Friday, March 18, 2011

'NIDS: Scary Spiders and the People Who Love to Hate Them

It seems everyone has at least one spider story. Here’s my favorite.

For a short time in 1989, Dawn and I lived in a house full of holes. It was rather old, hadn’t been put together too well in the first place and had no insulation. When I say it was full of holes, I’m not speaking figuratively. In several places, there were little holes in the walls through which one could see the yard outside. We sometimes referred to the place as Spider House, or Bug House. We couldn’t keep them out and they were everywhere. More than anything else, our home was invaded by wolf spiders. They’re very common, but that doesn't make them any less creepy. I’ve never been crazy about spiders. I’m not phobic, like some people I know, and I don’t fly into a panic when I see one, but I would prefer to get through my day without coming into contact with them. That was not possible in that house.

One night, I was ready to go to bed. I drank pretty heavily back in those days and was usually in some kind of inebriated state, so when I was ready to go bed, I was ready to go to bed! If I didn’t, I would end up sleeping wherever I happened to be in the house at the time, if you know what I mean. As Dirty Harry Callahan once said, “A man has got to know his limitations.” I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth. As I was brushing, I smelled a strange odor. It was a grassy smell, like a freshly mown lawn. And then ... I tasted that odor. I spit into the sink. There were bits of something in the foamy gob of toothpaste. Little spider legs. I froze as I suddenly understood what I was smelling and tasting, as I became conscious of what I had just done.

In my boozy, bleary-eyed state, I had gone on automatic pilot as I went through the ingrained routine of removing my toothbrush from its holder, taking the toothpaste from the cabinet and squeezing some onto the brush. I’d paid no attention what was already on the brush at the time – a wolf spider. Then I had brushed my teeth.

New and improved Crest! Now with Wolf Spider!

Horrified, I dropped to my knees and began retching and spitting pieces of the spider into the sink. Having heard my cry of alarm, Dawn came into the bathroom and asked what was wrong. I couldn’t speak. I could only spit and gag and spit. And gag some more.

We human beings have a love/hate relationship with spiders. Well, not all of us. Some of us just love them and keep them as pets. But they’re the minority. We love to hate spiders. That’s made obvious by the long list of popular movies made about them over the decades – all movies in the horror and science fiction genres ... especially horror. The arachnid has become inextricably associated with the horror genre.

My writing has been just as influenced by movies as it has by literature, and that is especially evident in my new book 'Nids, which is now available as a paperback and ebook. ’Nids comes from some of the movies that gave me the creeps when I was little boy, sitting on the floor in front of the TV watching Creature Features on Saturday nights with one hand placed near my eyes so I could cover them quickly if necessary. There were a lot of spiders in those movies. Sometimes they had small roles – they clung to the cobwebs strung through creepy sets inhabited by Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing or Vincent Price. But sometimes, they got strong supporting roles, or even starring roles. Three childhood favorites come to mind.

In the 1950s, vampires and big, lumbering monsters made of corpse parts were nudged aside by giant, rampaging insects. One of the earliest was the 1955 Jack Arnold classic Tarantula. It made a huge impression on me with its convincing special effects – a real tarantula was steered over miniature sets using air jets. The first time I saw it, my eyes ached from being open so wide for so long. Leo G. Carroll is the obligatory scientist who has cooked up a growth formula that really works. John Agar is the manly hero and Mara Corday the appropriately submissive and helpless romantic interest (remember, it’s 1955). And if you look closely near the end, you’ll see a young Clint Eastwood piloting a jet. But when I was that little boy sitting on the floor, the real star of this movie was that big tarantula that slowly crept across the desert landscape.

In the 1957 science fiction classic The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on Richard Matheson’s novel, Scott Carey is exposed to an eerie cloud made up of radiation and insecticide and begins to shrink rapidly. Soon, he’s living in a doll house and sitting on thimbles. But a tarantula has a scene-stealing role in a memorable sequence in which Scott battles the relatively gigantic arachnid. Once again, I was delightfully traumatized by this as a boy as my mother said, “You’re not going to sleep tonight and it’ll be your own fault!”

