Review: ‘The Valley of Spiders’ by H. G. Wells

The Valley of Spiders’ is a short story by the British science-fiction pioneer, H. G. Wells (1866-1946). First published in the Strand magazine in 1903, the story is actually closer to Gothic horror or adventure tale than to science fiction, and shows Wells’s versatility and range.

To summarise the plot of ‘The Valley of Spiders’ briefly: three men are in pursuit of fugitives, a man and a girl who have run away together (there may be more than one man among the fugitives, but we know there’s at least one). The leader of the group of riders pursuing the fugitives is angry because the girl, who is mixed-race, has run away from him (or been kidnapped). It’s implied that she has spurned his romantic (or sexual) advances and he is wounded by this, intent on catching up with her and bringing her back.

They reach the titular valley, over which a strange mist descends. A wind blows across the valley, blowing what appear to be balls of thistledown across the landscape. As they ride on, they realise that these balls are actually the vast spherical cobwebs of giant spiders (well, I say ‘giant’: Wells tells us they’re around a foot wide, including the legs, which is around the size of the largest spider in the world, the Goliath bird-eating spider – don’t follow that link if you’re an arachnophobe). The spiders use their webby spheres to move across the valley, in a kind of arthropod version of zorbing.

After building the suspense in masterly fashion over a number of pages, Wells then unleashes the spiders themselves, which spring from these globes of web and attack the men. One of the men, identified only as the ‘gaunt man’, saves the others before being attacked by the spiders, who presumably kill him.

When another of the men, referred to as the ‘little man’, and his master take shelter from the attack, the little man upbraids his master for running away and leaving the gaunt man to his fate. The master, angered by this, kills the little man and rides off. He is, it would appear, the only one to survived the ordeal and escape the valley. The story ends with the fugitives having got away.

If this plot summary makes ‘The Valley of Spiders’ sound like a fairly conventional pulp horror story, the truth is somewhat different, and more complicated. Wells’s story contains a number of ellipses or lacunae, which make the story puzzling, frustrating, but also rewarding on a second or third read. It repays close analysis not least because of what it doesn’t tell us.

For example, we don’t know where this story is taking place. It could be another indeterminate valley in South America, such as provides the setting other Wells stories such as ‘Empire of the Ants’ and ‘The Country of the Blind’. But it is never identified as such. Similarly, we aren’t entirely sure of the motive for the riders pursuing the fugitives, and we are still unclear on this matter at the end of the story, where the sole survivor talks about spinning a web of his own.

Furthermore, the lack of character names in ‘The Valley of Spiders’ lends the story a peculiarly timeless quality. It’s as if Wells doesn’t wish his characters, or the events of his story, to be too restricted by temporal or spatial identity-markers. I think Wells was trying to construct a kind of modern myth with this story, rather than a more straightforward adventure tale. But what this myth is supposed to be conveying is difficult to pin down with any certainty.

What should we make of ‘The Valley of Spiders’, then, and how should we analyse this cryptic little tale? It’s tempting to see the two kinds of ‘pursuit’ in the story as in some way complementary: the men hunting the girl (she is the prime target of their search, or quest; we can’t even be sure how many men are with her) find themselves mirrored by the spiders hunting their prey, the men themselves.

If we bear in mind the feminine associations of the spider throughout myth and literature – from Arachne in ancient Greek mythology to Shelob in Tolkien’s fiction – we can find additional significance in the object of the riders’ quest being a girl. Their masculine hunt is thwarted twice by females: first by the girl evading them, and second by the (feminine) spiders which give her a chance to get further ahead and thus elude their capture.

Good old-fashioned hunting and slashing with swords proves to be insufficient. The leader of the men escapes with his life, but his two associates are less fortunate (although the death of the second man is only indirectly related to the spiders: he dies at the hand of his master). Left alone, the leader realises that if he can’t beat them, he must join them: the spiders, that is. He must adopt their underhand methods in order to ensnare his prey.

But what these methods will be remain undivulged, for the story ends there. But if the spiders represent the female sex as a whole, this ending might be interpreted as the man’s acceptance of failure with regard to one particular woman, and his determination to pursue with other women (and to pursue women) in future, using more clandestine and indirect methods. Guile, rather than hacking and slashing straight for one’s target, is a more effective means of ensnaring his female ‘prey’. One girl may have got away, but perhaps the spiders have been a lesson to him that he needs to rethink his method of ‘pursuit’ of women in the round.

However, a different interpretation of Wells’s story would view it in light of colonialism and imperialism, seeing in the three (white?) men who pursue the ‘half-caste’ girl a symbol of the Western imperialist quest. The leader is intent on subduing the girl (herself a product of native and colonial union) and reasserting his primacy over her, and her land.

But the land is also native to the spiders, against whose power the white colonialist is helpless, with only his sword as weapon, to defend himself. Read this way, ‘The Valley of Spiders’ represents the revenge of the imperial subject against those who seek to subjugate and dominate it. The leader of the riders learns, at the end of the story, that he must spin a political web – using diplomacy and more discreet methods of control – in order to wield power over his colonial subjects.

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