The hideously hungry caterpillar – part 2

This is the second-part of a multi-part story. You can read part 1 here (highly recommended – Lovecraft loved to use non-linear narratives, but there was ahem… method to his madness.  Oh yes – I went there).

Part 2

I awoke in a strange bed. For a moment I could not recall where I was, but then I recognised Professor Tobius’s guest bedroom. I had been in there only a year before to find a book on blood transfusion in ancient civilisations. The room, like all others in that old sprawling house, was lined with groaning book-shelves. I lay for a while, gathering my thoughts, remembering the terrible evening before.

After my aborted meal, I had given up the evening as a lost cause and retired to my bed. Sleep, however,  had not welcome me into its arms as I, in the extremis of my fear, could not relax sufficiently to sink down into its restorative embrace. My imagination teamed with images of the hideously hungry caterpillar. I knew well the theory that, deprived of sensory input, the mind runs hot with invention to replace those sights and sounds with alternative stimulus. That was little comfort, as every shift of light from my window caught the corner of my eye; and each creak and susurration, common in a timber-framed house such as that which my flat occupied, was amplified within my hearing so that everything suggested untoward movement.

But the manifold sights and sounds that made up my night fears paled in comparison with what had happened to my sense of touch, as my skin crawled. You may have heard this phrase used in retelling infantile ghost stories, to convey the skin’s inappropriate response to the uncanny as if it felt cold, causing the hairs to stand up in a wave that sends a shiver over the body. My feeling was, in comparison to that, as dropping a glass of water you had just been handed would be to Tantalus doing the same. A million involuntary movements of skin against linen felt like a similar number of tiny legs crawling over my unprotected form, its hunger turned toward more fleshy sustenance.

I shifted constantly, and several times threw back the covers and quietly prowled the flat in slippered feet, convinced that I had seen my tiny adversary. It was on one such perambulation that I discovered that which drove me once more to flee from my dwelling, ending up at the Professor’s front door, shaking in the pre-dawn light. I was approaching the far window in my living room to check on a rattle that I knew almost certainly originated from its loose latch, when that over-sweet smell of decay caught my nostrils and caused me to pull up short.

Rotten AppleThere on my occasional table, stood my fruit-bowl. The almost-putrified apple slumped there, but the smell was much fresher. I searched the bowl, but no more fruit had been eaten. I stood back, and discovered the source of the new stench; my tan brogues, discarded under the table after arriving in the flat, now bore the distinctive twin holes that were the caterpillar’s calling card. I held my breath and knelt closer. The leathers were collapsing in on themselves just as the apple had done. Such perfect holes. I could not but admire the awful precision of those tiny jaws. I imagined I could almost hear them – a tiny high-pitched grinding noise.

And then I saw it. The noise had been real enough, and the creature had grown in size from it’s gorging. It was now almost four inches long, or so I judged, as all but its head was sticking out from the toe of my slippers; the slippers I currently wore. I gasped out loud, and immediately regretted it, as I gagged, reeling from breathing too much of that fetid air. I tore off the offending slipper and threw it at the wall. There was a wet noise as the caterpillar slid to the floor, still embedded in my foot-ware. The continued crunching noise, now grown monstrously loud in my ears, continued.

I admit that I screamed then, and ran. Professor Tobius’ had been surprised at my arrival at his house on the outskirts of Arkham at such a late hour, but welcomed me into the old place as if I had been a long-expect guest.

“You are not homeless, I trust?” he enquired, as he lead the way down the book-lined corridor barely wide enough for us to walk down in single file.

“Whatever gives you that idea?”

He paused and looked over his shoulder, and I followed his gaze to my bruised and bleeding foot. In my rush to leave, I had failed to replace the missing slipper. Only now that I felt I was protected indoors away from my perilous flat did the pain start to intrude on my consciousness.

I winced. “No… well, not exactly. I certainly don’t feel safe there any more,” I said.

“What ever has happened, Thomas?”

I shook my head, and he smiled kindly, beckoning me to follow him to his study. Once within that dusty, cosy room that I had spent so much time as a young man reading or discussing my work with the man in front of me, I found myself relaxing. It did not hurt that I was so expertly lead to a comfortable wing-backed chair and had a bowl of brandy pressed into my hand. I attempted a smile, but the expression faltered and I took a long drink.

The brandy was excellent, but it was never meant to be gulped like a cordial tonic. I coughed and looked up to find the professor’s dark brown eyes looking piercingly into my own. I was reminded that for all his cordiality and eccentricities, this was the man who had survived through five decades of faculty politics and bullied me through years of research and into a well regarded academic in my own right. That ruthlessness was apparent as he kindly but firmly persuaded my story out of me.

