Posted on: August 11, 2015

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I first read this millions of years ago when, during the school-holidays, I began reading my Dad’s collection of Dennis Wheatley paperbacks.  Most Brits of a certain age will be familiar with them.  They had very lurid 1970s covers, usually involving a naked woman, a flickering candle, a skull, and various other gothic accoutrements.  I came across it again recently when I downloaded Dennis Wheatley’s Black Magic collection on my Kindle (about a dozen novels for £12).  I approached Toby Jugg with some trepidation, as I hate spiders, and I remembered that they figure somewhat largely in this tale.  In fact, in that respect it reminds me of M R James’s The Ash Tree.  Arachnophobics should approach with caution.

The story is told in diary format, which is always a favourite style with me.  Toby is a young airman, who has been invalided out of the RAF in 1942, after breaking his back, and sent to rural Wales to recuperate.  The book begins with him clearly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, as he is convinced that someone – or something – is trying to drive him insane.  When it is revealed that Toby will inherit a vast fortune on his 21st birthday, only a few weeks away, it’s not hard to see that there are people around who won’t have his best interests at heart.

I’ve read plenty of complaints about Wheatley’s politicising in this book.  Wheatley’s politics are controversial, particularly by modern standards, and I must admit his waffling does get a bit tedious, and slows the pace down to a glacial level.  Some have argued it has no place in this story, but to be fair, a lot of people at that time must have been concerned as to what the world would be like once the war was over, and Toby is a man with too much time on his hands.  Even so, several pages of this Grumpy Man Ranting stuff could have been excised, with no loss to the story.  As Phil Baker writes, in his biography of Wheatley, The Devil Is A Gentleman, Toby seems far too obsessed with Communism for a man who is being menaced by a giant spider!

Where the book does work though is with it’s very genuine air of menace.  We KNOW Toby is in danger, and the sightings of the hideous shape outside his bedroom window on moonlit nights is pure gothic horror at it’s very best.  At first it’s easy to dismiss Toby as an arrogant upper-class brat, who seems to think all the working-classes are mentally sub-human, but you do end up feeling very sorry for him, as it’s clear his tormentors are trying to drive him insane.  The poor chap does go through it, and you yearn for him to succeed in his escape attempts.  We feel his fear, and his frustration at being so dependent on others.  At one point he rages “if only I had the use of my legs for an hour!”  And the spiders?  Yes, they are not for the faint-hearted.  It’s one reason why I would hate to see this filmed.  It was bad enough reading about them, without actually seeing them.

In spite of the political waffle, this is still a first-rate horror tale, and all these years on there were still many parts in it which I found genuinely unsettling.

PS: Apparently this was filmed a few years ago as The Haunted Airman. But from what I’ve read (I’ve not seen the film) the spiders in the film are shown as  figments of Toby’s imagination. In the book they are real.



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