LURID: Creepy Crawlies - Invertebrate Horror
LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.
Entomophobia – fear of small, crawly creatures – shouldn’t really be a thing. Whether arthropod, annelid or mollusk, these critters don’t pose any kind of threat that a human armed with the most basic of weapons – say, a shoe – can’t eradicate in moments. Wee beasties are easily squished and forgotten. Yet there's a whole subgenre of horror novels that explore terrifying 'What if...' scenarios stemming from invertebrates on the rampage. Slugs, spiders, crabs, worms and bees all get their turn in the spotlight. The overall message is clear: If something upsets the natural order causing these creatures to grow bigger, develop a taste for flesh, or start congregating in large numbers controlled by a hive mind, homo sapiens needs to Watch Out.
We’re already hard-wired with a fear of creepy crawlies simply because they’re Not Like Us. They have way too many legs, for a start, mandibles, composite eyes, radular teeth, and breathe oxygen directly through spiracles without needing to dissolve it into blood. They can produce venom, slime, wax and other icky substances at will. They’re older than dinosaurs and will be the last species to populate a dying Earth. We’re lucky that the current gaseous composition of our atmosphere (around 21% oxygen) means that most invertebrates – with a few notable exceptions - can only grow to a few inches in size before the tracheal arrangement of their breathing apparatus becomes too long to be efficient. Back in the Paleozoic era, around 300 million years ago, when there was 35% oxygen in the air, insects were much, much bigger – think dragonflies with three feet wing spans, ticks the size of Labrador pups, centipedes longer than a picnic table. Thanks to the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, all these monsters were wiped out leaving the planet clear for creatures that wear their skeletons on the inside. Like us.
Perhaps then, deep within our genetic memory, we remember what it was like to be crunched between the jagged mandibles of a rhino-sized wasp, which is why we have such an aversion to their descendants. We also fear the things we have long associated with invertebrates: pestilence, famine, death. That’s three out of the Four Horsemen – not bad going for creatures with barely a brain cell between them. Invertebrates decimate human populations via bubonic plague and malaria, strip our fields bare, and then, to add insult to injury, chow down on our emaciated corpses. It’s no wonder our instinctive reaction is Kill On Sight.
Invertebrate horror therefore taps into our most primal fears about dirty, nasty, sucking, chewing, wriggling, squirming critters. Although these spine-chillers were written in the late 1970s/early 1980s they speak to current anxieties about climate change. While it would take a major apocalyptic Event (a supervolcano maybe?) to bring back whopper grasshoppers, the current climatic shift towards warmer, wetter is certainly favorable to a rapid increase in invertebrate numbers - the trigger for a lot of horror tales. They breed faster and are able to move into new environments, destroying pre-existing ecosystems. Many species are also increasing their resistance to pesticides, evolving beyond the point where our weapons of mass destruction have the slightest impact on their health. As humans continue to ravage the planet, we’re fast approaching a tipping point: six or more legs good, two legs bad.
So, if you want to be prepared for your incoming Invertebrate Overlords, these novels are definitely worth revisiting. You may pick up some useful tips for surviving an onslaught.
Their claws were strong enough to snap a man in half. Their shells were impenetrable, even by a six-inch naval gun. Their eyes glowed with malevolence, and as they tore their victims limb from limb they seemed to grin with sadistic delight. Never before had the world seen such an army.
Brit pulpmeister and champion pipe-smoker, Guy N. Smith, unleashed his vision of killer crustaceans on an unsuspecting world in 1976 with Night of The Crabs. Think Jaws with Claws. Pincers aloft and emanating “an aura of evil”, the oversized critters scuttle onto a Welsh beach and start snipping off people’s heads and legs. Early victims include a couple of skinny dippers - an homage to Benchley. At first, the missing are believed drowned, but botany professor Cliff Davenport doesn’t buy that as an explanation for his nephew’s death. He starts poking around in the sand where the boy was last seen, intrigued by what look like giant claw tracks. His investigations lead him to the jumbo, hungry crabs, made all the more fearsome by their apparent powers of reasoning and communication. Davenport manages to ignore the tug of his throbbing member (this being a Smith novel, there’s lots of pneumatic sex) long enough to convince his buddies in the military to intervene, but army vehicles are no match for the ultimate in pincer movements. Davenport must track the critters to their underwater lair and brave the wrath of King Crab if anyone is ever to sleep safely again. The end of Night Of The Crabs brings only a temporary respite from the monsters, however, as Smith managed to spin out the Man vs. Crustacean conflict through five more books; Killer Crabs (1978), The Origin of the Crabs (1979), Crabs on the Rampage (1981), Crabs' Moon (1984), and Crabs: The Human Sacrifice (1988).
You still don’t think crabs are scary? You’ve obviously never seen Winged Migration.
Eaten? What do you mean eaten? Inspector, people are not eaten in their beds in the middle of Kent!"
Arachnids occupy a very specific niche when it comes to instilling fear. While some people can just about cope with regular six-limbed arthropods, the sight of a spider’s extra two appendages can send them over the gibbering edge. Perhaps it’s the irregular movement of those angular legs, or the fangs which in some species can deliver enough venom to cause respiratory or kidney failure in an adult human - or at least some nasty necrosis around the bite site. Whatever the reason, it seems that spiders don’t get a whole lotta love.
