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.