Purists in their quest to compile an anthology of entomophobia, editors Daisy Butcher and Janette Leaf have looked underneath fallen leaves and turned over decaying bark to find fertile if not entirely pleasant breeding grounds for Crawling Horror, the latest in the British Library’s ongoing Tales of the Weird series, a collection subtitled Creeping Tales of the Insect Weird which entirely avoids any arachnid contribution, that diverse grouping no doubt waiting patiently for a companion volume all their own.
The astonishing variety of insect life reflected in the seventeen tales, arranged chronologically by their publication dates from 1846 to 1938, there are nevertheless recurrences of ideas and distinct phases in the lifecycles of the narratives, the first of which is foreshadowed by the contribution of Edgar Allan Poe, The Sphinx. Graphic in detailed description but a misdirection borne of an observational failure on the part of the narrator, he says of his host that “his richly philosophical intellect was not at any time affected by unrealities,” as much as admission as Poe is ever likely to make of his own predilection towards fantasy,
Written by A G Gray, Junior, obsession and addiction form a heady mix of vapours which linger above the electrified silver trough of chemicals from which rises The Blue Beetle: A Confession, a tragedy of hubris and jewelled wings which engulfs friend and family, and while Poe’s story shared no link with the mysteries of Egypt beside his titular and overestimated beast, in 1862 The Mummy’s Soul first arose.
Written anonymously, it is a vividly descriptive fantasia of the good old days when expeditions would use blasting powder to open tombs, unwrap desiccated mummies in situ and physicians would prescribe brandy “to stimulate the blood” of their patients, yet it formed ideas which would persist in horror of that subgenre, including that of Jane G Austin, where a haughty society daughter requests of her adventurer suitor a gift he had no right to give in a story of betrayal and tragedy and a curse which still casts a shadow After Three Thousand Years.
Leaving behind the dramatic locations of the Valley of the Kings, Olive Schreiner in 1895 experienced A Dream of Wild Bees, one of the shortest and simplest of the inclusions yet one of the most profound, the same year that the great H G Wells spoke of a professional rivalry played out in the pages of journals which turned acrimonious, the final broadside unfortunately published simultaneously with the death of the elder party, the survivor then beset with a madness which flies on the patterned wings of The Moth.
1901 saw The Captivity of the Professor as recounted by A Lincoln Green, a folly of his own making as he was guided up the tributaries of the Amazon by “ignorant, superstitious savages” whose warning he ignores only to find himself a hostage who must perform for his supper at the behest of the lower species whom it had been his intention to catalogue when he arrives in territory occupied by a complex hierarchy of organisms used as tools by their controllers, the ants.
The author who collected the stories which formed Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn is represented by two short impressionistic pieces, The Dream of Akinosuke a vision of a life of twenty-four years lived in a few moments of sleep beneath a tree but which requires the wanton destruction of that which mediated it to understand it, while Butterflies imparts the same traditional beliefs of Japan in a more reflective mood.
Filled with memory and longing for summers on the coast of Italy tarnished by reoccurring nightmares of gigantic luminous Caterpillars, E F Benson doesn’t stray from his familiar style as his protagonist comes to realise with hindsight it was a premonition of a more ghastly transformation, while Algernon Blackwood’s encounter with An Egyptian Hornet is more direct as he arranges an encounter between a man of God, an instrument of the devil “wicked as a secret sin,” and an unrepentant atheist who has no fear of judgement or stings.
A hand of bananas purchased in Covent Garden in 1921, found among them was The Blue Cockroach of Christopher Blayre, the strange yet delightful effect of its bite dispelled by an equally accidentally administered anti-toxin, much to the disappointment of all, while The Wicked Flea created by J U Giesy’s recurring character Professor Xenophon Xerxes Zapt is the result of a deliberate but misguided practical application of his theories, releasing chaos on his quiet neighbourhood.
With The Miracle of the Lily, Clare Winger Harris offers a sweeping ambitious future history perhaps more suited to the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics range, prescient in her comprehension of insects as a threat not through hostility but in competition for crops, though their behaviour evolves swiftly as they adapt to the altering environment, turning to animals and humans as food as vegetable matter is depleted then eliminated.
A ghost tale of the sea comes on Warning Wings as a captain of twenty years’ experience recalls his first voyage in command, a simple but well written story of men and the ocean and an inhuman plea from Arlton Eadie, before Garth Bentley returns from a greater voyage Beyond the Star Curtain to find the Earth greatly changed and the last surviving humans overwhelmed by a variety of voracious insect life.
A fantasy whose inspiration is more Gulliver’s Travels than science fiction, once the premise is established it moves forward more reasonably as an undemanding pulp adventure, while Carl Stephen’s 1938 adventure which concludes the volume, Leiningen Versus the Ants, presents more grounded action as the owner of a plantation is antagonised by a swarm emerging from the jungle; the women evacuated as an impediment to efficiency and the failings of “slow-witted Indians” blamed for a breach in the defences, it is little surprise that Charlton Heston was seen as a suitable lead when it was filmed as The Naked Jungle in 1954.