Sunday, August 11, 2013

1. E.F. Benson’s Entomophobia and P.Y.F.

As a young male vertebrate, I was often fascinated by creatures that had more legs than I did.  Cats, dogs, frogs, squirrels and turtles—all fellow beings with backbones—were mildly interesting, because familiar.  Sharing the same number of limbs, one could befriend them, perhaps even joke with them, (or at least play tricks).  But little in my life at that time—not school, not chores, not church—could match the uneasy thrill of finding a life form with 6, 8, 12 or more legs.  For many land based human offspring, an arthropod is the first exposure to beings that are wholly other.

Because of their essential otherness, creatures with jointed appendages and an exoskeleton are featured in many horror and science fiction tales.  Here’s Lovecraft in The Whisperer in Darkness: “They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs…”  And it is not just because of their multiple appendages, bulging compound eyes and antennae.  Their feeding habits, social behavior and methods of reproduction, when magnified, are more gruesome and horrifying than anything our fellow vertebrates are capable of.  (And this does not include their basically repellent nature, which contributes to their Primal Yuck Factor, or PYF.) 

Here’s an example.  The Cicada Killer Wasp, (Sphecius speciosus), of which there are several under my front porch, paralyzes the cicada—a large, loud bug if you have ever seen one—and flies it back to her underground nest.  She then lays an egg on the Cicada near the puncture wound left by her sting.  When the egg hatches, the wasp larva enters the doomed bug and eats it alive from the inside out. It then builds a cocoon, and emerges as an adult Cicada Killer about a year later.  What famous movie monster does this life cycle remind you of?

E.F. Benson’s story Caterpillars, combines the fear of insects, (that is, insect larva in this case), with fear of disease and contagion.  (His classic story of Calvinist molluskan horror, Negotium Perambulans, was discussed in a post last June.)  Caterpillars are the larval forms of moths and butterflies, but in this story, there is no happy metamorphosis, no transformation of vermin into more wholesome flying creatures.

Originally published in 1912, the story begins with notice that the Villa Cascana has been torn down to make way for a factory.  The narrator expresses relief.  He had visited with friends there once and found the place “haunted in a very terrible and practical manner.”  But this is more than a story about the ghost of someone deceased.  It is really about death itself, past, present and future.  

The mansion is situated on a hill overlooking the sea, surrounded by gardens, lovely fountains, fresh breezes off the water, and a beautiful sunny landscape.  These details provide a contrast to the sense of foreboding and dis-ease within the house.  The author carefully describes the architecture and interior of the Villa Cascana, giving especial attention to the rooms and their relation to one another.  One of the rooms is left unoccupied, and the landlady’s explanation for this is unconvincing.

One of the guests is an artist.  It is likely that he is doomed—artists do not fare well in some of Benson’s stories.  In Negotium Perambulans, an arrogant and disreputable artist has all the blood sucked out of him by a gigantic mollusk, for example.

The narrator awakens in the night and wanders downstairs.  Passing by the unoccupied room he discovers that the door is open and a strange phosphorescent glow is coming from within.  On the bed is a writhing pile of hundreds of large caterpillars. The description of their behavior makes them actually sound more like maggots.   “Instead of the sucker-feet of ordinary caterpillars they had rows of pincers like crabs…”

Now caterpillars for the most part are soft and squishy, and not ordinarily terrifying.  They combine a relatively high PYF, (as most larva do), but low threat level.  Thus Benson equips them with painful looking pincers for feet.  This motif is found in a number of early 20th century horror and science fiction monsters—creatures with appendages terminating in crablike or lobster-like claws.
They notice him and begin to drop off the bed and crawl toward him.  The P.Y.F. is markedly increased at this point.  The narrator runs back to his bedroom and slams the door—he is unsure whether he has been dreaming or not.  But the next day, one of the caterpillars is sighted; in fact the artist has captured it and named it “Cancer Inglisensis”—after himself and the creature’s resemblance to a crab.  The connection of the caterpillars with crabs and cancer as a disease is a bit of a stretch, but forms the link between their awful appearance and the artist’s later demise. 

The caterpillar proves to be quite resilient.  In disgust, the narrator throws the creature into a fountain, where it later emerges unscathed.  It appears sentient, and appears to pursue first the narrator and then the artist.  This is no ordinary larva.  There is a sense that ultimately one cannot escape from its relentless pursuit.

In another passage that may or may not be a dream, the narrator observes a vast number of the luminescent, spectral caterpillars, this time in the hall.  Tentatively a few approach him, (perhaps it is not yet his time), but the mass of them enter the room where the artist is sleeping.  He tries to warn the man but finds, as in a nightmare, that he cannot speak.  Months later, he learns from the landlady that the artist was stricken with the same disease that killed the previous occupant.  This is despite the fact that the room had been kept unoccupied and “had also been thoroughly disinfected and newly whitewashed and painted.”

And this is exactly the point.  In life it may be only the walls and floors of rooms that separate people from each other and—temporarily—from the touch of death.  No mere human contrivance will prevent the spread of this contagion, for we are all already infected with it.

There are many other science fiction and horror stories inspired by insects, spiders and crustaceans.  Donald A. Wollheim’s story Mimic, (1942) is well known, and was the basis for the movie of the same name, which came out in 1997.   The capability of some insects to duplicate the appearance of other species, and so evade their predators, is the idea behind this unsettling tale. 

Another old favorite is The Cocoon (1946), a cautionary tale about a boy’s bug collecting.  John B.L. Goodwin describes a mysterious moth with crab like markings that the boy’s father has brought back from one of his expeditions.  The boy adds it to his collection, and pins it to the wall near his bed, not knowing that it is still alive.  I read this for the first time as a young male vertebrate engaged in a similar hobby.  This one almost made me stick to stamp collecting instead.

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