The Curmudgeon


Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Hephaestus Plague

In the southern United States, an earthquake opens up a chasm in the earth's crust. Soon afterwards, the peach and tobacco farmers in the area discover that a new kind of insect has emerged: a large black beetle, more than three inches long, which moves extremely slowly and is too tough to squash. The insects are eyeless, but are equipped with hard, chitinous rear antennae which they rub together to produce a chirping sound. When the insect wants to eat or defend itself, it uses the antennae like the proverbial two sticks, rubbing them together to produce sparks and eating the ashes from what is burned.

Despite the damage to the farmers' crops and homes, the scientists who invade the area are confident that, because of their slowness and lack of wings, the creatures cannot spread; however, one of the world's biggest sources of carbon is the exhaust pipe of the American motor car, and the insects are quite intelligent enough to capitalise on it. Soon they are all over the country, causing a long, hot and deadly summer.

The hero of The Hephaestus Plague is James Lang Parmiter, a professor of entomology whose increasingly morbid identification with the insects enables him to discover their vulnerabilities and help to save a humanity with which he is profoundly out of sympathy. He comments at least twice on the abundance of evidence that God has more interest in insects than in people: "When you think of God's glory by the life He has created, you had better well be ready to include the fangs or eight eyes of a spider or the pervasive cockroach before you sing any hymns." Parmiter's suggested formal designation for the species is Hephaestus parmitera, after himself and the Greek god of fire. Parmiter rejects the Latin fire god, Vulcan, because he served Jupiter, while Hephaestus and the insects serve nobody.

Parmiter quickly discovers that the insects are a kind of cockroach, and that they move so slowly because they are under massive internal pressure. Forced by some threat to emerge from deep beneath the earth's surface, they are suffering from the bends. This gives Parmiter the first clue as to how they might be killed; other methods, meanwhile, are proving something of a fiasco.

The insects' shells are flexible as well as tough, and cannot possibly be damaged by a shoe sole, even with the weight of a man above it. Normal insecticides will not work on a creature which is as hermetically sealed as a Sherman tank and, furthermore, seems to eat nothing but carbon. One of the book's funniest and most chilling sections details the increasingly desperate efforts of a scientific team at the Smithsonian to find a predator that will destroy the parmiteras. A tarantula uses up all its venom in three ineffectual bites. A centipede is systematically dismembered and scattered about the cage. A Gila monster swallows one insect whole, only to have the thing burn its way back out. A parrot sustains permanent psychological damage. Sulphuric acid works, but only when the insect is fully immersed.

When Parmiter hits on the means of destroying the insects, the novel still has a hundred pages to run. The parmiteras are extremely complex, both genetically and in their intricate symbiosis with the bacteria which constitute most of their internal workings. They have a greater potential for mutation - and evolution - than any other insect species. Working alone in his house, cut off from the world, Parmiter produces a new strain, and finds he can communicate with it.

The Hephaestus Plague is compact and competently written, managing in less than two hundred and fifty pages to produce one of the most convincing (at least to this non-entomologist) science fiction monsters, and one of the most fully and sympathetically characterised mad scientists, that I have encountered. It was the basis for William Castle's last film, the unpretentiously titled Bug (1975), which Kim Newman has described as a feature-length excuse for the moment when one of the insects, hiding in a telephone earpiece, ignites an unfortunate character's hair-do.

The book was written by Thomas Page and published in 1973. My low-priced Bantam paperback informs me that Page was born in Washington DC and wrote articles on the motion picture industry before becoming involved in advertising; all of which must have served to give him a healthy perspective on the merits of insects as compared with human beings. I don't know anything else about him.


  • At 8:04 pm , Blogger t said...

    Do you know I read this in the nineties, I wonder who lent it to me, normally don't do science fiction. It must have affected me so much, because I just completed my first novel, and it has a swarm of animals that emerged from (just like that) Hades too. So I googled Parmitera (the keyword I could remember from the experience of reading this book), "Parmitera fiction" got me here. Nice. Nice to know how important fiction is. Ideas-trafficking. Can I get an Amen!?

  • At 2:40 am , Blogger Kurt Komoda said...

    My brother and I were just talking about Bug. I haven't seen it since we saw it at a drive-in theater, back in '75 I guess. It was triple-billed with Ssssss! and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. I was only 5 at the time, and all three movies traumatized me- but I love them for that. I'm picking up the "Bug" DVD from Amazon, and after reading your blog, I'm very interested in reading The Hephaestus Plague, if I can track it down.

  • At 12:41 am , Blogger Philip said...

    It should be easy enough to find online. I too have only seen Bug once, on TV many years ago, though I wasn't quite as young as five. I remember Bradford Dillman getting the cockroaches to form letters on the wall, but that's about it. I found the book at a second-hand stall a little later and it has been a favourite ever since; but I've no idea what the film does with the story or the character of Parmiter. I do know that the director, Jeannot Szwarc, went on to make the time-travel romance Somewhere in Time.

  • At 6:10 am , Blogger Kurt Komoda said...

    My brother informs me that the book exists somewhere in my mother's bookshelf. The dvd of the movie is on Amazon for $2.00 used, so I think I'll pick it up.

  • At 7:10 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I've always remembered seeing BUG as a lad, though I had always recalled it as THE HEPHAESTUS mother must have told me the original title, cuz I was only in about 3rd grade. When I recently saw it on the shelf of a used bookstore for a buck-an'-a-half during a 2-for-1 sale, I had to pick it up.

  • At 10:10 pm , Anonymous Thomas Page said...

    Thank you all very much for your generous comments This was my first published novel and may very well still be the best.. This book was one of the very highest points of my life and I'm delighted so many of you enjoyed it
    Thomas Page

  • At 10:16 pm , Anonymous Thomas Page said...

    Thank you all very much for your generous comments This was my first published novel and may very well still be the best.. This book was one of the very highest points of my life and I'm delighted so many of you enjoyed it
    Thomas Page


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