Reading E.F. Benson’s “Caterpillars” tonight harkened me back to a summer night three years ago. I was in my bedroom on a balmy evening. I was living with my parents because I was a poor grad student. My parents usually turned the air conditioning on, but that night they didn’t and the stifling heat seemed to devour the wind that was trying to creep through my window. I fell asleep nonetheless, and when I woke up in the middle of the night, there was the shadow of a man standing above my bed. Mind you, this was before I re-kindled my childhood fascination with horror and that perhaps illusory world between life and extinction. So my mind wasn’t primed to see phantoms the way it theoretically would be now. I remember distinctly seeing the outlines of the books on my bookshelf behind the figure. I felt very much “there.” Everything looked real.
The man looked like a massive shadow – I could discern nothing in the way of a face – but it looked like the shadow of a man because it had a broad top and sculpted arms. I didn’t have long to look at it before it sprang forward and bore down upon me. Depending on how you interpret the instance, you could say that’s when I woke up, although I was not convinced, after it happened, that it was a dream.
The dream – if it was a dream– frightened me greatly. For a week I fell asleep late, after I could stay awake no more, and I left the lights on in my bedroom. Perhaps I did believe it was a dream, because I reasoned that if I didn’t turn the lights off and go to sleep, I couldn’t see him again. My family is the first family to live in our home, so unless it’s built on an ancient Indian burial ground (a concept I explore with some levity in “The Natives Will Eat You”), there would be no reason for a ghost to be at the foot of my bed. I mean, of course, you know, if you believe in all that ridiculous crap to begin with. Perhaps, I thought (because I was imaginative even when I wasn’t indulging in frequent horror stories and movies) it’s a demonic force, or perhaps it’s a ghost that followed me home from some haunted location.
Eventually, I decided it was a dream, and eventually I turned the lights off to sleep again. I don’t live with my parents now, and I haven’t had the dream since (although I am prone to nightmares, perhaps because of my hobbies), but it’s a dream that stuck with me because it seemed so vividly real that I could have sworn it happened. If nothing else, the dream may give me the stuff of a first horror short story. But even now, I won’t yield all the way; I cannot say with absolute, indisputable, 100% certainty that it was a dream.
We all have our little ghost stories, and it’s the stuff I devour hungrily. But E.F. Benson seemed most interested in those lingering places between dreaming and waking, where we sit in a paradoxically alert haze and wonder, later, if we were awake or not. That is what “Caterpillars” is about. It’s about not knowing what’s real and what’s not, which I think is why Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” – a story about psychosis – is such a good horror story. Good horror often stems from our inability to discern what’s real. And if we’re imagining things, Gilman suggests that our illusions, and what they do to us, are as starkly terrifying as anything that really is supernatural. But then, that’s the stuff of a later blog post. Gilman’s story was gothic; her intent wasn’t to write horror, so far as I know. But the story could certainly be interpreted as horror.
E.F. Benson’s narrator tells a story about his time at the Villa Cascana, which, as he’s telling the story, has just been torn down and replaced by a factory. Benson really primes us for a ghost story, for in the first paragraph, his narrator relates: “Most ghosts, when all is said and done, do not do much harm; they may perhaps terrify, but the person whom they visit usually gets over their visitation. They may on the other hand be entirely friendly and beneficent. But the appearances in the Villa Cascana were not beneficent, and had they made their ‘visit’ in a very slightly different manner, I do not suppose I should have got over it any more than Arthur Inglis did.”
The setting is opulent and the imagery is serene at the Villa Cascana. But Benson’s narrator has an uncomfortable feeling the entire time he’s at the Villa. One night, the feeling rouses him to walk about the premises, and he sees a strange light coming from a downstairs room. Incidentally, the host, earlier that day, took pains to explain why he was put in a room on a higher floor instead of that room. The fact that the host explained the decision so much struck the narrator as odd. When the narrator enters the room that night, he sees a mound of giant caterpillars, crawling all over one another and all over the bed. But, instead of cute little caterpillar legs, they have pincers like a crab.
Of course he runs back to his room, and in the morning he’s unsure whether or not he dreamt it all. At lunch, his friend, Arthur Inglis, pulls just such a caterpillar – albeit a smaller one – out of a box, and remarks on the fact that he has pincers like a crab. He recalls that Cancer is the Latin term for crab and playfully calls the caterpillar Cancer Inglisensis. In horror, the narrator grabs the box and throws it over a balcony and into a Cupid fountain. The significance of the Cupid may be deduced by the reader.
The narrator and Arthur walk over to the fountain. The box sits on the fountain floor, under water, in shreds. But little Cancer Inglisensis is climbing up the Cupid in the middle of the fountain. Are you frightened yet? Neither was I. Caterpillars are a rare breed of insect; they’re simultaneously disgusting and adorable. Perhaps I’m supposed to balk when I imagine a chubby little guy with pincers scooting up a water fountain, but I don’t.
Cancer Inglisensis, however, manages to crawl back down the fountain and swim across the water, toward Arthur and the narrator. The narrator notes his fascination over the fact that Cancer can swim. Cancer pauses for a minute, and then decides to crawl on Arthur’s shoe. With little rhyme or reason to his action, Arthur grinds the caterpillar into the pavement with his foot.
It’s hot out that night and the character feels dread. He lays in bed awake, feeling he must do something, but not knowing what to do. When he does take action, however, he determines that he’s waited too long. What he sees convinces him that it’s too late. And he sees a rather unnerving sight, a sight I won’t reveal, lest you desire to read the story yourself. Suffice it to say, Cancer – or his minions – make an appearance.
Does the ending provide an explanation? Well, it depends on how you interpret the ending. If we are dealing with a ghost – beyond just the ghost of a caterpillar – then we’re dealing with a rather brutal ghost. But maybe the series of events we read about really means nothing at all. Or, does the daylight appearance of Cancer Inglisensis give credibility to what the narrator sees at night? Is there a place, between waking and sleeping, where the most frightening apparitions find it safest to appear? Is it all just a dream? And, if it is all a dream, is it any less scary because of that?