(Possible SPOILERS. I tried not to give too much away.)
This book was interesting in that it starts out the same way any number of comedy/romance/women’s fiction type stories start. A woman notices changes in her body, which the reader/viewer knows right away are signs of pregnancy. The panic ensues and comedic reactions to weight gain and sore parts, but it brings the couple closer together! Aw, it’s adorable! The reader becomes comfortable in what is a non-threatening scenario. And then, the story takes a very quick and distinct turn to “uh-oh” territory. Something is very wrong with the pregnancy, turning Chloe into a hysterical meat-devouring, blood-spraying mythical she-beast. Matt is so caught up in his revulsion and fear that he doesn’t notice his partner’s symptoms are a larger phenomenon and the reader is launched into an apocalyptic storyline.
The whole opening sequence is like a story on fast-forward, but it works. Even though pregnancy is ten months and drags on forever, it also goes by very quickly for the parents in a way that only the hormone-addled and terrified can understand. I also thought the whole “my partner is carrying a vicious spider monster in her belly” thing was the perfect metaphor for the fears of expectant fathers.
The birth scene was absolutely devastating and Matthew’s response was perfectly realistic. He wants to cling on to this semblance that everything is OK and they’re just going to pop by labor and delivery to have their beautiful little God-knows-whatever-is-in-Chloe’s-uterus. He tries to force himself to smile and say the right loving things to his partner, but she is having none of it. While it was crushing to read about the delivery of the fetus before the evil spider baby, I thought it was the correct writing choice. The reader needs it to understand this is not just about the arrival of something terrifying, but about the loss of the baby they’d once wanted very much, something that had given them hope. There was a cost to this apocalypse. There are no winners.
The story continues to move very quickly, establishing the “widows” as a mass-threat to survival of humanity. It moved so swiftly that when the group of survivors has assembled and John points out that the temporarily lull is not the end, but the start of a cyclical event that will only get worse. He says, “We’re still in the beginning” and I paused, looked at page number 157 and realized I was about half-way through the book. And at point, I started to feel that the story was moving a little too quickly, but I was so caught up in Matt’s struggle to survive, I accepted it.
I thought that Matt’s reaction to the “new world,” lamenting weather changes and blaming those spider bastards while mourning the loss of chicken fajitas was also very real. The poor guy just wants to wake up and find this whole thing was a nightmare. He misses touchstones of normalcy like Miss Marple and bacon and beer. The other characters felt a little underdeveloped, but with the pace Pinborough was keeping, I can see how it was difficult to develop anyone beyond Matt.
I appreciated that Pinborough stayed focused on the human responses to the spiders, as opposed to the spiders themselves. But I would have appreciated a little more time spent on the monsters. The descriptions of their anatomy were very strong. I’m sure I will hear the evil clacking mandibles right before I go to sleep for weeks. But their rules and operating systems felt muddled. First the reader is told the spiders can only be born to women, but the spiders they can be born to men who find “lumps” on their bodies. I get that it was supposed to be a last-minute twist, but it seemed to violate what made the beginning of the book so disturbing, the joy of pregnancy turned into something awful. Also, the monsters’ “weakness” – the acidic reaction to a specific kind human blood- after they spent the entire book devouring people, seemed highly implausible. The explanation for how the spiders came to be also stretched my disbelief to the limit. I think it might have been better to leave the reader with no explanation at all.
Overall, this is a very strong book. The writing style is open and approachable. The main character is an everyman. The combined elements of body horror, arachnophobia, apocalyptic fears and gender division played out very well. But I think the horror elements were strong enough, the science fiction elements should have been eliminated during editing.