The Trap Door Spiders was a men’s club. They gathered for dinner, the thirteen members plus one or two guests, one Friday a month when it could be arranged… resulting in about nine get-togethers every year. The venue for the dinner as well as the wine and meals were chosen by the host, and hosting duties rotated among the members. As members cycled out, new members were inducted.
They were unusual but not unique, as men’s clubs – and women’s clubs – have been popular for centuries. One thing that made them particularly unusual was their membership. It consisted overwhelmingly of science fiction authors.
That was understandable, because the group had been founded by a few science fiction writers. When Fletcher Pratt – the irregular writing partner of L. Sprague de Camp – discovered that the new wife of one of his best friends really didn’t approve of Pratt, de Camp and others in their circle, they decided to start having a men’s night out on a semi-regular basis, back in 1944. They named their group the Trap Door Spiders.
Members included a number of people whose names are now famous in science fiction circles – Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, de Camp, Willy Ley, Lin Carter, Lester Del Rey – as well as editors, a few scientists, an Episcopal minister, an admiral and some lawyers.
What made them unique, however, was their method of entertainment. The host decided not only the location and food, but was expected to bring a guest. That guest had to perform for their meal – by being grilled by the members.
It was a convenient way for a bunch of authors to get a feel for how people think, as well as a good conversation starter. The opening question was always the same: How do you justify your existence? From there, the questions were certain to roam wildly. How wildly depended in part on how good the wine selection had been.
Unlike many other men’s clubs, the Spiders were immortalized in story – completely unsurprising, considering the vocation of most of the members. A variant of the club is to be found in one of de Camp’s historical novels. The far more famous version wound up as the inspiration to Asimov’s successful series of mystery short stories, The Black Widowers. Thinly disguised versions of The Amazing Randi, Harlan Ellison and other real-life people appeared as the guests in the Widower’s stories after first being guests at the TDS events. Asimov merely wrote down their responses to the existence-justification question and had the analogue provide an identical reply.
Asimov being Asimov, he then included himself in one of his stories as the guest, in “When No Man Pursueth”. I suspect the wine had been particularly good that night.
Question of the night: How do you justify your existence?