John Wyndham (1903-1969) is one of those authors who falls into the category of “famous writer that you’ve never heard of.” A number of his novels are undeniable classics that were made, and remade, into movies and television series multiple times. Most people watching those movies, however, are unaware that they are based on books.
I was equally ignorant of Wyndham until a few years ago, when I read several of his most famous works and blogged about them. You have probably heard of The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), though the latter is much better known by its movie title Village of the Damned. The Kraken Wakes (1953) is another wonderful novel, depicting a war between humanity and an alien race that lives at the bottom of the ocean; this book is sadly out of print.
It’s been a while since I read anything of Wyndham’s, so I recently picked up a copy of Web (1979).
Web was somewhat of a risky purchase — it was Wyndham’s last novel, and it remained unpublished during his lifetime. In fact, as you can see from the dates above, it was only released by his estate 10 years after his death! Without the author’s input in publication, I worried that the book might be a hastily touched-up first draft. Furthermore, as his last book, I worried that his writing skills might have faded from age and illness (see, for example, Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm). However, my fears were (mostly) unjustified: Web is a short but elegant little horror novel with its share of interesting ideas.
The novel tells the tale of a disastrous and fatal attempt to build a utopian colony on a small and remote Pacific island named Tanakuatua. The narrator, Arnold Delgrange, is lured to the project as a way to overcome his grief after the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident. The story is told in hindsight, as Arnold reflects on the events on the island and his fate as one of the only survivors amongst many men, women and children.
He is not the only colonist fleeing from his past. On the ride to Tanakuatua, Delgrange befriends Camilla Cogent, a haunted pestologist (researcher on insect pests) who keeps mostly to herself and has a rather cynical view of the entire endeavor. As events progress, however, her knowledge of arthropods will be the only thing protecting the group from a deadly, merciless, and implacable foe. In a short period of time, only a few people will be left alive on the island — with months before a relief ship arrives.
As one can see from the cover, it is not too much of a spoiler to point out that the deadly threat on the island are venomous spiders. There is much more to the story, however, and an early chapter describes the convoluted history of the island as a site of tribal wars, nuclear testing, and a deadly curse. Is the threat man-made, natural, or supernatural? A variety of intriguing possibilities are explored.
Overall, Web is a fun, light read, albeit a short one — my paperback edition is only 140 pages long. There is not a lot of character evolution over the course of the book, and the story progresses in a relatively straightforward way. I had the sense that Web was more of an extended short story, and wondered whether Wyndham was intending to develop the plot when he died. There is one significant twist, however, that takes the story along a rather unexpected path.
The spiders of the novel are quite an effective menace. Not only are they venomous (naturally), but they work together to capture prey and attack any threats, an adaptation that Wyndham emphasizes is highly unusual in spiders:
“Your normal spider is not a sociable creature. It is an individualist. As such, its first concern is to protect itself from its enemies which it does chiefly by hoping to remain unnoticed. Its second is to feed itself. For this purpose it catches insects, but it does not share them, in fact its disposition is to attack any other spider that approaches, and, if successfully, to eat that as well. Also, in many species the male gets eaten after mating unless he makes a quick get-away. No, a far from sociable creature — and yet, here we have them co-operating. Hunting in packs, as you said.”
Wyndham seems to have been inspired by actual social spiders that exist in nature: there are a number of species throughout the world that have independently evolved the ability to share webs and even, remarkably, some division of labor. More creepy is the observation that social spider groups can cooperate to take down larger prey such as birds and bats, much like the villains of the novel!
I am not particularly arachnophobic, but Web is the sort of novel that makes me itch when I read it!
One other aspect of the novel is worth addressing: the idea of a utopian colony set away from the laws and rules of conventional nations, where great minds can build new ideas and technologies to lead the world in the future. When I first started reading the book, I considered it to be what happens when “Someone tries to build Galt’s Gulch on an island with deadly intelligent spiders,” and that’s not far off from the truth! I don’t know whether Wyndham was thinking of Atlas Shrugged when he wrote Web, but he was certainly thinking of the concept of a micronation: small collectives that claim independent nation status. One of the first modern micronations formed is the “Principality of Sealand,” a small World War II-era sea fort off the coast of England. It was founded in 1967, two years before Wyndham’s death, by a pirate radio broadcaster, and it seems not unbelievable that Wyndham drew some inspiration from news reports about it at the time.
Web was well-received upon its belated publication. A 1979 review in The Guardian by Norman Shrapnel called it “an essential addition to the Wyndham collection.” He further says that Wyndham gives us the “perfect apocalyptic fable.” And it is, at its heart, an apocalyptic story: the spiders of Tanakuatua are not content to remain on their lonely Pacific island…
Unable to get my head around the idea of Wyndham as a ‘famous writer that you’ve never heard of’, which presumably only applies to people who don’t actually read books? I’ve heard of him. I tried to read The Kraken Wakes when I was about ten but stopped after a few pages because it was scaring me shitless, and I don’t feel I had a particularly bookish or privileged upbringing. Sorry – to harp on this one point, but it just strikes me as peculiar.
I agree with Lawrence, in that John Wyndham was a well known writer 50 years ago, and his book “The Chrysalids” was mandatory reading in high school and still is today in many schools of Ontario. If you have not read it yet it’s a fantastic read for all ages.
Come on guys, we all landed here because we were looking for Wyndham, so small wonder we’ve all actually heard of him. Throw a stone into any crowd and the chances you hit someone who can tell you who he was are infinitesimal – perhaps not in Canada, where one of his books was mandatory, Scot tells us. Really? They have mandatory books in schools? Is that a thing?