Ghosts & Spiders: M.R. James, Green Hell, and a giant spider

giant spider in Bolivia

Giant spider attacks St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

I read M.R. James’s “The Ash Tree” as a child and its image of huge grey, hairy spiders has stayed with me ever since:

There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange movement there; it sees as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out of the window in a flash; another — four — and after that there is quiet again….

First, at the fork, they saw a round body covered with fire — the size of a man’s head — appear very suddenly, then seem to collapse and fall back. This, five or six times; then a similar ball leapt into the air and fell on the grass, where after a moment it lay still. The Bishop went as near as he dared to it, and saw — what but the remains of an enormous spider, veinous and seared! And, as the fire burned lower down, more terrible bodies like this began to break out from the trunk, and it was seen that these were covered with greyish hair.

James returned to a loathsome spider image in “Canon Alberic’s  Scrapbook”

At first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black hair; presently it was seen that this covered a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with the muscles standing out like wires. The hands were of a dusky pallor, covered, like the body, with long, coarse hairs, and hideously taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black pupils, and were fixed upon the throned King with a look of beast-like hate. Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this appalling effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from the life.’ [First published in 1895 in National Review XXV, no. 145 (March 1895). Reprinted in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904.]

Author Helen Grant writes about a possible influence for “The Ash Tree” in a Gothick tale from the German called Die schwarze Spinne.  Grant’s piece appeared in Rosemary Pardoe’s admirable and essential Ghosts & Scholar’s M.R. James Newsletter, as did an article by Jacqueline Simpson describing a Fortean spider event that may have inspired James.

I would like to share a case of life imitating art in this excerpt from Green Hell [subtitled Adventures in the Mysterious Jungles of Eastern Bolivia in some editions.] by Julian Duguid. Considering the huge popularity of Green Hell and its sequel Tiger-Man, there is very little biographical information about the author on the web. Julian Thomas Duguid (1902 May 24 – 1987 Jun 5) was Irish. An Oxford graduate, he may have been a schoolmaster or in the British Diplomatic Service. He was reported as about to lead an expedition to Labrador in 1934. Duguid went on a later expedition to search for Col. Fawcett who disappeared in Bolivia while searching for a fabled, mysteriously illuminated city. He apparently fell into his first Bolivian expedition with the impulsive high spirits of the young.

In the opening chapters of Green Hell, Duguid introduces us to his traveling companions: the extraordinarily intrepid cinematographer J.C. Bee-Mason, who was not only a war photographer in France, Belgium and Russia, but cinematographer to Ernest Shackleton on his last expedition south and other Arctic expeditions. He was obsessed with bee-keeping (hence the hyphenated “Bee” in his name) and filmed documentaries about bees.  Also Mamerto Urriolagoitia, Consul-General for Bolivia in London and “Tiger-Man”: Sasha Siemel, big game hunter and expert on jungle travel, who hunted jaguar with spears. The three young men met Siemel quite by chance and a happy chance it was that he became their guide, since it is probable they would not have survived without his help.

The story of a grueling expedition through the Bolivian Chaco, Green Hell is a ripping travel narrative and one that evokes all the senses in describing the dangers and horrors of jungle travel: insects, wild animals, hostile indigenous tribes, thirst, lack of sunlight. It has been described as “one of the best jungle books ever written.”  This passage will show you why.

On the day of our arrival we dined in a great room overlooking the river. For some reason the talk turned on spiders, and Bee-Mason shuddered with what, at the time, we took to be an exaggeration of feeling.

“I hate them,” he said bitterly. “Even a house-spider in England makes me feel queer.”

Urrio and I looked at him in surprise, but there was no amusement in his face. His eyes were serious, his expression troubled, and we realized suddenly that he felt the same primeval repulsion towards spiders as Lord Roberts felt toward cats. Impulsively he thrust a leathery arm across the table.

“I have kept bees for years,” he said, “and hundreds sting me every season, but put an ordinary, harmless house-spider on my hand, and I’ll faint.”

“Probably there aren’t as many tarantulas as travelers make out,” soothed Urrio

“I shan’t answer for myself if we meet them,” said Bee-Mason.

After dinner we went for a stroll through the streets. It was terribly hot, with the oppressive, expectant stillness that precedes a thunder-storm. Great banks of black clouds climbed gloomily up the sky and erased the stars in their ascent. Little puffs of warm air were blown across the river. Pieces of paper eddied in the dust and suddenly died. Men moved slowly, and sweated as they moved, while the dark forest behind the town seemed to pant for a release.

We walked past the listless tinkle of a piano played in an upstairs room, past the incessant rattle of dice in the wine shops, on past the garish lights of the local cinema to the road which led away from the smarting brilliance of the street lamps into the shadows of the jungle. We took this road, partly because the darkness seemed cooler.,, partly because we were too listless ourselves to care what we did. Anything was better than the tired cackle in the hotel bar, or the heavy warmth of our own bedrooms.

At intervals of a hundred paces a single arc lamp hung over the middle of the road. With each puff of wind it swayed, and the shadows of the trees danced a weary measure in the sandy ruts. Far away in the distance towards Bolivia, the white track stretched, lonely, silent, inviting. We followed it, and our feet sounded not at all on the soft carpet that had never known Macadam.

Suddenly, when we had walked about a mile, a dark shape scuttled into the glare of a lamp. It came from the trees, where, pale and aloof, gleamed the white face of a small house.

“There’s a kitten,” said Urrio, breaking a long silence. “Let’s talk to it.”

‘Puss, puss!” cried Bee-Mason, slapping his leg and whistling.

The little beast stopped and squatted down  in the center of the road, as though it were lonely and would like company. It sat in a compact ball, black and motionless, and we were struck by the fact that it did not seem to be crouching quite in the manner of a kitten. It seemed to be just a thought too round, and there was something in its immobility that was vaguely disquieting. A kitten, even when silent, is a friendly creature, this dark patch was not, but crouched taut and strained in an attitude of hostility.

I do not say that we felt all this as we advanced up the road, but we did notice the strangeness of demeanor, and it made us careful. It was just as well, because as we reached a spot some ten yards away Bee-Mason touched my arm.

“My God,” he said quietly. “That’s no kitten. What is it?”

He stood where he was, while Urrio and I advanced cautiously. There was no doubt about the feeling now; a distinct and potent menace emanated from the small black ball. A definitely evil atmosphere hung over us. Suddenly, the creature sank back on its haunches and raised two long hairy feelers, which waved slowly and mesmerically before its face and we realized that we were in the presence of Bee-Mason’s most deadly enemy, a tarantula. Now that we were closer we could see the full horror and enormity of the brute. Eight legs of various lengths covered with long, coarse hair, supporting an obscene fat sack, round and bulging, while a pair of unpleasant eyes glared from a kind of watch tower above the body. It was sitting back on four of the legs, the other four were waving in the air.

I had read of the phenomenal speed and leaping power of these creatures in one of W.H. Hudson’s books, and I took great care to keep myself and Urrio out of range. So, five paces apart, we stood and looked at one another for the space of a minute. Then the forelegs dropped, and the beast moved rapidly away into the shadows with a curious, furtive, gliding motion that was unbelievably sinister.

When it had gone Urrio and I turned round and perceived that Bee-Mason was already some way back towards the town. Simultaneously the promised thunder broke.

You can read the entire book here.

“The Ash Tree” was published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904, when Duguid was two years old. I wonder if he ever read it as he was growing up?

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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