‘Story of a Panic’ by EM Forster

What is summer but a landscape? Turquoise pool accompanied by white lifeguard stand; busted concrete lot littered with spent Slurpees; rows of Girl Scout tents in maritime hammock; and add to them the sunny strangeness of E.M. Forster’s Italy, where May hovers on spring’s fading cusp. ‘The Story of a Panic’ captures a dreamlike fragment that for modern readers may call to mind Picnic at Hanging RockIn the Tall Grass, or other weird tales composed of a handful of moments in a striking landscape. 

A party of picnicking English tourists find themselves overtaken by abject horror, without obvious source and derived from a deceptively picturesque locale. One of their number, a boy called Eustace whom the narrator loathes for his seeming indolence and unmasculine tendencies, is left behind in the party’s scramble to flee. 

Once retrieved, he relates a troubling story: that he happened upon the hoofprints of a goat and proceeded to roll around on them like a dog, and knew no more after that. One of the adults concludes that the Devil had been abroad that afternoon.

“Pan!” cried Mr. Sandbach, his mellow voice filling the valley as if it had been a great green church, “Pan is dead. That is why the woods do not shelter him.” And he began to tell the striking story of the mariners who were sailing near the coast at the time of the birth of Christ, and three times heard a loud voice saying: “The great God Pan is dead.”
“Yes. The great God Pan is dead,” said Leyland. And he abandoned himself to that mock misery in which artistic people are so fond of indulging. His cigar went out, and he had to ask me for a match.
“How very interesting,” said Rose. “I do wish I knew some ancient history.”
“It is not worth your notice,” said Mr. Sandbach. “Eh, Eustace?”

The archetypal summer is, for adults, often a collection of private childhood rituals. In contrast to the narrator’s confusion and disgust, the reader may find Eustace’s blossoming into “a real boy” charming, hopeful, the promise of freedom from society’s strictures and a return to primal ways of believing and being. After his experience in the Ravello chestnut grove, Eustace cannot be contained. He falls in with unsuitable local companions, recites spontaneous poetry to the stars and trees, and claims that if kept indoors, he’ll die. 

The narrator’s cagey description of the adult Eustace’s “career” intimates an artist or performer, a medium of some type in the metaphoric and perhaps literal senses. The development of Eustace’s friendship with an older Italian fisher-boy is difficult to read outside the context of Forster’s own sexuality, not to mention the enduring cultural relationship of sex/uality to pagan religion and outsider art. 

As seen in recent light-drenched horror films like Midsommar, the summer sun strips away artifice and reveals hidden truth. It’s unusual to encounter Forster as a horror writer in English classes, but ‘The Story of a Panic’ locates him among classic fantasists and cements his landscape obsession as a powerful tool of the queer speculative.

Picked by Diana Hurlburt. Diana is a librarian, writer, and Floridian in upstate New York. Her short work has most recently appeared in Sword & Kettle Press’s mini-chapbook series; Amethyst Review; and the Rhonda Parrish-edited anthologies ClockworkCurses & Coal and Arcana. She’s often on Twitter @menshevixen talking horses, heavy metal, and cold brew. 

First published in The Celestial Omnibus, Sedgwick & Jackson, 1911. Collected in The Collected Tales of E.M. Forster, 1947; it may be read online here