Crawling Horror: Creeping Tales of the Insect Weird ed Dairy Butcher and Janette Leaf #BookReview #Horror

Crawling Horror: Creeping Tales of the Insect Weird ed Dairy Butcher and Janette Leaf

British Library, pb, £8.99

Reviewed by Sarah Deeming

This latest collection from the British Library pulls together a selection of short stories from 1846 to 1937 that have insects at the heart of the tale. If you’re looking for spiders, this is not the collection for you. Instead, this is an anthology that explores other insects, such as scarabs, moths, and ants.

The book begins with an introduction from Butcher and Leaf, explaining their choices. Notably, there was a desire to represent female authors who are just as prolific as their male counterparts in this subgenre, just not as well known. There is also a warning regarding the age of some of the stories. Those stories set in places like Egypt and Brazil use dated language to describe the native population, which is unacceptable in today’s society. Not every story used this language, but enough did that it was noticeable. The introduction suggests these word choices may have been deliberate on behalf of the writer to show the arrogance and ignorance of the white Western landowners and explorers at the heart of the story.

The collection’s opening tale is by Edgar Allen Poe and felt very current despite being written in 1846. The unnamed central character of The Sphinx is spending a Cholera outbreak with a friend, isolated from society. The protagonist reads to pass the time, drawn to sinister or depressing stories and the Cholera news from New York. Then he sees a monster, a giant creature with a skull on its back, roaming the area around the house. After the events of the last 18 months, I found the protagonist’s behaviour fascinating as we have done the same thing during Covid and tortured ourselves with too much information.

The following story by A. J. Gray, Jun., The Blue Beetle: A Confession, is a Frankenstein story where a scientist stumbles across the formula for life, only to reject his creation when he discovers its deadly nature. However, not all stories have negative connotations. Patrick Lafcadio Hearn’s The Dream of Akinosuke and Butterflies is a surreal tale of a man’s journey to a strange continent and the life he lives there. And Arlton Eadie’s Warning Wings follows a group of sailors lost at sea. The butterflies and moths in these stories play a very different role to the moth, and beetle in the two mentioned previously.

While some of the stories were interesting, and certainly The Sphinx struck a chord after the events of 2020/21, I didn’t find this collection worked as well as others I have read from the British Library. The stories are undoubtedly well-written and worthy of their initial publication; they perhaps won’t have the same impact on a modern audience as they did for their original readers. However, if we take them as a study in the changing attitudes of insects, then Crawling Horror: Creeping Tales of the Insect Weird is an interesting read and certainly not for anyone who hates insects.