Here’s this week’s subject of discussion over by The Weird Tradition group at LibraryThing.
Review: “Caterpillars”, E. F. Benson, 1912.
The story starts with the narrator telling us that there are different kinds of ghosts and that he will never, for all the money in the world, return to the Villa Cascana on the Italian Riveria.
He’s invited there by some friends, the Stanleys. There’s also a painter at the place, Arthur Inglis.
He tells us about the layout of the place and that he had, unusually for him, trouble sleeping that night because he had a premonition, as soon as he entered the house, that something was off about the place.
His premonition was strengthened by the Stanleys notably keeping one room on the first floor vacant and assigning rooms to him and Inglis elsewhere. Another significant event is Inglis, when the conversation turns to ghosts at dinner that night, stating anyone who believes in them is an ass.
That night, the narrator wakes up and goes down stairs and sees the vacant room. On its bed is a mound of strange looking, very long, and very fast caterpillars. They also have little pincers like crabs.
The next day, Inglis presents him with a box with a smaller version of one of the caterpillars he saw. Inglis gives it to the narrator since he’s interested in natural history. Inglis notices the pincers, and the narrator dubs the creature “Cancer Inglisensis”. Then, recalling his “dream” of the previous night, he tosses the box and caterpillar out the window. It lands in a fountain. Inglis mockingly says that students of the occult “don’t like solid facts”.
Later, the two come across the caterpillar which has escaped the water and is crawling towards Inglis. Declaring that it seems to like him best – but he doesn’t like it, Inglis crushes it under foot.
That night, the narrator again wakes up and sees, down on the next floor, the caterpillars swarming around Inglis’ door and elongating themselves so they can go through its keyhole. He finds himself strangely speechless and rooted in place and doesn’t warn Inglis or take action against them.
Six months later, the narrator is visiting the Stanleys in England. It turns out that Inglis is riddled with cancer. No operation is possible to save him. Mrs. Stanley can’t help but thinking he caught it at the villa even though she took precautions to clean that vacant room and have no one stay there. It seems that someone had died of cancer in that room a year before. The notion of cancer as something infectious may, given the state of medicine at the time, been prevalent (and some cancers are caused by infectious agents).
There’s an interesting idea behind this story, but Benson really doesn’t pull it off.
We have some possible interpretations. The caterpillars carry the cancer and gave it to both the previous occupant and Inglis. But Benson is way too obvious about this by having the caterpillar dubbed with that name. Or, maybe, granting that name caused them to deliver the cancer to Inglis. Or, maybe, we’re dealing with a revenge-of-nature thing, the caterpillars taking revenge on Inglis for killing one of them. Though, of course, how they still give him cancer is a mystery. This revenge aspect is undercut by the caterpillars seeming rather malevolent before Inglis kills one.
I liked Benson’s humorous stories but decided that I wouldn’t dip my toes into the horror/ghost stuff he wrote. Do you think you’ll be reviewing anything more by him? Or is this it since it was part of the group read?
I’ve reviewed a few others of his stories which were way better. Haven’t read any of his Lucia tales.
A very talented family the Bensons.