Elder Signs is a website dedicated to the Cthulhu Mythos in general and the Book Collector in specific. The Book Collector is a creation of G. W. Thomas, a dark detective who seeks out the arcane books of the Mythos for his employer, the mysterious Telford.

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WEIRD SITES: THE HELLFIRE CLUB

MALCOLM M. FERGUSON

Weird Tales Author

C. Hall Thompson: Lost Opportunities

The Ghostbreaker Mythos

Why Write Horror?

The First Deep Ones

The Avon Fantasy Reader Covers

Dark Bards: Mythos Poetry

Ithaqua: Walker on the Winds

Frank Belknap Long's The Castle of Otranto

Le Fanu and the Critics: Seeing Through Other Eyes

Michael May's Adventureblog

"The Door to Infinity"

"The Graveyard Rats"

"The Yellow Nineties"

"Spider Mansion"

"Why I Watch Under the Dome"

"The Eyes of the Panther"

"Adventures Into the Unknown"

"The Fangs of Tsan-Lo: Man's Best Monster"

"Ghosts at Christmas: Dickens to Davies"

 

H. Warner Munn's "The City of the Spiders"

The 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.

Leinster's "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".

Mike Kaluta's comic version of Pirates of Venus

The 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:

In 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 our masters.

From an article in The Strand, 1910

Pentreat 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.

The 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).

The 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.

S. P. Meek's Spider Island from Wonder Stories

The 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.

Edmond Hamilton's "Locked Worlds"

Munn's 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.


In 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 game.

Aubrey Beardsley's illustration of Lucien, the great-grandaddy of them all.


THE DIARY OF A MAD MAN: GUY DE MAUPASSANT

DR. STYX: FIRST MYTHOS COMIC?

MONSTERS ON MY MIND: HOW TO BECOME A MYTHOS ICON

MORE ABOUT THE BOOK COLLECTOR STORIES

MY CTHULHU STORY PART 1

MY CTHULHU STORY PART 2

ARTISTS OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS

THE FUTURE OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR

WRITING THE MYTHOS & OTHER ADVICE

MYTHOS LINKS

 

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