Bertram Mitford’s The Sign of the Spider

It’s hard to find out information about author Bertram Mitford (1855-1914).  Even Wikipedia doesn’t have information about him, instead redirecting to another Bertram Mitford who wrote about Japan.  He was, like H. Rider Haggard, a writer of adventure stories set in the wilds of Africa, though certainly not as well known (Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines and She, the latter of which I’ve blogged about before).  Valancourt Books, which has not led me wrong yet, has been valiantly reprinting much of Mitford’s work.  I decided to give The Sign of the Spider (1896) a read:


I was, quite frankly, blown away.  According to the book notes, Mitford has been dismissed as an imitator of Haggard.  I found The Sign of the Spider to be a much more compelling, and even deep, read than any of the Haggard work I’ve read so far.  A summary and some observations follow.

The Sign of the Spider breaks rather dramatically with other adventure stories of the era in that its main character is decidedly an anti-hero.  At the start of the novel, (anti)hero Laurence Stanninghame leaves home and his unhappy marriage to earn his fortune in South Africa.  The problem with the marriage?  The first lines sum up the problem, and the tone for the entire book:

She was talking at him.

This was a thing she frequently did, and she had two ways of doing it.  One was to talk at him through a third party when they two were not alone together; the other to convey moralisings and innuendo for his edification when they were — as in the present case.

It is not as terribly sexist as it sounds, however; as noted soon after,

Yet Laurence Stanninghame’s partner in life was by no means a bad sort of woman.  She had plenty of redeeming qualities in that she was good-hearted at bottom and well-meaning, and withal a most devoted mother… Furthermore, she owned a will.  When two wills come into contact the weakest goes under, and that soon.  Then there may be peace.  In this case neither went under, because, presumably, evenly balanced.  Result — warfare, incessant, chronic.

The problem, however, lies in large part with Laurence himself, and his luck in life,

He was one of those men who seem born never to succeed.  With everything in his favour apparently, Laurence Stanninghame never did succeed.  Everything he touched seemed to go wrong.  If he speculated, whether it was a half-crown bet or a thousand-pound investment, smash went the concern.

Running low on funds in England, and tired of his marriage, Laurence heads to South Africa to try and make his fortune in speculating on the gold market, which is undergoing a boom.  On the cruise to South Africa, he meets the beautiful and intelligent Lilith Ormskirk, and Laurence is haunted by her as he continues his efforts.

Unfortunately, the gold market goes belly up, in a manner that might have been written to describe financial events of recent weeks:

He, infected with the gambler’s fever of speculation, had not thought it worth while to “hedge.”  It was to be all or nothing.  The old story — a fictitious market, bolstered up by fictitious and inflated prices; a sudden “slump,” and then — everybody with one mind eager to dispose of scrip, barely worth the paper of which it consisted — in fact, unsaleable.  King Scrip had landed his devoted subjects in a pretty hole.

Faced with financial ruin, Laurence seriously contemplates suicide.  Instead, he meets with a feared member of the Johannesburg community, known as “Pirate” Hazon, and joins him on a mysterious journey into the wilds of Africa.  This happens nearly halfway through the book, and here the adventure really begins, as well as the unadmirable behavior of Stanninghame: Hazon is a slave trader, and he and Laurence spend several years raiding savage villages for slaves to be sold at massive profit.

The book does not shy from or glamorize the slave trade.  Mitford softens it somewhat, and allows us to keep some shred of sympathy for the characters, by highlighting the murderous cannibalism of the victimized tribes, but in the end it is undeniable that the ‘hero’ has become quite a bad person — and he knows it.

The action picks up as Laurence fights with hostile tribes, gets captured, escapes, does battle with his compatriots against the most fearsome and mysterious tribe of the region, the Ba-gcatya, and gets captured again.  He insinuates himself into the tribe, but it is ultimately for naught: he eventually faces the most horrifying fate of all: to be sacrificed to the monstrous spider-god of the tribe!

I won’t spoil the encounter with the spider-god by describing it in detail.  It is a wonderfully suspenseful and dramatic scene, and comparable to other arachnid encounters in fantasy fiction — many of which came well after Mitford!

The encounter is the culmination of a journey which might be compared to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Like Marlow, Stanninghame’s morality and civilized nature are degraded as he ventures further into the jungle.

Stanninghame is very complex for a character in what is ostensibly a simple adventure story.  The reader will see him do terrible things but will also see his views change before the tale ends.   In one of the penultimate scenes, he in fact makes an incredible sacrifice on behalf of another, a feat we have evidence earlier in the novel that he is incapable of making.  Will he, in the end, earn his heart’s desire?  The reader will find that the answer to that question is a complicated one.

I can recommend The Sign of the Spider as both an excellent adventure novel and a good horror novel, with some unexpected and sometimes even moving depth as a bonus.

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7 Responses to Bertram Mitford’s The Sign of the Spider

  1. I’m glad you liked it! Mitford really is a masterful writer, capable not just of thrilling potboilers, but also of really excellent writing, very allusive and symbolic. The wonderful thing about Mitford that I’ve found, after reading (and publishing) 6 of his books is that he’s wonderfully consistent. I haven’t yet picked up one of his books that I didn’t think was absolutely fantastic. If you liked Spider, I wholeheartedly recommend any of his other books to you, including his Zulu novels, which are different, but still “unputdownable”.

    By the way, what was your favorite part of Spider? I think the attempted suicide scene is unforgettable — there was such a realism to it that one wonders if Mitford drew from real-life experience….

  2. James wrote: “By the way, what was your favorite part of Spider? ”

    *** SPOILER ALERT! ***

    I agree that the suicide scene is extraordinarily powerful. A less dramatic scene, but one that really struck me, was the choice Laurence made to not save the young child from the crocodile. That little bit really drove home the reality that Laurence was, at least at that point in the book, not a terribly nice man.

    The climactic spider scene I found really powerful, too, not the least because I wasn’t certain that there would be a real spider! I suspected that it might have only been some sort of metaphor, as Laurence does, and I was just as shocked as he to find out otherwise. The story really did feel somewhat “Heart of Darkness”-y to me, except that at the bottom of Laurence’s journey he encounters a literal monstrosity! I also felt that the story had a bit of an “Inferno”-y feel to it, in that Laurence had to descend into the bottom depths of evil before he could ascend into being someone somewhat moral again.

    I’ll definitely be checking out more of Mitford’s work, now…

  3. naeem says:

    excellent preview. have u had a chance of reading Mitford’s “THE RUBY SWORD”?

  4. Pingback: Bertram Mitford’s The Weird of Deadly Hollow | Skulls in the Stars

  5. Martin says:

    Besides Walter Scott and Anthony Trollope, Bertram Mitford is my favorite novelist. “The Fair Maid of Perth”, “The Eustace Diamonds”, and “The Sign of the Spider” are all tightly constructed novels with memorable characters and superb writing. Although I think “The Sign of the Spider” is one of Mitford’s best novels, “The Expiation of Wynne Palliser” and “The Curse of Clement Waynflete” surpass it. The British Library editions, though a bit pricey, are nice reproductions of the original editions.

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