Then there was Bert I. Gordon’s giant spider entry, The Spider aka Earth vs. the Spider from 1958. Bert was a master of low-budget schlock and specialized in giant bugs and animals in movies like Beginning of the End, The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People, The Food of the Gods, Empire of the Ants and others. Forrest J. Ackerman, the grandfather of genre fandom, dubbed him “Mr. B.I.G.” The Spider was a perfect blend of classic drive-in monster java – a giant spider, teenagers and rock and roll. Bert was known for his low-rent special effects, and The Spider was no improvement. But even so, it was still a giant spider.

Hollywood’s fascination with arachnids didn’t end in the 1950s, though – they’re just not as big as they used to be. The Giant Spider Invasion clunked embarrassingly across drive-in screens in 1975. There was Kingdom of the Spiders in 1977, a movie for which I still have great affection. It’s definitely drive-in fare, but I love the very ‘70s downer ending. And it stars William Shatner! Spiders and the Shat! What’s not to love? 1990 brought us Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia, which is a damned creepy movie that still holds up beautifully more than twenty years later. I dare you to watch it without squirming. There was the low-budget, straight-to-video Spiders in 2000. A respectable budget made 2002's Eight Legged Freaks watchable, but it still wasn’t very good – kind of a moron movie with spiders. The made-very-quickly-and-cheaply-for-TV-movie crap factory that used to be SciFi but is now SyFy gave us Ice Spiders in 2007. Spiders – like horror movies themselves – will always be a cinema staple.

I don’t remember encountering many spiders in horror fiction, but they show up now and then. I recall how exciting I found the H.G. Wells story “Valley of the Spiders” as a boy. There’s an unbelievably horrifying scene in Peter Straub’s novel Floating Dragon that involves little red spiders and a rather unpleasant bowel movement that made it necessary for me to put the book down for a while.

What is one of the most common decorations at Halloween? The spider – usually clinging to or dangling from a large web.

Whether they’re big enough to stomp on buildings or small enough to take a nap on your toothbrush, spiders are scary and we love to hate them. They never fail to get a reaction from us.

During the years that I was mostly housebound -- hell, I was mostly chairbound -- with a bad hip that required three operations and kept me doped up on the finest mind-altering painkillers the pharmaceutical industry has to offer, I pampered myself by returning to some of the things I loved as a boy. For example, I went through a period during which I immersed myself in the pulpy, swashbuckling science fiction of writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. “Doc” Smith and Robert Heinlein in his early work, then for the first – and only – time, I tried my hand at writing in that genre. For better or worse, the result was my novella Death Hunt on Ervoon. Then for a while, I watched a lot of big bug movies, which got me on a spider kick – Tarantula, The Spider, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and even a string of really bad spider movies. That resulted in my book ’Nids, which has just been released as a paperback and ebook.

’Nids takes place in the small town of Hope Valley, which is the home of BioGenTech, a sprawling medical research facility on the edge of town. One night, an explosion occurs at BioGenTech which is witnessed by some horny teenagers parked at nearby Lovers’ Lookout. When one of those teenagers is horribly killed in the dark woods a little later, an “unidentified animal” is blamed. But Hope Valley doesn’t have an “unidentified animal” problem – it has a spider problem. And no one has any idea just how big that problem is.

This is a book for everyone who has at least one spider story to tell, for everyone who has fond memories of horror movies about spiders, for everyone who find spiders creepy, and even for those who love spiders. Does that cover just about everyone?

’Nids is available from E-Reads in paperback and as an ebook for Kindle and other formats. E-Reads is in the process of releasing all of my novels, novellas and short stories. To see what’s available and keep track of new releases, drop in on my E-Reads page.