Long before the advent of the 1990 horror-comedy franchise Tremors, giant annelid monsters appeared in a number of horror and science fiction stories. Some examples include E.F. Benson’s Negotium Perambulans (1922), the 1959 film Attack of the Giant Leeches, and the 1976 film Squirm, but there have been many others. (In the latter film, the voracious earthworms make up for their diminutive size by appearing in huge, ferocious numbers, like a plague organism.)
Benson’s short story is the horror classic in which sacrilegious villagers are exsanguinated by an enormous nocturnal pestilence, (see also Negotium Perambulans in Tenebris). In the leech movie, two philanderers and several other victims are also exsanguinated—slowly—by enormous hematophagic worms in an underwater cave. Finally, downed power lines cause ordinary earthworms to prefer human flesh over ordinary garden soil in Squirm. It is worth noting that in all three examples, the annelid monstrosity survives at the end of the tale, likely to return. Neither are the evil worms completely vanquished in two later films, Night of the Creeps (1986) and Slither (2006).
In terms of etymology, “worm” has its origin in the Old English wyrm, but this label more often than not refers to giant serpents or legless dragons in mythology, not to worms as we know them. Centuries ago, when zoology was much less precise, the word was applied to all sorts of vermin: larvae, maggots, caterpillars, centipedes, and various parasites as well legless reptiles, large and small. There is a tendency in horror fiction to depict the simpler, less evolved creature as more reptilian in form, giving it eyes and teeth for example, which it does not possess in nature. Doing this reduces the ‘otherness’ of the worm and makes it more recognizable as a predator.
For example, Bram Stoker’s last novel, The Lair of the White Worm (1911) is not about a worm at all but a giant snake with supernatural powers. Lacking a backbone, jaw or visual sense, a true worm is much more primitive in construction than a serpent or dragon, and does not inhabit the same psycho-ecological niche.
Biologically speaking, a worm is essentially a traveling alimentary canal, a mobile gullet. To be fair, the same could probably be said of all animal life forms. (I am speaking primarily of earth worms here; flatworms, leeches, parasitic worms and marine annelids enjoy much more exotic lifestyles.) “Worms of the earth”—not Robert E. Howard’s subterranean reptilian humanoids—consist of a long digestive tube surrounded by cylindrical muscle and enclosed in a moist, segmented skin that serves as the creature’s lungs. Tiny bristles on each segment serve as grab-holds and allow it to pull itself through the soil. Worms do not drink, there being few underground taverns, and so must live in moist slimy environments to avoid desiccation.
A worm’s journey through life is the pathway it eats through its food: decaying leaves and roots, animal manure, bacteria, fungi, and generally, whatever is decomposing. Ten or more pseudo-hearts pump its blood, which contains hemoglobin just as ours does. Lacking eyes, a worm has specialized tissue that detects light and helps it avoid being on the surface during the day, which would be unwise. There is a tiny brain, which preoccupies itself with sensations of light, moisture or vibration. Worms are hermaphrodites, having both male and female sexual parts, allowing an efficient though dull form of reproduction.
The annelid monster in David H. Keller’s aptly titled The Worm (1927) is an enormous version of the common earthworm, but prefers a diet of masonry, lumber, large machinery, and household appliances. The creature is less graphically distinct than the “graboid” depicted in the Tremors series, but behaves in much the same fashion. It is likely a closely related species, though not as nimble. However, Keller’s creature is able to tunnel through solid rock, and unlike a graboid, its motivations are not strictly limited to its voracious hunger.
Despite its naturalistic description of a biological monster, The Worm is a very psychological and symbolic tale, but not necessarily in a psychoanalytic sense. (David Keller was a psychiatrist before turning to writing later in life.) The gigantic annelid may or may not be a phallic symbol, though Keller is subtle here. The lonely character of John Staples amuses himself at night by reading Rabelais, and during one risky encounter with the monster he cries out to a woman who may be a long lost sweetheart or spouse—“Not yet…not today Elenora! Some other day, but not today!”
At the risk of sounding porno-Freudian, the creature is not entering the earth so much as emerging from the depths of it, like an old memory or a forgotten terror, and its mostly auditory approach—“a peculiar grinding noise”—heralds the end of everything in Staples’ lonely life. To paraphrase the father of psychoanalysis, sometimes an Enormous Predatory Annelid Creature (EPAC) is just that.
The setting of The Worm emphasizes the solitary character’s isolation and simplified existence. He dwells amidst the remains of his ancestors’ ancient mill, avoiding all human company, perhaps awaiting the end. Interestingly, there is a suggestion that the old well on the property, judging by its smooth sides, may have once been a tunnel dug by the worm centuries before.
The author carefully lays out the organization of this doomed abode, which consists of a large basement filled with milling machinery—literally the basis for the family’s wealth—on top of which are two more levels which serve as living quarters. Keller might as well be describing the contents of the man’s life, or his mind. The monster gradually emerges from below, slowly eviscerating Staples’ home, level by level. It consumes everything in its path, as relentless as a terminal disease, as unavoidable as death, but Staples stubbornly refuses to leave.
“This is my home. It has been the home of my family for two hundred years. No devil of beast or worm can make me leave it.”
Near the end, Staples realizes that the sound the giant worm makes as it approaches form the depths is very similar to the sound that the mill makes when it is in operation. He comes to the same conclusion as the two characters in Ray Bradbury’s melancholy The Fog Horn (1951): the noise made by puny human technology has inadvertently summoned an ancient creature in search of its mate.
Given contemporary anxiety about disease and infection, it is no surprise that more recent horror entertainments feature worms that are smaller, more virulent, and parasitic, as in Night of the Creeps (1986) and the marvelous Slither (2006), showing them defiling the human body by entering its various orifices to work their mischief—typically zombification or recruitment into a hive mind. Perhaps someday a “horror sociologist” will examine how this imagery changes over time in response to cultural anxieties.
The Worm originally appeared in Amazing Stories, where Keller published much of his early science fiction. He was an early scholar of H.P. Lovecraft circa the 1950s and 1960s and is credited with advancing the theory, now unsubstantiated, that Lovecraft inherited syphilis from his parents.