BOOK REVIEW / Eight legs good, phobias bad: 'The Book of the Spider' - Paul Hillyard: Hutchinson, 16.99 pounds

Click to follow
FEW CREATURES chill the marrow as the spider does. A spider scuttling under the cupboard like a bunch of keys has something dreadful about it, something both precise and confusing, though the confusion may only be in the eye of the beholder, trying to keep track of the eight legs that whirl like juggler's batons or a dancing Siva.

Paul Hillyard has harvested the arcana of spiderology to make an All You Ever Wanted to Know about Spiders But Were Too Squeamish or Phobic to Ask book. His declared aim is to lead the reader from fear to familiarity, but the problem is that the more familiar you become with spiders, the more rational a phobic response seems. The fact that there are 'only 500' kinds of spider considered harmful to humans hardly assuages the fear.

In Britain we can feel comparatively safe, unless there's something lurking in the bowl of imported fruit. But in Chile 40 per cent of houses are infested by a variety of Loxosceles known as 'the spider of the corners', which habitually bites sleeping people's faces. Hillyard tells of a Los Angeles woman, recently bitten by a close relative of this spider, who woke from a coma caused by the necrotic venom to find her arms, legs and the tip of her nose amputated because of gangrene.

It may be a relief to some that men suffer 80 per cent of black-widow bites - but that a number of these bites occur on the penis does little to reassure the phobic. These spiders often make their homes in outdoor loos and are drawn to the source of the disturbance. The chapter on venomous spiders is compulsive reading, like a prolonged episode in a TV nature film where the unspeakable is feasting on the unthinkable. Several of Hillyard's stories make the film Arachnophobia seem the tamest of fantasies.

Hillyard is not a writer of the calibre of Fabre - whose classic Life of the Spider is here corrected in the matter of web-repairs - but he is well informed and entertaining. If the short headed sections he uses sometimes leave the reader's curiosity unsatisfied, the ample bibliography does tell you where to pick up the trail. The chapter on 'Silk and Webs' is wonderfully concise and features webs which span, bridge, frame and moor; the orbic, triangulate, H-shaped, single-thread, and those zigzag embellishments, called stabilimenta, whose purpose is conjectural. Similarly, the history of arachnology, ranging from Aristotle and Pliny to Bristowe, is a gallery of oddities.

The survey of mythology and folklore shows how the spider has been a venerated creature throughout history - and even in prehistory, among the cave-dwellers of Castellon. The Incas at Nazca cut a spider 160 feet across into the sand. Among the Navaho, the spider was not only the teacher of weaving but the original being of a world as yet unpeopled. West African folk tales allow the spider a comic persona, continued in the West Indies as 'Ceiling Thomas' the trickster.

So many cultures associate the spider with good luck, and with bad luck if it has been killed, with both cures and disease, that its strangely Manichaean presence would appear to be universal. Spiders' silk threads were used in the Second World War for cross-wires in the telescopic sights of rifles. These days, research is being done on spider's silk as a material for bullet-proof

jackets, while spider venom is being tested as an anti-coagulant for heart disease.

Hillyard has a broad catalogue of the medical uses to which spiders have been put, but he neglects to mention homeopathy, which has remedies such as Latrodectus Mactans, Mygale and Tarantula Hispanica. On the subject of tarantism, he supplies a plausible explanation for the tarantella, a southern Italian musical cure for bites which involves indefatigable dancing, by suggesting the real culprit is the malmignatte (a Mediterranean black widow) rather than the tarantula - merely a more visible fall-guy.

A brief listing of literary sources ranges from Wyatt to Byron, but it's odd he should leave out Robert Frost's 'Design', one of the most chilling and well-observed spider poems, just as Odilon Redon's gleefully macabre lithographs are a startling omission from his 'Spiders in Art'. Moving from myths of origin to the present day, when spiders are significant ecological markers, when they offer an alternative to pesticides and their venoms may prove to be life-saving, this book might, in the end, make us consider that superstition is mixed with good sense, and that respect for spiders may be more appropriate than fear.

(Photograph omitted)