WARNING – MAY CONTAIN TRACES OF SPIDER
A few years back I read an article in the Fortean Times that piqued my interest.
I’ve subscribed to FT for years, having been sucked into its pages by Mother at an early age.
Originally my interest in the magazine followed strictly supernatural or occult interests, leading me to shrug off trivial nonsensities such as UFOlogy or classic forteana.
That being said, I always had a passing interest in the articles on cryptozoology.
I love the idea of undiscovered species and forgotten creatures living under our noses.
From an outside perspective most cryptozoology seems to surround either Alien Big Cats (ABC), missing link hominids (like Bigfoot or the Yeti) or lake monsters like Nessie.
The article that piqued my interest centred around something that was both more and less fantastical – giant spiders.
I am in no way arachnophobic, I don’t particularly like picking up large house spiders but I will if I have to (you know, when encouraged by an arachnophobe).
The article touched on a couple of early twentieth century sightings of “giant” spiders (puppy sized), these were based on an article in the North American BioFortean Review (Volume 3, no. 2, issue 7 – on page 28).
What piqued my interest though, wasn’t the plausible existence of dog sized spiders (the largest pre-historic arachnid found in fossils had a body around 16 inches in length with legs around 20 inch in length – of course, scientists put this down to high oxygen levels in the atmosphere); what piqued my interest was the accompanying tale of a Parisian singing spider.
I have been searching the internet on and off for a few years now, looking for details of the story to either inspire one of my own writing or maybe to use as plot for a Live Roleplaying event; the other night had an epiphany.
I am a serial horder; if I can track down the issue of the Fortean Times that the article was in, I’m likely to find that very same magazine at home – or at the very least be able to order a back issue and use that article to find out more information.
Sure enough, on page 49 of Fortean Times issue 242 the article stands for al to read; The Monster of Issoir.
The original article from the Ann Arbor Argus, September 14, 1894 can be read here, although I will give a brief synopsis.
The story told is wonderful; Poe like in its simplicity and utterly plausible for the era of its telling.
Set during La Belle Époque (the closest French equivalent I can find for our own Victorian era) the brief article describes an area of Paris known as the 14th Arondissement. – enchantingly referred to as The Tomb of Issoir.
People are said to have vanished over an unspecified period of time. People of all adult age ranges and social standings have just disappeared around the end of March. Only children appear to be free from the cause of these disappearances, although this is attributed to the late nocturnal occurrences of these disappearances.
After several years of these regular disappearances, the local Police Chief orders strict surveillance of the area and a close vigil is held by his best officers.
Around 3am (the best time for this kind of story) hears a distant musical song that seems to be coming from beneath the ground. The melody seems to come from a hole in the ground, next to a large rock marking the alleged tomb of the mythical giant Issoire.
As he investigates this hitherto undiscovered crevice, the policeman spots a young man approaching, moving to the rhythm of the mysterious singing.
As he gets closer, this seemingly mesmerised young man picks up pace, eventually dashing towards the rock and plummeting into the crack in the ground.
Heroically the policeman follows, using his whistle and gun to signal his colleagues.
When his colleagues descend into the catacombs, following the policeman they find a grizzly sight indeed: the young man savaged by a spider with a body the size of fully grown terrier, devouring his face and throat.
The first policeman is somewhat injured by his fall but his colleagues shoot the giant spider to death in a hail of lead and green ichor.
The story wraps up with a note on the disposal of the giant arachnid corpse with the Museum of Natural History and its identity as Arachne Gigans – a Giant Spider.
I find this story fascinating on so many levels.
Firstly, the period it is set in; Victoriana seems all the rage at the moment, with the vibrant Steampunk of today replacing the maudlin Goth subculture of my youth.
This tale could very easily spring up in the France of Adèle Blanc-Sec or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
I remember reading the article for the first time back in 2008; I felt like Bram Stoker reading about Vlad Tepes for the first time.
Even the location of the story is Mythic; The Tomb of Issoire, now La Rue De La Tomb-Issoire, is said to be the burial place of a pre-Christianity Giant and Highwayman named Ysore, Isouard, Isoré, Isoire or Issoire. The street is a main throroughfare in Paris but is also near to an entrance to the famous catacombs of Paris.
The alleged giant was said to waylay travellers on the route to Orleans. Other legends say the giant was a Saracen leader who marched on Paris.
When the giant was slain (presumably be a proto-adventuring party looking for XP) the body could not be moved, so he was buried where he lay. Other rumours state that he was just buried in the catacombs because they were convenient.
A large sculpture of Issoire hangs on the street now, marking the legend for all to see.
The catacombs have certainly been used as a kind of corpse archive since the 18th century and are now locked down from trespass with their own police force.
Just as much as the idea of hidden and undiscovered flora and fauna, I love the idea of catacombs, despite being far too big to illegally explore the Parisian catacombs. There are catacomb legends local to me also, albeit all hope of investigation being void since the Thandi Partnership demolished and concreted over the pub at Castle Hill.
It is very easy to see how a previously undiscovered crack in the ground could lead into a subterranean nightmare – but where did the tale of the spider come from?
Could there have actually been a mesmerising eight legged diva down there, singing for its supper?
Stephen King’s subterranean boogie man monster in IT turned out to be some kind of giant psychic spider (as far as I recall anyway, I’m no fan of King’s work and only vaguely remember the film).
King’s monster preyed on children though and the monster of Issoire is cited as keeping clear of infants.
There are Trickster figures in certain mythologies that are based on the spider; Anansi being the most famous of these, followed by the Iktomi of dream-catcher origins.
It may well be these that inspired King and maybe even the tale of the Monster of Issoire.
It’s possible that King was inspired by this very same story.
Whilst a Trickster figure can certainly be associated with mesmerism and the duping of victims, mesmerism in nature is usually associated with snakes rather than spiders.
Also, whilst there are insects that appear to sing or at least produce music, I’ve not found any evidence online of arachnids that do likewise.
I remain intrigued by the whole tale, it is certainly inspirational – a real nightmare for arachnophobes.
So where do I go from here?
To start, it would be nice to visit the area in question and maybe track down the Natural History Museum – if there is one – in Paris.