First published in The Room in the Tower and Other Stories, 1912
(First read 09/12/2011)
At about half the length of one of EFB's regular spook stories, this is really more of a horror story or a ... erm ... psychomedical melodrama ... Not sure what to call it. Unnamed Narrator (let's call him Freddie) goes to stay with friends at their villa on the Italian Riviera. Also living with them is a painter by the name of Arthur Inglis. On his first night there, Freddie dreams ... is it a dream, though? ... of an infestation of hideous giant caterpillars in a particular unused bedroom. The next day Inglis finds one of said bugs; he plans to keep it but Freddie is so horrified that he throws it into a fountain; the caterpillar survives its dunking but is eventually squished by Inglis. Again that night Freddie dreams (¿?) of the infestation, but now it's on the move. Well, the long and short of it is that the creepie-crawlies (if they exist) are harbingers of Inglis' death from cancer. The story ends with the villa-owner ~ or the author ~ expressing the extraordinary belief that cancer is in some way infectious.
I'm fairly sure EFB uses the insects-as-cancer motif in something else I've read; he certainly uses the insects-as-consumption motif in Sheaves (1907). The man himself died of throat cancer in 1940. I'm not saying a single word about EFB having presaged his own death here. That would be almost as daft as the story itself, whose main virtue is that it's short. Available online here
Caterpillars […] tells of a vile dream in which millions of the insects are crawling in through keyholes and covering the floor with their writhing mess, which on waking turns out to be a presentiment of cancer. [It] is such a long way from the arch humour of Benson's English village novels that it scarcely seems credible they were written by the same man …
~ Brian Masters in The Life of E. F. Benson, 1991
Other memorable stories [from The Room in the Tower and Other Stories] include Caterpillars, with its zodiacal pun (a relentless tide of huge, writhing caterpillars with crablike pincers instead of suckers, force their way into a painter's bedroom, after which the painter contracts cancer) …
~Richard Dalby in introduction to The Collected Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson, 1992