Chloe Jaques reviews ‘No Spiders Were Harmed in the Making of this Book’ ed Cherry Potts from Arachne Press

‘No Spiders Were Harmed in the Making of this Book’ ed Cherry Potts
Arachne Press
ISBN 978-1-909208-93-3, £9.99

The intention behind this collection is clear: to ‘celebrate the spider properly’. Stipulations to contributors to avoid horror and that no piece should contain the death of a spider ‘except, perhaps, heroically’ mean that the tropes of spooky hairy beasts and unnuanced terror are avoided, and a gentler meditation on the relationship between humans and spiders emerges.

The collection is split into two sections, ‘Poems’ and ‘Stories’. The two parts are balanced well, and both forms provide equal room – though of course in different ways – to think on these spindly creatures. Pieces in the collection rarely seek to impose an anthropomorphized interior experience onto their spiders, and the anthology is filled with musings and suggestions that speak both to things shared between humans and spiders, and to the ultimate mystery of a spider’s inner-world.

Some poems examine grief and loss, and the companionship found amongst spiders in the corners of rooms when feeling alone. As might be expected, webs are a focus of many of the pieces, often re-cast as sites of life, vitality and presence, as opposed to the more common association; that webs form where life is gone and the space is empty. Phoebe Demeger’s story ‘Clearing Out the Shed’ is one such instance of this. She writes: 

‘More plentiful than the tools, the flowerpots, even the dust, are spiders. Like eyes adjusting to a darkened room, the more I look the more I see. Some hang like grey diamonds at the centre of their webs, others stuff themselves into a ball at the edges. Spindly gargoyles crouch in wall cracks. Thin-limbed and tidy-bodied, seeming to hover like broken umbrellas. Some scuttle, I’m sure of it. I do not see them move but I hear them, feel them running behind my head.

‘The spiders have woven the shed together. They have strung telephone lines, knitted yarn, spun dew across every surface and untouched item.

‘In every crevice, cobwebs. An empty corner becomes a web, sustains a life, then gives itself back to the dust. Tight-strung threads turn veil-thin. The spider moves out.

‘I myself once wove a balloon of spool and allowed myself to drift away from the family home.

‘Little lives, everywhere. […] How many eyes were watching as first my father, then my mother, clicked shut the door behind them for the last time?’.

The spiders here are rendered in their own right using deft and intriguing imagery, but are also set firmly in the context of the shed and amongst the grief of the speaker. The poem recognises one of the central difficulties of writing about non-human animals and creatures: that we can never perceived them outside of our own assumptions and, in many ways, inevitably anthropomorphise them, or use them as symbols. This is a perceptive concession that runs throughout the collection. In Demeger’s poem, although the webs and their spiders initially unnerve the speaker, they come to evoke hope, and some form of strange community, especially meaningful in the wake of death.  

Further discussion of the web centres around the smallness of the spiders and, often, the largeness of the human being. One of my favourite pieces in the collection was Hugh Findlay’s haiku, aptly titled, ‘Spider Haiku’:

‘Forgive me spider –
The business of your web
Shaken by my hand.’

For me, this poem encapsulates – in the concise and weighty way of haiku – one of the most interesting things about spiders and humans, especially considering this publishing house is based in the UK. In the UK, there are only four species of spider that can break your skin with their bite, and there are no spiders that can really do you any harm, certainly none that can kill you. People are frightened and unnerved by spiders, but if we felt brave enough for it, we could crush even the biggest house-spider in our hand. Just like grandad said, they are more scared of us than we are of them, and so they should be. By excluding the killing of spiders from this anthology, No Spiders Were Harmed in the Making of this Book ensures a text that focuses on the nuances of human-spider relations, the weird tension of something big being scared of something so small, and the magic and mystery and artistry of spider webs.   

Webs in this collection do not form, in fact, but are built – spiders are weavers, seamstresses, textiles artists, embroidery masters, many-legged Penelopes waiting for flies instead of Odysseus. But this collection does not seek to present cuddly or cartoon spiders, and not every spider in this work is beautiful or thick with meaning – some of them are just spiders, just hanging out, just doing spider things. Part of the beauty of this eclectic anthology is the way it holds up so many different magnifying-glasses to the spider; there is no one way to examine and to look. ‘No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book’ is a text in which the presence of the artists is felt; a reader can almost imagine a stretching field of writers, all looking closely at spiders, and at human ideas of spiders, and really thinking about what that means. The myriad voices in the collection – and the many ways they have interpreted the call for submissions – make for a stimulating read, at once serious and moving, as well as light-hearted and frivolous. Ultimately, the spider emerges legitimate and powerful, sometimes dangerous and always compelling. This collection is a refreshing, detailed and compassionate take on an under-loved and fascinating creature.