Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The City of the Spiders: H Warner Munn's Forgotten Classic [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

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, HP 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. EF Bleiler says it was well crafted and unappreciated, unlike Munn's more famous werewolf clan stories. I was completely unaware of the tale until I came across it in Famous Science Fiction #4 (Fall 1967). Once again I am indebted to Robert AW Lowndes for knowing better.

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 EF Hoffman's "The Peacock Shadow," a story that might have been better in WT's sister magazine, Oriental Tales; not yet created (1930-34). Hoffman's tale would certainly have pleased Farnsworth Wright better, as Wright was always looking for a reason to put a half-dressed (or less) woman on the cover and Munn's story has no love interest. But a little digging also found that the cover of June 1925 bore an Andrew Brosnatch illo for Paul S Powers' "Monsters of the Pit," featuring a man attacking a giant spider with an ax. Perhaps Wright simply felt that he'd "been there; done that".

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 corralled 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.”
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 depredations. Pentreat promises those lost people that 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. Rebellious men are fed as an object lesson to a form of gelatinous slime that lives in the water. Munn, like Robert E Howard with his "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 and 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 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 where the piranhas 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 racial memory of our long enslavement by spiderkind.

The giant, killer spider theme used for a combination of SF and horror (as opposed to fantasy, which has plenty of giant arachnids of its own) can be traced back to HG 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) and 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), SP Meek wrote "The Tragedy of Spider Island" (Wonder Stories, September 1930), and Edgar Rice Burroughs featured giant jungle spiders in Pirates of Venus (Argosy, 1932). There were also giant spiders in "The Wand of Doom" by Jack Williamson (Weird Tales, October 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 MR James, Erckmann-Chatrian, Basil Copper, and Ramsey Campbell have all used spiders to create thrills. Perhaps the closest to HG Wells is John Wyndham's last novel, Web in 1979.

Munn's inspirations may not have been Wells' alone but his friend and colleague, HP 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.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.


Jack Tyler said...

Love this giant spider business. One of the stranger is from Tarnsman of Gor by John Norman (1967), in which a colony of intelligent giant spiders lives near a large city, and trades silk to the humans for goods they covet. When the hero is thrown from a giant bird, his fall is broken by a web. Ignorant of the spiders' relationship, he thinks one is coming to eat him, but it carries him to the edge of the web and releases him. The scene gave me a rush on first reading, but afterward it seemed more silly than terrifying. It may have to the author, as well, because in a series of well over twenty books, they never came up again.

Fun article, thanks for sharing!

Steev said...

Thanks for this- always keen to track down "forgotten" examples of interesting weird fiction. Off the back of this article I ordered a Lulu facsimile of Famous Science Fiction #4 (the original Weird Tales issue strangely the only one of that year unavailable through Lulu), and have just read the story for the first time.
As a bit of an arachnophobe, I am now ever so slightly creeped out.


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