As Climate change with Indian summer conspires, to keep autumnal winds away,
I set my mind to poetry, for a lesson come Monday. . .
Sorry. That’s in aid of saying I’m preparing a poetry lesson for Monday. Digging through old volumes, looking for examples of personification, or figurative language, or whatever soulless term the GED insists poetry can be understood by, I stumble across “The Spider and the Fly: a Fable” by Marry Howitt. You probably know the first line:
“Won’t you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly
The classic line by which every lecherous predator attempts to woo a witless victim. It goes on in this fashion for some while, my favourite passage concerning the pantry:
Said the cunning spider to the fly, “Dear friend, what shall I do?
To prove the warm affection I’ve always felt for you?
I’ve within my pantry good store of all that’s nice; I’m sure you’re very welcome; will you please to take a slice?”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly, “kind sir that cannot be;
I’ve heard what’s in your pantry, and I do not wish to see.”
I was struck by a couple things, and not just the direct inspiration for “Cobweb Hotel”. First, was Howitt’s masterful use of rhythm to create a sense of dread. Little poem it may be, it reads like a prototypal horror story: in the very use of one of nature’s most terrifying arrangements (ask any arachnophobe), silvery words spilling from an obvious danger. Be it a spider, or a big bad wolf, or a witch with a gingerbread house, or a Dracula, or a well dressed Mephistopheles or any number of saucy succubi occupying our silver screens, disguised menace is one of horror’s most prevalent themes. The spider’s words may as well come from Hannibal Lector, they are so obviously a means to an evil end. The knowledge tickles the spidey senses, warning of impending menace, or imminent doom. Even in a little poem like this, it’s titillating (at least until one remembers the darker implications – see below).
Alas, it also takes patience and imagination on the part of the reader to work – jaded modern audiences need to co-operate if they are to feel anything, and saddly so few of them do. These days, folks are more likely to say “to hell with the poem, show me what the spider does!” They don’t want their senses pricked, or to flirt with vague dread – they want the immediate visceral experience of violence. They want to see someone skinned alive, or disembowelled or deflowered, to watch it happening, and not merely hinted at. It seems more sadistic than anything else; I’ve never understood the appeal. Such spectacles may contain the rush of an intense physical experience, but don’t allow the imagination to create its own terrors, and leave nothing else for the mind to contemplate. They certainly have no allegorical value.
Which is not what anybody wants these days, which is exactly my point.
The second, probably more important thing: this is definitely the archetypical cautionary tale adults have been foisting on children since time immemorial. Basically, “don’t talk to strangers”. Least of all the ones who flatter you. This mantra was drilled into our head again and again growing up – they never specified what the strangers wanted with you, but they were to be avoided at all cost. (And the message doesn’t go away in adulthood, it just reverses itself: social norms demand you don’t talk to strange children). Horrible world that we live in, this conditioning is sadly necessary. But I think about all those other archetypes of children’s horror stories – orphanages, wicked step-moms etc. – and wonder if they would be archetypal fears at all if adults didn’t insist on trotting them out so often.
Do children really fear their step-moms so much? Why are they being taught to do so?
When I was little, I of course feared losing my parents, but I did not dwell on it, and even then wondered why so many cartoon and storybook writers insisted on reminding me of the possibility. What I actually feared most though, prodded by Pinochio, American Tale and others, was being sold into slavery. (To this day it pisses me off that Pinochio never went back to rescue the other donkeys). Sadly this happens as well in many parts of the world, not with western indifference, but active participation: how many of our clothes and shoes are stitched together by child-slaves in the third world?
Does no one notice the hypocrisy?
But getting back to “The Spider and the Fly”: the spider could stand in for just about anyone who would abuse your trust. He could be a record executive who wants to exploit your talent for all we know. But let’s face it: nine times out of ten, the spider is a sex predator. It is our instinctive conclusion any time someone tries to lure you into his lair. Is this a modern preoccupation, or did it occur to readers in Howitt’s day? It cannot be a coincidence that the Spider is male and the Fly female. Maybe Howitt was only thinking of a maiden’s modesty. I don’t know. But these days, we have a pretty good idea of what goes on in the spider’s pantries, and it’s far worse than anything that could be hinted at in a mere poem.