Richard Lewis (NOT the YA author) tapped into arachnophobia in admirable fashion in Spiders (1978). Unlike crabs, which can be avoided if you take the precaution of avoiding the beach, spiders are everywhere. There’s at least one lurking in the chandelier above my head as I type. They’re generally solitary creatures – which can make them seem less threatening to humans – but some species demonstrate a tendency to live in groups, and share duties such as defense and raising their young. At the beginning of Spiders, newly retired Dan Mason is digging in his Kent garden when he disturbs a nest of such social beasts. When one bites him he stomps on it, little thinking that its mates, including a specimen the size of a (regular) crab, will be back later that night to pump him full of venom and strip the flesh from his bones. Thus begins a wave of terror, as the mutant spiders advance across the British countryside destroying everything in their path. Lewis uses the tried and tested vignette formula, presenting the reader with a series of reprobate individuals and their grisly ends. The one man who can save civilization is Dan Mason’s son, Alan, who happens to be a biologist, and he’s the first to establish what they’re dealing with – although he persists in referring to the arachnids as “insects”. There are some memorable set pieces, dripping with gore, including the spiderly invasion of a primary school, a commuter train, and a hippy retreat. The carnage continues until Alan figures out what kind of germ warfare might stop the spiders in their tracks. Temporarily, of course. The sequel, the equally lurid The Web (1981) follows the return of the killer spiders (“a fresh tide of horror”) some six years later, sporting even more virulent venom (it sends its victims into a murderous frenzy) and immune to Mason’s solution from last time. And this time the Boss Spider is as big as one of Guy N. Smith’s killer crabs.
So spiders don’t scare you either? You wouldn’t mind getting out of bed and making barefoot contact with one of these in the middle of the night?
Shaun Hutson’s 1982 novel, Slugs, plumbs the depths of invertebrate horror. No one likes slugs. They’re slimy, their eyes are on stalks, and they eat everything in your yard. They leave trails so you can see where they’ve been. They’re shaped like turds. Thankfully, they don’t grow much bigger than about six inches. Unless some idiot starts feeding them rotten meat. That’s a mistake you don’t make twice.
He felt something wet on his chin and, for a second, thought he’d vomited but then he felt something fat and slimy gliding over his lips and into his open mouth. Ron snapped his teeth together, biting down on the jellied lump, cutting it in half. A foul, obscene taste filled his mouth and, as he tried to scream, half of the sticky lump rolled back into his throat. Ron coughed, feeling the hot bile clawing its way up from his stomach. He put a hand up to his cut and, as his probing fingers found the gash in his scalp, he felt a plump, mucus-covered form burrowing into the wound itself. Ron shrieked and tugged at the pulsating shape, finally pulling it free.
Ron's a bit slow on the uptake - as anyone might be - and it's a long moment before he realizes he is about to suffer Death by A Thousand Slugs.
For long seconds he held the slug before him, his eyes bulging wide with terror, his own blood covering the head of the foul creature. Then, with a despairing moan, he hurled the monstrosity across the room. But, it was as he did so that he became aware of the pain which was gnawing at his legs and his other arm. Scarcely able to comprehend the sight before him, he saw that his limbs were covered by a seething black mass of these creatures, all slipping and sliding over one another in their efforts to get at his warm flesh. They were on his stomach too, burrowing into the skin and muscle. With a mixture of terror and disbelief, he realized that they were eating him.
Hutson’s torrid prose is consistently magnificent when it comes to describing slug activity. He never uses one adjective where two will do, especially if he can shoehorn in one of his favorites like foul, fetid, or obscene. The slugs are so numerous they’re “like an undulating black carpet...an invisible, unstoppable black horde” moving through the sewers to terrorize nearby townsfolk, leaving nothing behind but “shreds of flesh, covering the shiny bones like wisps of gossamer” and those infernal slime trails, that “glittered with a vile sparkle of their own”. Squishing a slug underfoot produces a noise reminiscent of nothing less than “diarhoettic [sic] excretion”.
Like Lewis, Hutson uses the vignette approach, introducing an array of characters whose only narrative function is to be sucked under by slithering, blood-slurping, slime-dripping slugs. Hutson even finds a way of raising the stakes by introducing the one thing he can think of that is worse than slugs, schistosomes, “a type of parasite found in the blood stream of slugs” ((Richard Lewis's Parasites also deals with schistosomiasis, this time transmitted by snails).
If a slug is accidentally eaten, even if it’s the tiniest fraction of it, those parasites somehow transmit themselves to the human blood stream. They travel to the brain and form cysts. The worms grow inside these cysts…. The disease is called Schistosomiasis. Once the worms encyst in the brain it causes nausea, headaches and more often than not, death… and there are at least three documented cases in Britain every year.”
Mike Brady, a forty-something Council Health Inspector, eventually manages to find a way to get rid of the slugs (you can bet they’re impervious to regular slug pellets). Lettuce-lovers were able to breathe easy again until the publication of the sequel, The Breeding Ground (1985), which explores what happens when some of the surviving little slimeballs make it into the London sewers, bringing death by insanity to anyone who so much as touches one of their mucus trails.
If you're not scared of slugs yet, then you should probably read this news story, particularly the part about drivers skidding on slime patches.
These books are from a golden era of invertebrate horror, but there are plenty of horror writers out there who have taken the tropes for a spin over the past decade. Gina Ranelli's Unearthed is a tale of apocalypse by giant digger bees, crawling to the surface through sinkholes one rainy New Year's Day. Brian Keene's end times epic, The Conqueror Worms, features fearsome annelids slithering from slime-covered burrows. J. F. Gonzalez and Mark Williams' Clickers is a love song to Guy N. Smith. What fictional creepy crawlies have made you shudder - and reach for the giant can of Raid?
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