Reflections on Horror Literature: Breeding Ground

What is it with spiders?

Unnameable, unknowable evil is so often embodied in horror fiction by giant arachnids, as exemplified by the true form the titular nightmare in Stephen King’s It. But are real life spiders so scary that we have collective anxiety about them evolving into human hybrids—eight-legged flesh bags as depicted in Sarah Pinborough’s 2006 novel Breeding Ground?

Spiders are perhaps disconcerting, eliciting the understandable unease based on the status of their poisonousness. But they can’t fly, easing our ability to escape from them, and they serve valuable gardening and insect control functions. Besides, who can argue with the lovability of Charlotte’s Web or your friendly neighborhood webslinger, Spider-Man?

I would argue that the choice of a spider-like form of mutation in Pinborough’s novel is lazy and contrived, as is much of the rest of the book. Weather-controlling humanoid spiders who can be defeated by the blood of a deaf person or animal? The hand-waving explanation of genetic food modification would not result in all of those conditions, unless the cover-up is more extensive than the scientist and government characters let on.

But Breeding Ground causes a lot of head scratching generally, not just for its unimaginative monsters. I honestly struggled to unpack its pregnancy plot to discern whether Pinborough was putting forth a very feminist ideology—or just the opposite. The idea of pregnancy and birth run amok is another time-worn horror trope, but unlike arachnophobia it has roots in more legitimate anxiety. Here we have cultural fears explored rather richly—fear of men’s alienation during a partner’s pregnancy, fear of the loss of control of the female body (both by the male partner and the woman herself), and fear of the child, either before or after its birth. Other works have tackled this subject more elegantly and subtly, both from the perspective of the mother (Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby) and the father (David Lynch’s film Eraserhead). In Breeding Ground, we have a female author attempting to address this through a father’s point of view, and because Matt is ultimately unsuccessful in saving Chloe from the pregnancy that destroys her, I was left feeling ideological whiplash.

Are we meant to sympathize with Matt and his horror at Chloe’s growing body? Are we meant to castigate Chloe for consuming the couple’s real child while held hostage by the alien one? And how should we see Katie’s suicide, once she, too, falls victim to the widows?

The creatures’ nickname, and all the associate shaming of women throughout (albeit by definitively villainous characters) is troubling, but so, too, is the woman who ultimately proves most useful. That Rebecca is powerful in her otherness, her reduced senses (ergo, her lack, positioned in contrast to Katie), her gentleness and literal quiet sat badly with me. And the use of her blood—hello, menstrual symbolism!—was to me another lazy invention.

If I want to give Pinborough some credit, I might argue that the widows, the ecological tampering, and the now-misogynistic survivors are not the true monsters here. Nor are the women who suffer these parasitic gestation. The real monster, dare I say, could be pregnancy itself, which ultimately no longer cares that its wombs are dead; in a world without women, men then are the new incubators, vomiting up giant black beetles in one of the book’s most violent scenes. Pregnancy will triumph and destroy bodies no matter their sex.

But the fact that this twisted and bleak interpretation is the best I can muster about the author’s purpose is me reaching here to find some greater theme or meaning behind a lot of shock and schlock. I ultimately don’t feel this book succeeded as post-apocalyptic survival tale (the rescue into a government stronghold was too easy), nor do I feel it worked to say anything edgy or subversive about inherent human worries about pregnancy, really, because Chloe’s death comes so early and we never get to explore a female character’s point of view. In the end, this was an entertaining and occasionally gross book whose sole appeal for me was in its charming British slang and brisk pacing. Otherwise, it’s a lot of well-worn ideas with nothing cohesive to hold them together.


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12 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: Breeding Ground

  1. I had a hard time deciding if this book had too many themes or no theme. I felt like Chloe’s pregnancy was there just to give her and Matt an excuse for not noticing something wrong sooner (and to add extra gross-out to a later scene). If her pregnancy is tied to the spider-thing growing inside her—and commentary on pregnancy fears—what do we make of the rest of the world’s women, including those past child-bearing years, all becoming monster incubators at the same time? The GMO explanation for everything felt like an attempt to attach the book to some sort—any sort—of relevant modern concern. In the end, I felt there was a lot of “throw it at the wall and see what sticks,” and nothing did.

    • Exactly. The GMO explanation was completely unnecessary. As I remarked elsewhere regarding this book, sometimes the best horror literature leaves explanations for danger/evil out of the equation entirely. Isn’t it scarier when we DON’T know why something is happening?

  2. Michelle R. Lane

    You raised some really good questions here. And, I think the most important one is how are we supposed to feel about the fell characters we view through the lens of the male narrator who seems to a sexist jackass? Personally, I cheered for the female characters in hopes of Matt being eaten, but I’m not sure that was Pinborough’s goal. In fact, I have no idea what she wanted me to feel while reading this book. Anger is what I felt most of the time, or exasperation due to the fact that the characters have no redeeming qualities, except for the old man, and maybe the geneticist. Overall, I just kept reading to see who would die next. Not very satisfying in the long run.

  3. Michelle R. Lane

    Sorry…how are we supposed to feel about the female characters…

  4. Margaret Ayala

    I like your interpretation of pregnancy perhaps being the true monster of the book. I think the theme of pregnancy above the other themes should have been better explored by Pinborough to truly frighten readers.

  5. I think you are right – the book raises a lot of ideas, but I don’t think those ideas were what the author was trying to explore. Maybe the GMO theory was a way to attach some legitimacy, but I didn’t feel like this was a book that was meant to have a message or a deeper meaning. It really reminded me of the big bug movies from the fifties and sixties – entertaining, maybe, but not exactly thought provoking.

    I would kind of like to see someone take the concept of the novel and write something that explores the themes that you mention here and that have cropped up in other posts.

    • Yeah, as I posted above, focusing on just the first third of the book, telling it from Chloe’s POV, and then further cutting basically everything after her death would have made me actually like this work, and I would have felt like it had a specific purpose and unifying thesis of ideas. As it is, I think you’re right that it’s long on “big bug”-ness and short on “deeper meaning.”

  6. I agree with Patricia about the women who weren’t already pregnant, and for intensive purposes couldn’t get pregnant? Did these women think that some crazy miracle had happened before their bodies really started to change for the worse? Or did they think that they were just gaining way too much weight? It would have been creepy/funny to find out that most of the town was deserted because the majority of the women were all at the local Weight Watchers meeting or gym. Because the spiders were gathering, and talking to each other in the collective. Or some such nonsense.

    • It’s possible that the women who were beyond natural childbearing age were more tuned in to the collective hive mind? Maybe? A woman who thought she was pregnant might not have been targeted the same way a woman who didn’t think she could get pregnant.

      I’m pretending this book makes any sense, of course, when really it doesn’t.

  7. Firstly, it’s good to see some support for actual spiders. Jumping spiders are damn cute. Also, I too feel like the spiders were a lazy choice, over reliance on a common phobia. Same thing with clowns. The truly horrifying part was the pregnancy theme. After Chloe died, it all went down hill from there.

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