The Hephaestus Plague
Thomas Page | Bantam Books | 1975 | 217 pages
Once you crack the chitinous shell of disbelief, the Hephaestus Plague delivers a skittering, insectile variation on the animals-run-amok theme so prevalent in seventies ecological horror.
Following an anomalous earthquake in a small North Carolina town, a previously unknown type of beetle issues forth from a newly-created fissure in the earth. Completely blind and equipped with an impenetrable shell, this throwback species living underground since prehistoric times also possesses a unique anatomical feature — two flint-like back legs capable of sparking fire. As a series of fatal fires spreads along the east coast, reclusive entomologist James Parmiter leads the academic drive to find a way of stopping the insects and their apocalyptic threat to society.
The details of the beetle’s cross-country march (via the tailpipes of cars) and their fiery reign of destruction are delivered in an almost clinical, detached state of observation. This sense of removal from affairs starkly contrasts Parmiter’s growing obsession with the beetles and the mystery surrounding their reproductive process. Withdrawing into the dingy confines of his basement laboratory, Parmiter arguably descends into madness as he conducts breeding experiments, first to unlock any potential vulnerabilities, but later to unknown ends.
After Parmiter successfully cross breeds the fire beetles with a common domestic species, events unmoor from any pretense of clinical foundations and take a firm detour into the realm of weird science. Swarming over his experimental notes and listening to his voice, the beetles develop an understanding of language, communicating with Parmiter by assembling words through formations on the wall: “Parmiter”, “No”, and eventually, “Kill”.
Parminter’s relationship with his experimental beetle Goldback recalls the special animal bonding formed with the rat from Willard, with Goldback following Parmiter from his bowl and listening attentively from his perch on the windowsill. Parmiter’s fog of madness obscures his motivations to the degree that his goal is uncertain. Is he attempting to stop the plague of beetles, or facilitating it?
A brief flirtation with body horror, after Parmiter’s lab assistant develops odd symptoms following a bite on the hand, ultimately leads nowhere, although another transformation akin to an interspecies amalgamation is later hinted. The expected heebie-jeebies in a purported insect horror are also mostly absent until the finale, when a character pushes knee-deep through a swarm of beetles.