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Carry on Screaming – Spider by Patrick McGrath (1990) #BookReview

Welcome, ladies, gentlemen and fellow horror lovers, to this month’s Carry on Screaming post. Each month I’ll be reviewing a vintage British horror novels and reflecting on what was happening in both the horror genre and the news in the UK at the time. You can read previous posts in the series by clicking on the ‘Carry on Screaming‘ category.

Spider by Patrick McGrath book cover

Spider is gaunt, threadbare, unnerved by everything from his landlady to the smell of gas. He tells us his story in a storm of beautiful language that slowly reveals itself as a fiendishly layered construction of truth and illusion. With echoes of Beckett, Poe, and Paul Bowles, Spider is a tale of horror and madness, storytelling and skepticism, a novel whose dizzying style lays bare the deepest layers of subconscious terror.

Title: Spider | Author: Patrick McGrath | Publisher: Penguin | Pub. Year: 1990 | Pages: 224 | Genre: Horror | Language: English | Source: Self-purchased | Starred Review: Yes

When I started planning ‘Carry on Screaming’ there were a few books and authors that knew I would be covering. Herbert, Hutson, Smith and Barker were all shoo-ins, whilst Stephens Laws and Gallagher were strong b-listers. I mapped out the books I planned to read year by year and at the end of that process ended up with a few gaps. 1990 was one of them and it was a Google search that led me to ‘Spider’ by Patrick McGrath. It’s a book I’d never heard of, although I did know there was a David Cronenberg movie of the same name (based on the book, obviously, with a screenplay by McGrath).

‘Spider’ is a much more literary novel than anything else I’ve written about here. It’s a thoughtful, beautifully written examination of insanity, following its (unreliable) narrator Dennis Cleg and his alter ego Spider as he moves into a small boarding house after returning to London after an extended period away. The action flits between his present-day experiences and his traumatic childhood, as he writes a journal about the death of his mother.

The book often has the feel of a 50s working class drama, filled with descriptions of cramped terraced houses and grimy pubs. That gritty realism is at odds with Dennis’s often nightmarish recollections of past events, which are filled with macabre invention. That contrast makes both elements of the book work better, at once it feels very real and fantastically horrific, more and more so as the story unfolds. It ends up being a completely believable and sympathetic account of schizophrenia, terrifying and moving.  

The power of the book comes not just from the excellent prose, but also from the structure McGrath uses, which allows him to gradually reveal Dennis’s secrets and the details of his life. It doesn’t feel like a book that’s going to have twists, but it does, and they creep up on you. Dennis’s confused retelling of the past has you questioning your own memory of the book. The result, for me at least, was a tense state of uncertainty that was only resolved with the last page.

This was definitely not a typical Carry on Screaming book, or even a typical horror novel, but it was an excellent book. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t linger with me for some time.


I’m adopting a slightly different rating system for my Carry on Screaming review, because, let’s face it, vintage horror novels are about more than just the quality of the actual book.

Book: 4 out of 5

Cover: 2 out of 5 – it’s okay, but let’s be honest it’s pretty boring

Nastiness: 4 out of 5 – this might be respected work of literary fiction, but it has some great body horror elements. It’s no wonder Cronenberg wanted to film it.

Sauciness: 2 out of 5 – what sex there is, is pretty sordid and traumatic

Cover promise vs delivery: 2 out of 5 – probably a bit of a redundant category this time.

Overall Carry on Screaming rating: 14/25

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What else happened in 1990?

1990 was the year I started sixth form, the UK equivalent of being a high school senior. There was one momentous events in the UK, the resignation of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister after eleven years in the role. I was no fan of her or her right-wing politics, but she was the only Prime Minster I could remember (I was six when she was elected), so it did feel like shocking news. In an indictment of one of her core policies, it was also revealed in this year that 20% of adults weren’t paying their poll tax.

The world of publishing was rocked when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a Fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, claiming that his novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ was blasphemous. The British press (rightly) condemned the action, but generally failed to draw parallels with the British government-sanctioned censorship that had been introduced by Clause 28 of the local government act two years previously

The other big news story of the year was Mad Cow Disease or BSE, a neuro-degenerative disease in cattle that could be spread to humans who ate infected meat. This led to banning of British beef imports by many companies, as well as Tory politician John Selwyn Gummer feeding his four year old daughter a burger to show (wrongly) that there was nothing to worry about.

There were a few mainstream horror movies that year, including ‘Exorcist 3’, ‘Misery’, the wonderful ‘Tremors’ and ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (which I still haven’t seen). My favourites of the year though were low budget treats ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (the Tom Savini-directed remake) and British shocker ‘Hardware’.

It was a pretty boring year for horror fiction, which may explain why I ended up reading ‘Spider’. King, Koontz and Herbert all had books out, but there was nothing to really shout about.

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Next up, a return to the normal, nasty stuff, with Shaun Hutson’s ‘Renegades’.

Renegades by Shaun Hutson book cover
Published inCarry on ScreamingHorror Book ReviewsStarred Reviews
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