During a long and prolific career, Phillpotts wrote not only realistic novels of England’s Wessex region but also detective and science fiction, thrillers, and mythological fantasies. His short novels of the last category, particularly Arachne, demonstrate the narrative and characterization skills he honed elsewhere, and although the stories come from familiar myths, he creates suspense, imbues his characters and their conflicts with convincing contemporaneity, and develops timeless themes.

At its simplest, the conflict around which the novel’s action revolves is between goddess and mortal, but it is more complex. Athene is a straitlaced traditionalist challenged by a youngster’s new ideas. Arachne, a pre-cocious girl totally committed to her art, crudely and immaturely rejects the knowledgeable criticism of an acknowledged authority. The goddess lacks interpersonal skills and is quick to anger; she guards her preeminence and is petulant when she does not get her way. This clash of two strong wills propels the action.

By having Arachne surprisingly prevail in the struggle, Phillpotts shows his belief that a touch of hubris is acceptable, at least in a mortal, less so in a god. He also suggests that artists, particularly those with exceptional gifts, should be excused such aberrations of behavior as Arachne exhibits. Geniuses, he implies, must be tolerated and encouraged. Because he focuses on Athene’s jealousy, intolerance,...

(The entire section is 536 words.)