He is the last off the train. He looks lost, wary, an alien from another world.  He stops,  picks up an object from the edge of a puddle, examines it and puts it in his pocket.  Everything about him is strange. He doesn’t so much walk but shuffle, keeping close to the wall, occasionally stopping in a vacant spot while he tries to work out what he is meant to be doing.  He seems uncoupled, unsure of himself.  He is not physically disabled as such, but he has lost the easy, fluid sense of being in the body, that facile connection between mind and limb. He shambles along the towpath to the terrace,  dominated by three rusting gasholders. He stares at them, transfixed. After a while, he turns away to the house behind him and knocks at the door.  The caretaker, Mrs Wilkinson, is expecting him.  She is brisk, business-like.  The rooms are bare, functional, brown and cream, with trestle tables and benches and a few exhausted arm chairs. The scattered collection of residents, dead souls, he calls them, are too drugged to speak, they just stare out at a senseless world with unseeing eyes.  .    

From the house, it is only a short walk along the canal and over the railway bridge to where he used to live.  He returns there often, sidles through the gate into the yard, looks in through the window.  He sees himself as a boy, quiet and watchful.  They call him Dennis though his nickname is Spider, perhaps because he keeps a collection of flies, maybe because of his unusually long and slender limbs.  His mother shows him the spider’s silken egg sac and tells him that, having laid her eggs, the mother spider dies and abandons her children. Dennis thinks about this.  He sees his mother; slim, young,  beautiful but anxious. He sees his father, a jobbing plumber, truculent and quite handsome in a tired, careworn way.  His mother sends young Dennis off to The Dog and Beggar to tell his dad his supper is ready.  He sees his father at the bar, staring into his pint, his foot on the brass rail. He sees the loud, blowsy women in the snug. One catches him staring, pokes out her tongue and exposes a breast.  Later, he hears his parents arguing. 

According to Spider’s story, his father spends more time at the pub and becomes obsessed with Hilda who is loud, coarse and dangerous.  One night his mother follows them and surprises them in his shed on the allotment.  His furious father picks up a spade, bludgeons his mother to death and buries her body under the potato plants. Then he moves Hilda into the house, where she occupies the place of his mother, even to wearing her clothes, which stretch near to bursting to constrain her overripe sexuality. Spider regards them as murderers and plans his revenge   He creates a web of string, attaches the end to the gas oven and when his ‘mother’ comes home drunk again and collapses in the chair, he pulls the string and turns the gas on.  Later he sees his distraught father, sitting on the doorstep, cradling the dead body of his wife. He looks at the watchful spider with confusion and fear, ‘You’ve killed your mother, Dennis! Why?’       

This is another superbly directed film based on such a well observed and crafted novel by  Patrick McGrath.  It is such a convincing story that we at first fail to notice the inconsistencies. Why did nobody discover his real mother was dead?  Why was Hilda able to take her place, even wear her clothes, without attracting any suspicion?  Where did Dennis go for twenty years?  Did he really kill his ‘mother’ or was it Hilda? How did the woman who ran ‘the safe house’ become Hilda?  Why did Dennis enter her room and threaten her with a hammer? 

The skill of the book, so faithfully represented in the film, is the way it captures the web of delusion, compartmentalised by the wheels and spokes of Spider’s mind and dominated by the irreconcilable loving, cruel, soft, loud, lascivious and abandoning mothers.  Dennis learns to adapt by splitting and segmenting his mind; the frightening world of delusion is in Spider’s lair at the very back of his mind while Dennis and Mr Cleg are able to exist albeit with difficulty at the front in the real world.  The danger is that Spider always threatens to emerge and enact his murderous intention.  In his isolation, Dennis cannot reconcile the good, albeit rather strict mother with the tart who goes to the pub, gets drunk and has sex with his hated father.  He wants to protect his love for the one and kill the other and all the time has a deep fear that he, like the other baby spiders, will be abandoned. 

McGrath enters the mind of the psychotic, the dream like way in which the events of the real world, the traumatic memory and unacceptable meaning interact to take control.  He imagines his father and Hilda taking over his mind, questioning and ridiculing his every utterance, so he no longer knows what’s real anymore and becomes a conduit for their guilt and anxiety.  ‘Dennis had to channel and absorb the poison and in the process was contaminated by it, it became a ghost, a dead thing, in short, it turned him bad.’  He becomes uncoupled, unsure of anything, yet construing meaning in everything, as he tries desperately to prevent the invasion of voices and hallucinations, ‘the terror of guilt that clicks and clacks around the back of my head like the teeth of a hound, like a cloud of chattering gnats.’  The madness of the pub just before closing time, the excitable, confusion of shouts, shrieks of laughter and snatches of song, becomes the chaos of his mind, though he gains some reassurance when the fog comes up from the river because in the fog, the blind, even the emotionally blind, can see clearly.

His landlady, Mrs Wilkinson,  is a projection of Hilda, the bad, tarty mother he despises, the one who got rid of the kind mother he loved.  She even has the same name. When Spider emerges, she has to be killed.  

Dennis is, of course, mad but not entirely.  There is method and logic to his madness, such as the psychiatrist R.D.Laing expressed in his book, ‘The Divided Self’, which he wrote at a time when his profession was becoming increasingly biological and deterministic and schizophrenia was being thought of as an inherited disorder, treatable with drugs. Laing, like McGrath, attempted to infiltrate and understand the mind of the schizophrenic, to engage with the disturbed personality therein and integrate it with the real world, but Laing was considered mad by many of his colleagues. Treatment with antipsychotic drugs may eliminate the social embarrassment by removing the certified insane to a place where they could be labeled, confined but at a cost of not being understood or re-integrated.   

Nowadays, we don’t talk so much about madness; we speak of mental illness.  And people with mental illness are only suitable cases for treatment if they are suffering and a danger to themselves or to others.  But that loses the essence of madness.    

Madness is part of the human condition.  We are all capable of going mad and indeed do so from time to time.  We all have our limits and circumstances can push us over the top. Madness is losing touch with the real world, defined as the belief structure shared by the majority of people in the same culture.  Religious beliefs might be considered delusions, but since they are shared within their own culture,  Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus would not be considered mad, though Jedis and Christian Scientists might.  Highly creative people; artists, poets, composers, scientists, might be considered mad – their beliefs are highly idiosyncratic, but we recognize them as important and interesting and so we value and support them.

Madness is a delusional state of mind.  People often talk about being madly in love when they inhabit the wonderful world of make believe they each create. And if and when paranoid delusions surface to torture us, we can all be insanely jealous, crazed with guilt, deranged by suspicion, estranged with loneliness and driven mad with grief.  These are all human traits.  At those times we need a safe guiding to hand to reintegrate our thinking with that of our family, society and culture.

The situation with Spider is a little different. He has a well established recess in the back of his mind, that is seriously deluded and dangerous.  To help him, it  is important to understand the familial roots of his madness while at the same time creating a safe house where his persecuted arachnid perceptions can be tamed and accommodated alongside the functionality of Dennis.  But what chance of that within a divisive society, paranoid with risk?