Friday, 27 February 2009

Death to the eight-legs! ... er ... six-legs!


I've just finished reading Dennis Wheatley's 1948 novel, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, and while I guess it's over half a century too late for me to be offering a full review, there is one very important question that the book raises:

Did Dennis Wheatley genuinely believe that spiders only have six legs?

Our crippled hero, 'Toby', is haunted by a supernatural creature which at first he can only see vaguely, in shadow. His initial suspicion is that it is some kind of octopus, but when he manages to make out that it has only six legs, he realizes that that can't be the case (so clearly Wheatley's malacology is better than his entomology, although there's a clue in the word 'octopus', so maybe it's just a case of etymology).

Later on, it's revealed to him that the creature is a spider, albeit a giant one, summoned from Hell itself. As Toby describes it in his diary:

I now knew what it was that had thrown the Shadow. That round body and the six hairy, tentacle-like legs had been those of a spider without a doubt; but a spider the likes of which has never been recorded in this world.

Now, just because Toby doesn't know how many legs a spider has, doesn't mean Wheatley didn't. Perhaps the spider's missing limbs echo the paralysis of the hero's own two legs; if so, nothing is mentioned. Possibly the explanation was lost in an edit (if so, I'm pleased to say that copy-editing has improved vastly over the years - I'd never get something like that past them).

Or maybe Wheatley had just never bothered to look at a spider.

The cover illustration (Wordsworth Editions) certainly shows a spider with sufficient limbs to play Tarzan four times over, as does as least one other edition. Actually, this is a bit of an irritation. The fact that the creature that haunts Toby is a spider is meant to be something of a surprise when revealed (maybe the leg-count is deliberately intended to deflect our suspicions), and so the cover is a bit of a spoiler. Also, the illustration shows Toby on crutches, rather than in wheelchair, which is his sole transport in the text. But now I'm getting picky.

The biggest shock of the book is that not only is the villain a Satanist, but also a Communist, and that, in fact, the latter ism is and always has been merely a front for the former. Now this is something that I, like any right-thinking Englishman, have long suspected, but while Toby takes the Satanism pretty much in his stride, its the Communism that comes as the real shock. I mean, summoning gargantuan, leg-deprived spiders to scare a paralysed airmen into madness is one thing, but the workers controlling the means of production? Well, really!

Despite all this, it's still a fun read, certainly if your can accept it as an artifact of its time. There are some lovely passages within, such as:

Her blue eyes blazed, and she retorted: 'If you were not, one - a cripple; two - my patient; and three - suffering from erotomania, I would slap your face.'

I must try to slip that into my next novel - no one will notice.

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