It is a testament to his open mindedness that when I concluded he did not laugh or condescend to call me over-wrought. Instead he sat there for a moment then simply asked:

“You are certain of your own perceptions?”

“I am.”

He continued to look at me, levelly.

“Very well.” The professor stood and held out his hand. I took it and he clasped mine firmly. “You have had a great shock, and your lucidity and sureness persuade me that this creature is more than a simple insect. Perhaps it is a new species, or just some freak aberration that arrived from the spice islands with your bananas. But I am certain that it is nothing that two well-equipped men cannot deal with.”

His earnest offer of help touched me, and I might have broken-down again, but the professor precipitously steered me towards his guest room, and I knew nothing until waking to the strong yellow light of an Arkham spring noon.

I settled back against the bolster and let took a deep breath. In that cheerful glow and that safe place, my earlier fears seemed, if not ridiculous, then at least removed to a distance that I could consider them less viscerally. Surely the professor was right; however horrible the caterpillar, however fearful I was of it, it was still a tiny thing. How could I but triumph against something so much smaller than myself. Better still, I had the professor’s capable help.

As if thinking of him had summoned him, the professor knocked and entered the room.

“Ah, you’re awake. And I must say that you are looking considerably better.” Indeed, I felt much restored, but it was to be a short lived feeling. “That is all to the good, as you will need your strength for our little expedition”

“Expedition? Surely not back to my apartment? I… I am not certain that I am up to it yet.” I was ashamed at my cringing reaction to the thought of returning to my home, but the very thought of it shed the thin veneer of safety I had been feeling like butter under a flame-torch.

The professor, not unfeelingly, replied “Yes, indeed back to your apartment. But not until tomorrow at the earliest. For today we will need to do a little research. And we will not be alone in this task. I have made some calls while you recuperated. Help is on the way.”

To be continued next week…

The Hideously Hungry Caterpillar

I’d like to tell you a story. In fact, I’d like to tell you part one of a story – the story of the Hideously Hungry Caterpillar. However, before I do, a little about how this came about:

The Very Hungry Cthulhupillar

NOT a children’s book

This is a story I wrote some years ago as part of a competition on “one book in the style of another author” about 5 years ago. Being a little obsessed, I of course chose to do The Very Hungry Caterpillar in the style of H.P.Lovecraft. It seemed like an obvious choice – the little creature leaves a trail of destruction behind it and then transforms – perfect! When I’ve previously looked for this piece in the past, I’ve just searched for “Very Hungry Caterpillar Lovecraft” and there’s only one entry in google…

Not any more. Now there is The Very Hungry Cthulhupillar by Ben Mund. Turns out that this odd cross-pollination of styles has rather exploded in popularity, raising over $17,000 on Kick-starter. I can’t wait to get myself a copy! You should too. But in the mean-time, here is Part 1 of —

The Hideously Hungry Caterpillar

Before I make use of the revolver that lies before me on the dining table, so heavy with the potential violence that promises escape from the horrors I have seen, to end the tortured life of Tom Armatage, I feel I must at least try to warn the world of the terror that is the hideously hungry caterpillar.

I can scarce credit that it has been but a week since I returned home on the evening of Saturday 1st May, to find something very wrong with my one-bedroom flat. I had been at the 70th birthday-party of Professor Tobius, my supervisor in pharmaceutical sciences at Miscatonic University, and it was happily and a little tipsily that I entered my Arkham apartment. I paused in the act of dropping my jacket over the back of my comfortable reading chair, suddenly sensing a strangeness in the room that seemed to emanate from the tall pot plant by the window.

I could not say what it was that first caused me alarm, but as soon as I laid eyes on that little egg lying on a leaf in the moonlight I felt a tremor run through me, and knew that this was the source of my disquiet. I approached, curious of my own reaction to such an innocuous sight. The egg was small and white, about as unthreatening an object as one might expect to find. And yet as I looked at it I could feel the hair on the back of my neck rising, and my eyes wanted to sheer away from it, as if the egg existed in more dimensions than the usual three, stretching the space around it so as to suggest at non-euclidean shapes that the human mind was not equipped to comprehend.

Straightening up, I laughed at myself for such fanciful thoughts, and yet I think I must have laughed also to bring something human back into that room which had, with the simple addition of a tiny egg, become oddly alien to me. Putting my reaction down to the drink with which the professor had generously plied me, I divested myself or the remains of my attire and made my way to my bed where from I knew nothing of this or any other world until the next day.

