by Seabury Quinn, H. P. Lovecraft
or Robert E. Howard. H. Warner Munn's short novel "The
City of the Spiders" (Weird Tales, November
1926) is a case-in-point. This wonderful old story is
largely forgotten despite being one of the best tales
of giant spiders ever written. E. F. Bleiler says it
was well crafted and unappreciated unlike Munn's more
famous werewolf clan stories. I was completley unaware
of the tale until I came across it in Famous Science
Fiction #4 (Fall 1967) Once again I am indebted
to Robert A. W. Lowndes for knowing better.
"Mad Planet' was reprinted twice, once by Gernsback
and once by Fantastic Novels
Appearing in that November issue of 1926, Munn's work
did not receive the cover, despite being the best story
in the issue. The cover went to E. F. Hoffman's "The
Peacock Shadow", a story that might have been better
in WT's sister magazine, Oriental Tales, not
yet created (1930-34). Always looking for a reason to
put a half-dressed (or less) woman on the cover, Hoffman's
tale would certainly have pleased Farnsworth Wright
better (as Munn's story has no love interest.) But a
little digging found that the cover of June 1925 bore
an Andrew Brosnatch illo for "Monsters of the Pit"
by Paul S. Powers, featuring a man attacking a giant
spider with an ax. Perhaps Wright simply felt "been
there, done that".
Kaluta's comic version of Pirates of Venus
plot of "The City of Spiders" has Jabez Pentreat,
the leader of an expedition in South America pushing
his local bearers into an unknown part of the jungle,
where their camp is surrounded by large, venomous spiders.
The men keep the arachnids at bay with fires and push
on. The second attack has larger, grey and red spiders
intelligently organizing the mass of crawlers. Pentreat
and his men try to flee the jungle but are herded to
an ancient city swarming with arachnids. They see other
animals such as snakes and jaguars corraled and killed
to feed the vast army. The narrator expects to be eaten
by the rulers of the city:
answer, I heard thuds on the low roofs as trap-doors
fell back, and from each structure crawled a creature
that dwarfed our captors into insignificance. It was
a disgusting, heart-stopping sight, and our stomaches
retched as we saw eight enormous spiders, each the size
of a horse. But it was not their incredible size and
filthiness, nor their bloated bodies which betokened
an unthinkable age, that so horrified our souls! It
was the look of an incredible, superhuman knowledge
within their eyes, a knowledge not of this earth or
era, a look as they saw us that might shine in the eyes
of Lusifer, conscious of a kingdom or a world
that had been gained, ruled and lost! And I knew that
they looked upon us as an upstart race, born to serve,
that had by a freakish accident turned the tables on
an article in The Strand, 1910
is saved by the spider king for another purpose. Using
a weird form of mental link, the spider king invades
Pentreat's mind and sees the vast populations outside
the jungle. Munn has some fun with this as the narrator
remembers old friends and wonders why he did not pounce
on them and suck their blood out. Realizing these are
not his thoughts Pentreat delves deeper into the spider's
memories and discovers that men once served the spiders
and suffered under their depredatons. Pentreat promises
those lost people he will avenge them.
spiders retain memories genetically, so more history
lessons follow, with humans serving as slaves in the
ages before the dinosaurs. Rebellous men are fed as
an object lesson to a form of gelantious slime that
lives in the water. Munn, like Robert E. Howard in "The
Hyborian Age", creates a pseudo-history that involves
conquering armies of beast-men and spiders, until the
Ice Age forces the spiders to evolve into smaller, hairier
animals, losing their sway over the humans. In a long,
dangerous migration, a small band of spiders make it
to the equatorial jungles and survive in their city,
rebuilding, waiting to take the world back. Munn ignores
timelines and slow evolutionary forces much as Howard
did, arriving at an age in which humans forget they
were once slaves to the spiders. Munn would return to
this form of fantasy-history in his Merlin saga (King
of the World's Edge (Weird Tales, September-December
1939), The Ship From Atlantis (1967) and Merlin's
Ring (1974) and then actual historical fiction in
his Roman novel, The Lost Legion (1980).
novella ends when the spiders give Pentreat the choice
between death or leading them to white civilization.
