Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 1

I’ll be using “weird” in a broad sense, basically Bierce stories I’ve read with a macabre, horrific, uncanny, or supernatural element to them. I’ll be covering Bierce’s science fictional tales separately.

Plenty of spoilers follow.

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Dead Bodies

Besides “A Tough Tussle”, which I talked about elsewhere, “A Watcher by the Dead” is another story centering on a dead body. On a bet, a man, Jarette, spends a night with a corpse to prove that anybody not inured to corpses, in another words not a doctor or soldier, is instinctively superstitious around the dead. The story is something of a morbid farce.

Two doctors, Helberson and Harper, place the bet and, another doctor, Mancher, is to play the corpse. Indeed, after Jarette insists that he does not possess the normal fright of the living around the dead, he also insists the corpse he is to spend the night with in a locked apartment be a doctor’s.

While the story opens in media res, the plot is longer and more convoluted than many of Bierce’s.

The opening part depicts Jarette being locked in the apartment. The second part goes back to show the origin of the wager. The third part shows Jarette’s increasing unease at being with the body and concludes with him hearing footsteps. The fourth part takes place the next morning with Harper and Helberson showing up to see Jarette only to find a crowd, a maddened Jarette, and a real body. Thinking their little wager has resulted in Mancher’s death at Jarette’s hands, they opt to leave the country. The concluding part has Helberson and Harper back in the country at Madison Square, New York. There, coincidentally — especially given that the earlier parts took place in San Francisco, they meet Mancher who explains events. He scared Jarette to death when, seeing his unease, he pretended to be a reanimated corpse. (We had been told earlier that Mancher and Jarette resembled each other.) Mancher humorously plays on Helberson and Jarette’s names, especially now that they claim to be solely gamblers and not doctors, by calling them Hell-born and Sharper.

The story ends on a enigmatic note. Mancher says he is now the “High Supreme Medical Officer of the Bloomingdale Asylum; it is my duty to cure the superintendent.”

Shades of Poe

There seem to be a couple of Bierce stories with a definite element of Edgar Allan Poe.

Buried while alive is, of course, a plot element in Poe’s “The Premature Burial” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Bierce opens “One Summer Night” with one Henry Armstrong having been buried alive. He’s rescued, quite briefly, by a couple of grave-robbing medical students with their assistant Jess, a worker at the cemetery. The med students  are horrified to see Armstrong seemingly come to life under a flash of lightening in the sky. Jess, though, is made of sterner stuff. He takes Armstrong’s head off and demands his pay for providing a corpse.

Poe’s “The Sphinx” is a proto-mystery story where a horrible creature seen outside a window is explained away as an optical illusion involving a moth. Bierce’s “The Man and the  Snake” ends decidedly less pleasantly: a man is scared to death by a stuffed snake he thinks is alive.

More Dead Bodies, Mining Camps, and Optical Effects

A Holy Terror” combines several typical elements of Bierce’s fiction: psychological horror, satire, a setting in and around California mining camps, and plots that often involve optical effects — either juxtapositions or illusions like “The Man and the Snake”. It also has, like “A Watcher by the Dead”, an interlude of several years in the last third of the story followed by a coincidental reunion of characters.

The plot is a complicated mix of black humor and irony and begins with an unfaithful woman, Mary Matthews, and ends with some dead bodies. Among other things, it’s a commentary, like Bierce’s “Killed at Resaca”, on the fatal effects a woman’s cruel (but, ultimately, accurate) words have on a susceptible man.

It also opens with a nice bit of atmosphere in which Bierce describes the ruins and debris of the old abandoned mining camp of Hurdy-Gurdy. Jefferson Doman, spurred to try his hand at prospecting by his love of Mary Matthews, goes to California. Years go by while, back in New Jersey, Mary becomes “Split-faced Moll” after being cut up by a jealous lover after she dispenses favors to other men.

In California, Dornan learns of Mary’s new state after she sends him a photo. His “love and duty” towards her becomes a matter of honor. Her new disfigured face replaces her former beauty in her mind. He makes the acquaintance of man who tells him a body of gold ore exists in the cemetery of Hurdy-Gurdy, the only ground in the camp never thought to have gold. He digs at the grave indicated which is near the tombstone of a “mountain Messalina”, described as a “holy terror”. Unearthing a coffin and putting it on its end under the moonlight, Doman sees a “startling apparition of a dark human head” and then realizes it’s his own head.

But he then observes several unusual things about the coffin which seems to have been buried wrong side down. “Terror and absurdity” make an alliance, and Dorman succumbs “to a ridiculous surprise”. He almost dies of fright and needs “but a coffin to be dead”.

And here Bierce’s plot starts to turn on specific configurations of perspective and juxtapositions to advance his tale. The former cartographer charts a precise relationship of objects. Dorman sees “the moonlight gilding the coffin, but no longer the coffin that it gilded”. Above his head, Dorman sees the branches of a dead tree and a noose of “weather-worn rope”. His capacity for dread is burnt out, and he is “no longer conscious of the separate existence of anything dreadful”.

A bolting raven jolts Dorman out of his state, and he perceives, in the coffin, a dead body. But his mind conflates the dead woman with Mary’s scarred visage. He cracks open the coffin, and the story shifts.

We advance several months in time to a party traveling through Hurdy-Gurdy. Bierce satirically has them “belonging to the highest social circles of San Francisco”. They come upon the open grave and two skeletons, Dorman’s and the “holy terror”. The man privately wonders if the noose is the one he escaped when vigilantes drove him out of town. A woman examines Dorman’s coat and discovers his identity. She is, in fact, Mary, and drops over dead in shock at the recognition.

Earlier Installments in This Series

Reading Bitter Bierce

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 2

Reading Bitter Bierce: Life After the Civil War

Reading Bitter Bierce: An Intermission

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Lovecraft Connection


More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.

13 thoughts on “Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 1

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