It sounds like the perfect Hollywood spin-off; to studio executives, at least: Spider Boy. That is the title of a novel I am currently reading. The web of intrigue it spins, though, bears little resemblance to the thrills manufactured in the House of Marvel. Published in 1928, Spider Boy is not a prequel to the box-office dominating franchise on the latest instalment of which I decided to pass. Rather, it is a pre-history of the dream factory’s golden age, which, according to my estimation, ended in the early 1960s at the latest. Long out of print, Spider Boy is one of those forgotten pieces of 20th-century pop culture I tend to dust off for belated appraisal.
Reminiscent of the comic works of Evelyn Waugh, Spider Boy is the brainchild of Carl Van Vechten, the Iowa native whose name I heretofore associated with that of Gertrude Stein, Van Vechten being the editor of her posthumously published works.
The main character, one Ambrose Deacon, is not the kind of boy or he-man that would make it in Hollywood:
About thirty-six years old, he stood a few inches over five feet and weighed too much for his height. His light brown hair was beginning to fall away from his temples and the back of his head. His countenance was round, his complexion inclined to be ruddy. His nose was insignificant, but his mouth, a deep red Cupid’s bow, was his best feature.
I was intrigued by this emphasis of Deacon’s lips as expressed by a male author. Here is what else Van Vechten had to say about the anti-hero of his story:
In the depths of his steel-grey eyes could be read the record of his shyness. His hands were pudgy and exceedingly awkward. He constantly dropped books and other objects that he lifted. In the presence of strangers it was even difficult for him to retain his grasp of a fork. Moreover, he frequently stumbled over door-steps or nicked his knees or his elbows on protruding pieces of furniture. Many an ample doorway proved too limited to permit his facile egress.
I instantly glanced at my own legs to trace the records of assorted household accidents and misadventures in gardening, letting my ego display its bruises in a moment of empathy mingled with self-pity. It always takes me a while to read on after such self-inspections; but when I did pick up the book anew, I came across the following:
Although he was no misogynist, he had never married. Presumably no woman had yet found him attractive enough to try to gain his attention. As a result of this condition he was shyer with women than with men.
Now, the word that caught my eye here was “Presumably,” suggesting to me that there might well be another explanation for the bachelorhood of a hero who, by his own accounts, “was indubitably playing the part ordinarily allotted to the heroine.” It is a reading that may not have occurred to the owner of this volume, the previously mentioned Ms. Waterhouse, to whom I owe the pleasure of this chance introduction to Ambrose Deacon and his silent-screen era adventures in Hollywood, to a “western drama” that struck the man who lived it as being “all wrong”—at least, that is, “according to tradition.”
This is going rather roundabout it; but I am very much indebted to others when it comes to my exposure to culture of any brow or description. I flinch at have greatness thrust upon me; but I willingly fling myself into the web of influence in hopes of getting caught up in what is presumably outmoded and inconsequential. The readings that ensue, of course, are entirely my own . . .