He obliges them, all the while planning his escape.
This comes when the spider army meets up with a group
of headhunters. Pentreat ruthlessly sacrifices the natives
when he escapes in a canoe, setting a forest fire behind
him. All the spiders and headhunters are burned alive
except for the spider king who escapes long enough to
make it to the river. There, the pirahnas finish him
off. Pentreat returns home to tell of the spiders and
is laughed at. He plans to go to the Arctic and locate
evidence of an early race of men killed by the spiders
and vindicate himself. Munn ends with the explanation
for humans hating spiders instinctively, a tracial memory
of our long enslavement by spiderkind.
P. Meek's Spider Island from Wonder Stories
giant killer spider theme used for a combination of
SF and horror can be traced back to H. G. Wells and
"The Valley of the Spiders" (Pearson's
Magazine, March 1903). Murray Leinster may have
been the first to have gigantic spiders in his series
("The Mad Planet", Argosy, June 12,
1920, "The Red Dust" (Argosy All-Story,
April 2, 1921) and "Nightmare Planet", Science
Fiction Plus June 1953). Others before Munn include
Paul S. Powers' mad scientist story "Monsters of
the Pit" (mentioned above), Edmond Hamilton's "The
Monster-God of Mamurth" (Weird Tales, August
1926) which has a giant invisible spider. After 1926,
Edmond Hamilton created a race of giant spiders in "Locked
Worlds" (Amazing Stories Quarterly, Summer
1929), S. P. Meek wrote "The Tragedy of Spider
Island" (Wonder Stories, September 1930),
Edgar Rice Burroughs featured giant jungle spiders in
Pirates of Venus (Argosy, 1932), and Fritz
Leiber used a giant arachnid for horror purposes in
"Spider Mansion" (Weird Tales, September
1942) while Richard Matheson made men small in The
Incredible Shrinking Man (1956) and then matched
them against real spiders. Many horror writers such
as M. R. James, Erckmann-Chatrian, Basil Copper and
Ramsey Campbell have all used spiders to create thrills.
Perhaps the closest to H. G. Wells is John Wyndham's
last novel, Web in 1979.
Hamilton's "Locked Worlds"
inspirations may not have been Wells' alone but his
friend and colleague, H. P. Lovecraft. Munn's super-intelligent
spider king from out of the ages has that same elder
evil that Lovecraft gave to his creations. And again,
here is where 1920s Weird Tales fiction is so
refreshing. Unlike all the later August Derleth-driven
pastiches, Munn is working in a Lovecraftian mode but
not trying to imitate the master. As with Fritz Leiber's
later horror classics, Munn is Lovecraft's equal, not
a slavish imitator.
Fantasy, giant spiders appear in Lucien's True History
(2nd Century AD), Lord Dunsany (1908), Robert E. Howard
(1933), Clark Ashton Smith (1934), J. R. R. Tolkien
(1937, again in 1954 and 1977) and more recently in
J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (2002) , but these
are creatures of sorcery or magic, not Science. ( Even
more ambitious is Colin Wilson's Spider World series:
The Tower (1987), The Delta (1987), The
Magician (1992) and The Shadowlands (1999).
Certainly these stories had an influence on Science
Fiction, for the fans of both genres are often the same.
Any stories after 1973 are suspect for Advanced Dungeons
& Dragons gave us the "monstrous spider"
in all its sizes and variations. Gary Gygax would certainly
have been inspired by Robert E. Howard and J. R. R.
Tolkien, the two biggest influences on the role-playing
Beardsley's illustration of Lucien, the great-grandaddy
of them all.
DIARY OF A MAD MAN: GUY DE MAUPASSANT
STYX: FIRST MYTHOS COMIC?
ON MY MIND: HOW TO BECOME A MYTHOS ICON
ABOUT THE BOOK COLLECTOR STORIES
CTHULHU STORY PART 1
CTHULHU STORY PART 2
OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS
FUTURE OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR
THE MYTHOS & OTHER ADVICE