“The Valley of Spiders” is a short story by the English author H. G. Wells (1866–1946) first published in Pearson’s MagazineMonthly publication founded by Cyril Arthur Pearson, published 1896–1939, the first British periodical to include a crossword. in March 1903, and subsequently in Twelve Stories and A DreamCollection of 13 short stories by H. G. Wells, first published in 1903. (1903) and The Country of the Blind and Other StoriesCollection of 33 short stories by H. G. Wells, first published in 1911. (1911). Told as a third-person narrative, it tells of three men who are attacked by giant spiders while pursuing a half-caste girl through a desolate valley.
Three men on horseback have been pursuing a half-caste girl for four days. They are referred to only as “the gaunt man with the scarred lip”, “the little man on the white horse”, and “the man with the silver bridle”, who is identified as the leader of the group. The story begins as the three men are about to descend into a “broad and spacious valley”, following the girl’s tracks, made easier by her bleeding foot.
As they descend into the desolate and apparently lifeless valley they are struck by the absence of any breeze. But as they progress the wind starts to build, and they see a large wild dog running towards them. At first they think the dog must be mad, but at the last moment it swerves aside and runs straight past the men.
As the breeze becomes stronger the men’s horses begin to show signs of unease, and the men notice a haze creeping down the valley towards them. Then they see a dark line of what they suppose to be wild hogs galloping down the valley, before they are confronted by a mass of great white balls, like gigantic heads of thistledown, being blown towards them by the wind. As the white balls get closer, the men see that they appear more like “aerial jellyfish”, rolling and bouncing as they are blown by the wind.
The men become surrounded by the white balls, and one lands on the leader of the group. The gaunt man cuts his master free from what is now clearly a gigantic spider’s web. The little man shouts for them all to ride away down the valley, but in the confusion the gaunt man and his horse are brought down and overwhelmed by the spiders. In their haste to escape, the master and his horse plunge down a ravine, killing the horse, but the master survives. He decides to remain hiding in the ravine until the wind drops before making his escape.
After a while the little man arrives on his white horse, full of remorse for having abandoned the gaunt man to his fate, calling himself and his master cowards. The little man upbraids his master for abandoning the gaunt man, who two minutes before had saved his life, ending with “Why are you our Lord?” The master takes offence, and kills the little man, taking his mount. As he is leading the horse out of the ravine, the man with the silver bridle takes some comfort in the fate that he assumes must have befallen the girl he was pursuing. But then he sees smoke rising from the wooded slopes at the far end of the valley:
”Perhaps, after all, it is not them,” he said at last.
But he knew better.
The story has three recurring themes: rebellion, rejection and the critique of authority. The little man asks himself why his master is so obsessed with the girl they are pursuing when he has “whole cityfulls of people to do his basest bidding … and that was all he knew”, and begins to wonder why such power should be given to one man.
The author David Malcolm has described The Valley of Spiders as “one of the richest and most enigmatic of his [Wells’s] short fictions, a story that exploits the possibilities of the form’s brevity to the full”. The material is deliberately incomplete in that the three protagonists are never named, and neither is the location of the setting or the historical period in which the action takes place; the only clue is that the leader carries a sword, which is broken as he falls from his horse into the ravine. Also, no explanations are offered for why the men are pursuing the girl, or for the leader’s often repeated dislike of white horses.
And the story ends with an enigma. As he is leaving the valley on the stolen white horse the master is muttering “Spiders. Well, well … The next time I must spin a web.” But to what is he referring? Another attempted liaison with a girl, but next time offering no possibility of escape, or a more convincing story to tell the next time he is accused of cowardice?
- H. G. Wells bibliographyList of publications written by H. G. Wells during the more than fifty years of his literary career.
- Full text of The Valley of Spiders at Project Gutenberg