In the warm sun of the next morning, the apartment had none of the unearthly strangeness of the previous night. The Sunday paper lay enticingly thick on the door-mat, and I did not recall the presence of the disturbing egg until I had put on some coffee and sat down to the day’s cryptogram. As I reclined in contented mental application, I suddenly became aware of a presence in the room, as if I was being observed by some cosmic source of violence so potent as to resemble a physical weight bearing down on me.

Looking up, I saw that on the leaf where the egg now lay empty and spent, devoid of any greater meaning now its work was complete, a tiny caterpillar moved with the slowest of uncouth undulations. Curious, I left aside the paper and approached it. Close to, the form of the tiny creature was grotesque almost beyond the ability to put down in words. Many segmented and multi-limbed, its mottled hide was the green of long-decayed matter, making its classification as vegetable or animal less than clear to me.

I know now that by reaching out at that moment I could have most likely crushed its little body between thumb and fore-finger, vouchsafing not only my own future sanity but that of many others that even now rave against the padded walls of New England’s over-crowded sanatoria. But the moment passed all to soon, for as I stood there, the caterpillar turned its malign green head and looked at me with eyes that spoke to an insidious intelligence that was impossible ages old, greatly superior to my own, and along wholly inhuman lines. The titanic hunger in that gaze froze me to the spot for the space of several heart-beats.

It is then that I fled out of the room, the flat and out of my own faculties for a time, only to return to myself many hours later, shaking, on a bench in Gloucester park. I spent the night wandering the streets, in too nervous a state to sleep. I could not have explained, if asked, why I did not return to my apartment, but in the clarity of hindsight I believe the truth is that I harboured a dread of having those miniature black eyes upon me again, less madness wholly consume me.

In the grey pre-dawn hours of Monday morning, exhaustion caught up with me and I found myself at my front door, key in hand. Telling myself that I had over-reacted to hang-over induced paranoia I let myself in and bravely directed my gaze toward the pot-plant. The unwholesome caterpillar was not there. Releasing a breath that I had not consciously held, I closed the door and threw myself down on my bed.

Waking late in the morning, and assuring myself that the caterpillar was nowhere to be seen, I resolved to make the most of what remained of the day, keeping myself busy cleaning and organising my spartan dwelling, even beginning work on writing a paper for Professor Tobius that I had long delayed due to its tedious nature; anything to occupy the mind so that it could not stray into areas from which it might not return. In the afternoon I shopped at the Monday market for fresh vegetables and fruit, feeling a need for physical cleansing and nourishment that might aid my mental state in a similar manner.

Though I do not confess to being an enthusiastic cook, taking most of my meals at the university, I pride myself on my culinary skill, and made a particular effort that evening as I had eaten little for the last two days. As I sat down to a bacon-roasted pigeon breast, the smell of its thick steam struck me as being slightly off. I frowned and took a deeper sniff. There was certainly a foetid odour overlaying the rich scents of rosemary and seared game-meat, and I was immodest enough to assume that my cooking was not be to blame.

I stood and prowled around the room lead by my nose like some great ungainly tracking bird. The smell was most concentrated near to the bowl that I had earlier filled to the brim with fruit and placed on an ornamental table by my reading chair. Here the stench was veritably unholy, and I felt the urge to step away as the odour seemed to directly assail the primitive part of the brain that recognises imminent peril.

I stood my ground and examined the table. At first glance, all was as it had been, but closer analysis evidenced that a single red apple had a hole in it which had certainly not been there when I returned from the market. Leaning down I could see clean through the apple via another hole in the far side. Tentatively, I reached out and touched the fruit, which collapsed into a putrescent puddle of skin and ooze. The smell intensified such that I was compelled to finally step back and cover my face with my arm, my eyes watering despite this precaution.

Having sought to persuade myself the whole day that the caterpillar had left in my absence, I knew immediately that this must be its noisome work. I had felt its hunger emanating from its malevolent stare, and though it had devoured but a single apple, the precise destruction of its jaws in leaving only the skin and a single pair of holes oddly chilled me to my core. I washed my hands compulsively before sitting back down to the dinner I no longer had any appetite for.  Questions teemed in my head: why was it consuming my fruit; what would it consume tomorrow; where was it now; and what monstrous thing would it eventually become?

I sat there until my food grew stone cold and then threw it away. At this rate I would starve before the end of the week, but by then I would have bigger problems to deal with.

Continued next week…