AFTER losing his wife and daughter in a car crash the narrator, Arnold Delgrange, throws himself into the 'Enlightened State Project', the brainchild of the elderly philanthropist Lord Foxfield. The Enlightened State Project intends to create a utopian island, free from political and religious dogma. Lord Foxfield finances the purchase of the Pacific outpost of Tanakuatua, leaving the co-ordination of the expedition to a balanced group of individuals, though the original 'leader' Walter Tirrie soon fades in importance as the plot unfolds.
Unfortunately Tanakuatua turns out to be a poor choice for this idealistic new colony, inhabited as it is by unfriendly humans and mutant invertebrates. Published posthumously in 1979, there are subtle shades of The Chrysalids with the theme of radioactive mutation, a clash of human cultures, and a sense of Eden lost. Web contains all the classic Wyndham elements, and there is a finishing twist to the tale. However it seems a touch rushed, or perhaps that is just the unusually short length. The average Wyndham novel weighs in at between two and three hundred pages, whilst this is little more than a hundred. Also we are told that the project does not succeed from a very early point in the story.
Reading Web for the second time - Warning contains spoilers
Having read Web several years ago, I decided to refresh my memory and re-read the novel. I remembered little of the narrator, not even his name, and that is probably because Arnold Delgrange, the storyteller, does not give much away about himself, or his departed family. Of course it seems likely that half a century ago men were not expected to open up on the subject of personal tragedy. I wrongly remembered Arnold and Camilla falling in love, but in fact, he regards her more as a surrogate daughter. Camilla herself is quite a cold, detatched character, who shows hardly any emotion as those around her die.
One curious aspect of Web is the names given to some of the characters. For example the lead female, a woman-of-science, is named Doctor Camilla Cogent, which seems too obvious a name for a cognitive character. The working class character with a chip on his shoulder is dubbed Joe Shuttleshaw, which sounds almost hackneyed, and conjures up images of a gruff Monty Python-esque Yorkshireman lamenting his lot 'down't mill'. Curiously one of the incidental characters in the final chapter is called Soames, also the name of the doctor encountered in the first chapter of The Day of the Triffids. I have no idea whether this is deliberate self-referencing on Wyndham's part.
The parallels with The Day of the Triffids do not end there. Many of the original inhabitants of Tanakuatua believe that their woes are due to a God-sent retribution, not disimilar to that felt by Miss Beadley in DOTT. The spiders threaten the camp in much the same way as the triffids endangered Shirning Farm, with the reader left with the impression that it is only a matter of time before the enemy breaches the human defences. Additionally there is the theme of survival against nature, and an overwhelming sense of isolation. The 'Natives' also pose a great threat, but unlike Triffids, there is no Torrence-type character, in fact the party itself is generally composed of level heads. Eccentrics such as Horace Tupple, who may have turned the story into a Lord of the Flies style nightmare, alight the ship at Panama, realising the endeavour is not for them.
The first time I read Web, I felt that the ending was anti-climatic, but on reflection I admit that there wasn't much else Wyndham could do with the story once everybody other than the narrator and Camilla had been killed. Personally I felt that Web improved with re-reading and would definately recommend it to Wyndham fans. Nevertheless, I suspect that had Wyndham written this novel ten years earlier when in better health, it would have ranked amongst his best.
Excerpt from Web
There follows an extract from chapter four, as the party enjoys their first rest day on the island:
I heard Camilla ask herself in a puzzled tone:
'But why are there no birds...?'
'God' said David, 'what a coast to be wrecked on.'
We chugged on a subdued mood.
Then I noticed something else. Up on the cliff top the vegetation crowded to the very edge. Nearby, the bushes and the tops of the trees were sharp and clear, but further away they became hazy, and in the distance it was as if the whole cliff top were fringed with a dingy white.
'What on earth's that?' I asked.
Camilla shook her head. 'It could be some sort of blight she suggested.
Jennifer Deeds put in: 'I seem to remember Walter mentioned patches of mist on the eastern side when he flew over it to inspect.'
'Aye, he did so' said Jamie McIngoe. Maybe it would look like that from above, but that's no mist.'
Nobody contradicted him. Apart from the fact that the light breeze would have dispersed any mist, it looked too static. Camilla produced a pair of field-glasses and studied the cliff-tops as well as she could against the slight rocking of the boat. Presently she lowered them.
'I don't know. It doesn't seem to move at all. It must be a blight of some kind. Can't we go a little closer in?'
I borrowed the glasses off her. It was impossible to keep them trained on one spot, but I could catch a glimpses of the outlines of leaves and branches through stuff that shrouded them on the nearer trees, further away it seemed to grow more opaque and to lie on them like a bank of soiled snow. But what it was I could form no guess.
Jamie cautiously edged the boat nearer to the shore as we went on, but we could not make anything of the stuff, only that it was certainly more solid than the first we had seen. Looking at it through the glasses now one caught occasional iridescent flashes.
I must get some of that stuff and examine it,' Camilla said.
'You'll need to be a good climber,' David told her, looking at the cliffs.
'There must be a break somewhere. Will you put in, Jamie, when we find one?' she asked.
We went on. About half a mile along we found a break - of a sort. It was a small bay about fifty yards across. The cliffs here were no more than thirty-five feet high. In the middle they were split by a cleft down which flowed a small stream. The sides of the cleft looked scarcely more climbable than the face of the cliff itself, but the stream had evidently carried down silt so that at the foot of the cleft a bank had formed some feet above the tidal level. There were a number of bushes and small trees had taken root and formed a clump, hiding the top of them was a cloud of mysterious static mist.
'We'd be able to reach that', said Camilla. 'Can we land here, Jamie?'
Jamie scanned the shoreline of grey sand fringing the bay. He grunted doubtfully, but he swung the nose towards the shore, reduced speed, and began to approach cautiously. David went forward and hung over the bow, shading his eyes, to peer down through the clear water.
'Sandy bottom,' he reported presently. 'Looks all clear.'
Jamie reduced speed still further, and held one hand on the reverse lever, ready to throw it immediately. There turned out to be no need. David kept on reporting clear sandy bottom until we were close in. The beach here shelved gently. Jamie gave a final spurt, and as the bow grated the sand, he shut off the engine.
The silence came down like a blanket. It had such an unnatural ominous quality that for some moments none of us moved. We sat there looking at the dark cliffs, and the dreary half a dozen patches of brownish stuff which looked like clumps of stranded seaweed.
'Not a welcoming spot', said David.
'It's like the dead end of the world, ' Jennifer said. Then she gave a little exclamation.
'Look!' she said, pointing to the nearest clump of seaweed. 'It's moving!'
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