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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 2661

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


What is the secret of that horror inspired by the centipede?... It is but very faintly related to our knowledge that the creature is venomous;-the results of the bite are only temporary swelling and a brief fever;-it is less to be feared than the bite of other tropical insects and reptiles which never inspire the same loathing by their aspect. And the shapes of venomous creatures are not always shapes of ugliness. The serpent has elegance of form as well as attractions of metallic tinting;-the tarantula, or the matoutou-falaise, have geometrical beauty. Lapidaries have in all ages expended rare skill upon imitations of serpent grace in gold and gems;-a princess would not scorn to wear a diamond spider. But what art could utilize successfully the form of the centipede? It is a form of absolute repulsiveness,-a skeleton-shape half defined:-the suggestion of some old reptile-spine astir, crawling with its fragments of ribs.

No other living thing excites exactly the same feeling produced by the sight of the centipede,-the intense loathing and peculiar fear. The instant you see a centipede you feel it is absolutely necessary to kill it; you cannot find peace in your house while you know that such a life exists in it: perhaps the intrusion of a serpent would annoy and disgust you less. And it is not easy to expl

ain the whole reason of this loathing. The form alone has, of course, something to do with it,-a form that seems almost a departure from natural laws. But the form alone does not produce the full effect, which is only experienced when you see the creature in motion. The true horror of the centipede, perhaps, must be due to the monstrosity of its movement,-multiple and complex, as of a chain of pursuing and inter-devouring lives: there is something about it that makes you recoil, as from a sudden corrupt swarming-out. It is confusing,-a series of contractings and lengthenings and, undulations so rapid as to allow of being only half seen: it alarms also, because the thing seems perpetually about to disappear, and because you know that to lose sight of it for one moment involves the very unpleasant chance of finding it upon you the next,-perhaps between skin and clothing.

But this is not all:-the sensation produced by the centipede is still more complex-complex, in fact, as the visible organization of the creature. For, during pursuit,-whether retreating or attacking, in hiding or fleeing,-it displays a something which seems more than instinct: calculation and cunning,-a sort of malevolent intelligence. It knows how to delude, how to terrify;-it has marvellous skill in feinting;-it is an abominable juggler....

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