Tuesday, May 1, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #12: A review of "Caterpillars" by E.F. Benson
This is so far the most chilling tale in this volume, because Benson does something that no one else has (so far). Rather than rely on spirits and vampires and mysterious monsters, he uses something far more sinister: actual disease.
This is the story of a nameless narrator who takes up residence in an old Italian mansion. (He never wanted to tell this story, but he has just heard that the building is being torn down, so now he feels safe.) On one nocturnal wandering, he encounters a bed full of foot long luminescent caterpillars with strange, crab-like arms. He convinces himself it was just a dream, but the next day, his companion, Arthur Inglis, presents to him a matchbox, which contains a strange caterpillar he’d come across. It looks exactly like the ones the narrator had found the previous evening. They note the weird legs, and it reminds Inglis of crabs, so he mentions that the Latin for crab is cancer. This creature freaks the narrator out so badly he throws it out the window. Later, Inglis finds it again, but this time he steps on it. That very night, the narrator discovers the ghostly caterpillars once again . . . .
Here we have an excellent example of using creepy crawlies as a means to horrify a reader. So far, the only other writer in this book who has done this is Wells (with spiders). However, caterpillars seem so much more . . . creepy. Think about all of those legs, all shaped like crab pinchers. Pretty intense, right?
And the best part: Benson doesn’t fully explain the caterpillars. Are they ghosts? Their luminescence seems to suggest that. However, maybe they don’t need explaining. SPOILER ALERT: Just after the narrator sees the caterpillars a second time, he witnesses them heading to Inglis’s bedroom, presumably to get revenge on him for killing their brother. Yet he’s still alive at the end of the narrator’s stay at the house. And then, we get the kinda-sorta epilogue, in which we learn that Inglis died shortly after his residence in Italy. He was apparently riddled with, you guessed it, cancer. So the caterpillars got their revenge after all. END SPOILERS.
Benson has certainly upped the ante for the genre with this little tale. Read it for yourself and find out why.
[This story first appeared in THE ROOM IN THE TOWER, AND OTHER STORIES and can be read here.]