Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 5

Bierce LOA

“The Haunted Valley”

“The Haunted Valley” was Bierce’s first piece of published fiction. There is nothing supernatural in the story, but it can be read as a weird story, and Bierce did include this 1871 work in his collection of mostly supernatural stories, Can Such Things Be?

It is the first appearance of many of Bierce’s characteristic themes and plot constructions. It introduces a mystery in the first part of the story, and then, after an interlude of years and the introduction of coincidence, a resolution of sorts. Like “The Moonlit Road” and another tale I’ll look at, “One of Twins”, it is a tale of passion and love ruined by chance, often expressed as enigmatic forces.

As with Bierce’s “The Damned Thing”, sections are given titles whose surface meaning is altered or expounded on in surprising ways. Thus “How Trees are Felled in China” turns out to be the alleged motive for murder in the story’s first part.

The narrator is traveling through a wooded valley in California and comes across the “half residence and half groggery” of Jo. Dunfer aka Whisky Jo. As the narrator soon learns, Dunfer’s most defining characteristic is his “deep-seated antipathy to the Chinese”. The narrator is treated to a tirade about how the New Testament mentions nothing about how to treat Chinese, they take jobs, they are “devouring locusts”, a fact not appreciated by those Easterners like the narrator.

Dunfer then begins to talk about the time, five years ago, he hired a Chinese cook, Ah Wee, because Dunfer “drank more whisky than was prescribed for me and didn’t seem to care for my duty as a patriotic American citizen”. The cook, he says, was “the perversest scoundrel outside San Francisco”. One day, after a dispute about cutting trees down the proper way, Ah Wee gave Dunfer a malevolent look.

Tiring of this drunken tirade and not caring to stick around to hear its conclusion, the narrator is about to leave when Dunfer screams. He has seen a knot-hole turn into a “full, black eye”. The narrator sees it too.

After leaving, the narrator travels up the valley and discovers the abandoned shack Dunfer lived in and the stumps of the trees he cut down with Ah Wee. He also finds a grave marker. Its carving mixes sentiment and guilt, a confession and confusion of pronouns:


Age unknown. Worked for Jo. Dunfer.

This monument is erected by him to keep the Chink’s

memory green. Likewise as a warning to Celestials

not to take on airs. Devil take ’em!

She Was a Good Egg.

And then we come to the second part of the story titled “Who Drives Sane Oxen Should Himself Be Sane”.

The narrator is traveling when he realizes that he has, after four years, come to the valley again “in the same season of the year, and at near the same hour of the day”. He is riding on a wagon driven by a “queer little man”, rather crazy. He asks what became of Dunfer.The wagoner points to a punning tombstone, beside Ah Wee’s: “JO. DUNFER. DONE FOR.”

The narrator decides to resolve the mystery of Ah Wee’s death. ” … did Jo. Dunfer murder that Chinaman?” The wagoner replies, “No sir; he justifiably homocided him.”

What follows is sort of a dry run for “The Moonlit Road” in that we get another first person account, very different, of a fatal event.

The wagoner says Dunfer did kill Wee; in fact, he confessed to it before a jury. Their verdict of Wee’s death: “Came to ‘is death by a wholesome Christian sentiment workin’ in the Caucasian breast”. That provocation was not, though, what Dunfer stated. The “legal truth” may be that Wee was killed because he wouldn’t “cut down trees like a white man”, but it was really Dunfer’s jealousy of the wagoner.

We then get another odd account of confused pronouns and motives.

Dunfer, the wagoner says, doted on Wee, was jealous of him. One day, he found the wagoner and Wee laying on the ground together, “… him asleep an’ me grappling a tarantula out of ‘is sleeve”. Presumably thinking he has caught them about to have sex, Dunfer killed Wee with an axe.

As he was dying, Wee grabbed Dunfer’s head and held it. Dunfer’s hair turned white in his embrace. In the years after, at least in the presence of people other than the wagoner, Dunfer became rabidly “anti-coolie”.

It was the wagoner’s eye that was at the knot-hole. And the wagoner calls the narrator a “derned Borgia!”, claiming he poisoned Dunfer.

After putting up with this strange man, the narrator finally asks him point blank, “… when did you go luny?”

We then get, mostly, a clarification of confused motives and pronouns and claims. Ah Wee was, in fact, a Chinese woman won by Dunfer in a poker game, a woman loved by the wagoner. Dunfer, claims the wagoner, “was ashamed to acknowledge ‘er and treat ‘er white!”. The wagoner loved her too, but it was not reciprocated. She “loved him better than she did me! — me who had followed ‘er from San Francisco.”

That seems straight enough, but are we to believe it? It explains the confusing pronouns on Ah Wee’s grave. It’s plausible. But the wagoner is crazy and paranoid. He feels somehow threatened by a dead Dunfer.

There is also a line from the story that reminds me of some of Bierce’s entries from The Devil’s Dictionary. As he looks at the valley after returning to it after a four year absence, the narrator says “It was as if the Old-World barbarism and the New-World civilization had reconciled their differences by the arbitration of an impartial decay — as is the way of civilizations.”

“One of Twins”

This one starts out like a psychic twin story and ends as another love fatally confounded by coincidence and chance and, maybe, unknown forces.

It is told as a posthumous account by Henry, identical twin of John Stevens. It is an answer to a question: has he experienced anything, as a twin, not accounted for by natural laws? After telling of us of their early lives and their extreme congruency — even their tattooed initials may be wrong, Henry relates how a stranger invited him to his house one night, seeming to know him.

He accepts and finds out later that the stranger, Mr. Margovan, was a co-worker of his brother John.

John goes to the Margovans. Indeed, he goes to several dinners there and falls in love with Julia Margrovan, the co-worker’s daughter, and proposes to her.

Henry is walking through San Francisco one day when he feels the compulsion to follow a “handsome but somewhat dissipated-looking man”. He ends up at a shady part of town, and the man is met by a woman who Henry thinks would recognize him though he doesn’t know her.

Well, the expected happens.  When Henry is finally invited to the Margovans, he confronts Julia when they are alone. She is, of course, the woman he saw. She asks Henry what he wants her to do. He generously thinks she would not acted so unless under a “horrible compulsion”. He says he will object to his brother marrying her, but on “other grounds” that he can find.

The next night, Henry seems to hear cries of his brother. He goes to the house of the Margovans where he finds Julia dead by poison and his brother having committed suicide with a gun.

Several weeks later, John finds himself wandering at night through the same part of town he saw that “fateful assignation”. He is confronted by the man he saw, but he is horribly altered, older, haggard. “Damn you, John Stevens!”, he says, tries to hit Henry, and collapses, to die shortly after.

Henry never does learn the man’s name.

What is the meaning of the final encounter? The man seems to think Henry is John’s ghost. Why do Julia and John kill themselves? Julia in shame after being confronted — finally — by John’s psychic knowledge of her infidelity, knowledge transmitted by Henry? Does John end his life in despair?  Why doesn’t the psychic bond give John his brother’s knowledge of that assignation immediately? Are we to take the “horrible compulsion” Julia is charitably thought to be acting under as blackmail or some internal motivation?

“A Jug of Sirup”

This is an altogether more straightforward story, a charming tale of a storekeeper, Silas Deemer, returning to business because “he had not the leisure to be dead”. This one is full of humor and no enigma. As an example, Deemer is dubbed “Old Ibidem”, and the town newspaper notes his death by stating he had “taken ‘a day off'”.

Previous 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

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 1

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 2

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 3

Reading Bitter Bierce, The Weird Stories, Part 4


More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.

8 thoughts on “Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 5

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