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Sunday, December 19, 2010

"The Damned Thing": Bierce's Exercise in Existential Absurdity

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

The plot of Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Damned Thing” is simple--so simple, in fact, that the author must rely upon a piecemeal presentation, in chopped chronological progression, of the narrative’s incidents. Bierce gives vague, and therefore intriguing, hints of something that has happened that is bigger, so to speak, than what is currently taking place, at the same time withholding details to keep the reader guessing as to what’s going on--and what has already gone on. The first paragraph introduces the reader to nine men, one of them a corpse, who have gathered in a small room. One of the men, seated at “a rough table,” reads from a book, by candlelight. There is an expectation, on the part of the men, other than “the dead man,” who is alone “without expectation.” The men, the reader learns, are locals, “farmers and woodsmen.”

By throwing together, as it were, a group of local men who seem to have nothing in common but their vocations, and informing the reader that something seems likely to happen, and soon, but otherwise withholding details that would create a context by which the action, such as it is at this point, could be interpreted, Bierce creates suspense. In addition, he characterizes the men as unimaginative and pedestrian, which will prove important, given the extraordinary incident that will soon be related by William Harker.

Only the man who reads from the book is unlike the others, a “worldly” man, a coroner, in fact, and the book he reads belonged to the dead man. It is, the reader will learn, the dead man’s diary, which was found in his cabin, which is the location in which “the inquest” concerning his death is “now taking place.” The casual manner in which Bierce presents the purpose of the local men’s gathering--an inquest into a man’s death--makes the revelation all the eerier.

Harker makes his appearance, his manner of dress marking him as a city dweller. The reader learns that he is a reporter; he arrives late to the inquest, he says, because he had “to post" to his newspaper "an account” of the incident concerning which he has been summoned to testify. Harker’s statement that he posted the account as fiction because it is too extraordinary for readers to accept as fact piques the reader’s interest, as does his declaration that he will, nevertheless, swear “under oath” as a witness at the inquest, that the story he tells is “true.” Again, Bierce provides just enough vague clues to keep the reader guessing--and reading.

As Harker begins his testimony, the reader learns that he had been visiting the deceased, Hugh Morgan, with whom he was hunting and fishing. In addition, Harker, admits, he was also observing Morgan, having found “his odd, solitary way of life” intriguing and supposing him to be “a good model for a character in fiction.”

In the second chapter of the story, Harker relates “the circumstances of” Morgan’s “death”: As they hunted quail, they heard “a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes,” and saw that the vegetation was “violently agitated.” Morgan appeared frightened and immediately “cocked both barrels of his gun. . . holding it in readiness to aim.” As the men watch, “wild oats near the place of the disturbance” begin to move “in the most inexplicable way. . . . as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down--crushed it so that it did not rise; and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward” the two men. Morgan fires and flees, leaving Harker to fend for himself. Harker is “thrown violently to the ground by the impact of something unseen in the smoke,” and something knocks his own gun from his hands. As Harker looks on, Morgan seems to wrestle with an invisible creature. Before Harker can run to his friend’s aid, Morgan is killed, and the ripple and movement of the vegetation betrays the path of the invisible creature’s flight.

In the story’s third chapter, the condition of Morgan’s battered and bloody body is described as the coroner pulls the sheet that covers the corpse away; the dead man's clothing is “torn, and stiff with blood.” Despite the witness’ testimony, which the jury finds incredible, Morgan’s death is attributed to a mountain lion’s attack. Although Harker requests permission to peruse his dead friend’s diary, thinking that the public would be interested in Morgan’s writings, the coroner denies his request, claiming that it is irrelevant to its author’s demise, since “all the entries in it were made before the writer's death.”

Harker may not have been privy to the entries in Morgan’s diary, but the story’s omniscient narrator is, and he reveals to the reader that the journal contains “certain interesting entries having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions.” Morgan had become convinced of “the presence” of an invisible intruder, and he had been terrified of the creature. However, he had resolved not to be chased away from his own home, believing, also, that God would consider his fleeing from the creature an act of cowardice. Thinking that he may be going insane, Morgan invites Harker to visit him for “several weeks,” to go hunting and fishing, thinking that, in Harker’s reactions to his own behavior, Morgan may find evidence to support either his own sanity or his own madness.

As if by “revelation,” Morgan discovers “the solution to the mystery” of the creature’s invisibility: just as there are sounds that the human ear cannot hear, there are colors that the human eye cannot see, and the invisible creature, or “the Damned Thing,” as Morgan has come to refer to the monster, “is of such a colour!”

A simple tale, “The Damned Thing” depends, for its effect, upon a fragmented and out-of-sequence timeline, the piecemeal exposition of facts that prevents the establishment of a context sufficiently clear to allow interpretation, the withholding of certain items of information, and the misdirection that results from Bierce’s incongruous, often tongue-in-cheek chapter titles, “Chapter I: One Does Not Always Eat What Is On The Table” (a corpse); “Chapter II: What May Happen In A Field Of Wild Oats” (an attack by an invisible creature!); “Chapter III: A Man Though Naked May Be In Rags” (an aphorism that suggests wisdom but introduces the final existential absurdity of death); and “Chapter IV: An Explanation From The Tomb” (the incongruity of the dead offering an elucidation of a text addressed to the living). Like the titles of Rene Magritte paintings, Bierce’s chapter titles have no bearing upon the chapters they introduce and, in fact, may suggest lines of thought that are themselves absurd and irrelevant.

Another way that Bierce withholds information, at least for a time, is to use synonymous phrases in lieu of characters' names or occupations.  For example, he refers to "a man [who] was reading," to "the man with the book"; to "the person reading," instead of to "the coroner"; he refers to "eight men," to "that company," to "farmers and woodsmen," rather than to the jurors of the death inquest; and to "a young man" instead of the inquest's witness.  In doing so, Bierce withholds, for a time, the nature of the enterprise in which the party is involved, thereby maintaining the mystery of the story and the tale's suspense.

Bierce’s reference to science is not accidental, for science is the primary and predominant means by which modern individuals ascertain knowledge, if not always truth, and it is science--the science of optics, to be precise--that allows Morgan to understand the nature of the Damned Thing as being of a color imperceptible to the human eye and thus invisible. However, since science, which is empirical, resting upon the senses and their perception of phenomena (including colors), is itself limited to the perceptible world, the nature of the Damned Thing must, in the final analysis, remain essentially mysterious.


lazlo azavaar said...

Great post, Gary. I own tons of anthologies, and this is easily the most reprinted story in the short horror story canon. It shows up even more often than that hoary old classic "The Monkey's Paw".

Gary L. Pullman said...

Thanks, Lazlo. Bierce is one of the best.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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