Mind Games Gone Terribly Wrong

As scary places go, the mind might just be the scariest. Particularly if the mind you’re occupying at the moment is the one inside the skull of Dennis Cleg, the psychotic protagonist of Patrick McGrath’s novel, Spider.

On top of being frightening, it’s also chaotic, confused, and particularly unreliable. But none of that makes it any less compelling.

Cleg, or Spider, as he prefers to be called, is a mental patient who has been released to a half-way house in 1957 London. He tells you right up front that he often becomes “uncoupled”. Meaning he loses his grip on what he’s doing at the moment. Whatever that might be. Walking, talking, etc. He also tells you that his long-term memory is vastly superior to his short-term memory. In other words, while he has a devil of a time telling you what he did yesterday, he can easily remember virtually everything that happened in his childhood. And it’s those childhood memories that form the core of Spider’s story.

Author Patrick McGrath has fashioned a devastatingly moving tale of insanity from the inside out. As Spider tells his story, we emphasize with his harsh upbringing in a particularly poverty pocked neighborhood in London’s East End. We feel the childhood terrors Spider is forced to endure at the hands of his brutish lout of a father. We sympathize with his frail and loving mother. We agonize over the traumatic event that precipitates Spider’s descent into madness. But…we also begin to question whether or not we’re really hearing the true story. Truth is often hard to find. In Spider’s mind, it may be impossible to locate.

Ambiguity is ever present in Spider’s tale of woe. How much is real and how much is imagined? In real life, the author’s father oversaw mental patients. No doubt their frequent inability to separate fantasy from reality had a permanent effect on McGrath. He’s certainly put it to marvelous use in this spellbinding tale of schizophrenia.

Of the many things that Spider says, of the many ways he draws you deeper and deeper into his disturbed existence, perhaps none is more heartbreaking than when he shares the tragic line:
To be awake is to be available to torment, and this is the full complete meaning of life.

Spider is at once a mesmerizing thriller, an intricate case study, and an intensely horrifying peek at what might cause many to intone, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Written over twenty years ago, about an era some sixty years gone now, it still feels as frighteningly relevant as waking up in a cold sweat.

A movie was made of Spider in 2002. It starred Ralph Fiennes who was exceptional in the title role. But as good as the film was, it doesn’t quite equal the lyrical literary unraveling of the web that Patrick McGrath takes you through in his disturbingly real novel.

If you’re like the Fiction Fortune Hunter, and every now and then, you actually enjoy being a bit creeped out, pull this Spider off the shelves. You won’t soon forget it.


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