More Dead Bodies, Coincidences, and Interludes
“The Death of Halpin Frayser” is, like “A Holy Terror” and “A Watcher by the Dead”, another story with a plot where a character goes wandering for several years and is unhappily reunited with old acquaintances. Here, though, we get a seemingly a genuine ghost, a satire on families, particularly Southern aristocrat families, and a whiff of incest.
The story opens with Frayser, asleep in the California woods after a day of hunting, suddenly awaking with the name “Catherine Larue” on his lips. He goes wandering in the night, coming on a “long abandoned” road which takes him into a haunted wood with blood everywhere, in pools on the ground and dripping from trees. Strange laughter sounds in the night. He rapidly writes in a notebook with a twig dipped in blood.
Then he comes “staring into the sharply drawn face and bland, dead eyes of his own mother … in the garments of the grave”.
Then the satire starts with part two in which we hear about Frayser’ s youth as a member of a well-to-do family in Nashville after the Civil War. Frayser is “perhaps a little ‘spoiled'” and has the “double disadvantage of a mother’s assiduity and a father’s neglect”. He is addicted to literature and has no interest in the law or the usual political aspirations of his family. He has a particular interest in the work of his great-grandfather Myron Bayne, “a poet of no small Colonial distinction”.
Frayser’s relationship with his mother Katy is very close:
“In these two romantic natures was manifest in a signal way that neglected phenomenon, the dominance of the sexual element in all the relation of life, strengthening, softening, and beautifying even those of consanguinity.
In fact, it sounds kind of incestuous though the “dominance of the sexual element” perhaps does not mean, to modern readers, what it did to Bierce. And, in fact, the next sentence seems to undercut the notion of actual incest: “The two were nearly inseparable, and by strangers observing their manner were not infrequently mistaken for lovers.” I think Bierce using the word “mistaken” asserts no incest took place.
Frayser decides to go off to California, but Katy lays on him an ominous dream vision, presented by Myron Bayne, of his fate in California. Frayser puts a more ominous interpretation on it — correctly, as it turns out — than his mother. But then one of Bierce’s multi-year interludes in the middle of a story presents itself. Frayser is shanghaied and doesn’t return to San Francisco for six years. He is too proud to return to his family in his impoverished state.
We then, in part three, return to Frayser encountering the shade of his mother. In keeping with the dream prophecy, he dies from being garroted by his mother.
Part four sees the viewpoint shift dramatically. We come across a couple of men looking to arrest, for the reward, the notorious Branscom who cut his wife’s throat. Branscom does have the habit of visiting her grave, so they go to a rural cemetary. They come across Frayser’s body. His writing hurried scribbling in his notebook does not impress. One of the men, seemingly something of a poetry fan, notes it sounds like Myron Bayne: He, says the man, “Wrote mighty dismal stuff; I have his collected works.”
We learn that Branscom’s victim, his wife, was actually Frayser’s mother who came out to California to look for him. No explanation is given why she chose to kill her son, but I rather like ghost stories where ghosts are mistaken or unreasonable, and that seems the case here.
There are enigmatic elements in the story — namely ghost Katy’s motive — but Bierce’s satire targets Southern political families and would-be poets.
Another Family Reunion
“A Baby Tramp” has an orphaned child reunited, by coincidence and death, with his mother after a number of years that include, for the child, a stint with the Paiute Indians.
Another Mining Camp, Another Ghost
In an interview with S. T. Joshi, editor of the Library of America’s Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs which is where I’ve done most of my Bierce reading, notes that Bierce almost never passed up the opportunity to revise a story each time it was reprinted. The revisions resulted in “an increasing (and obviously deliberate) vagueness about their temporal and geographical setting.”
Bierce can be ambiguous about plot too.
“The Night-Doings at ‘Deadman’s'” has one of those ghosts with a very unclear identity and, thus, motive.
Bierce, right up front, throws an irony and ambiguity at the reader. The story is subtitled “A Story That Is Untrue”. Which story? The one the main character will tell or the one Bierce tells us as author. (And, of course, the story was published in a volume titled by Bierce Can Such Things Be?, another undermining of the pillars suspending disbelief.)
The story occurs in the dilapidated ruins of an old mining camp on a cold winter’s night. The sole inhabitant of Deadman’s Gulch is now Hiram Beeson, a haggard looking man, seemingly 74 but really 28.
It’s been two years since Beeson has even seen a human, but a knock on the door and the entrance of a “long old man in a blanket overcoat, his head tied up in a handkerchief and nearly his entire face in a muffler, wearing green goggles” doesn’t make him take his eyes from the fireplace. It is only the goggled man’s hand on his shoulder which causes him to start.
The visitor’s aspect repels and attracts, rather, suggests Bierce, like a dead loved one’s: “The most attractive object in the world is the face we instinctively cover with a cloth. When it becomes still more attractive — fascinating — we put seven feet of earth above it.”
Beeson begins to chatter, to tell a story — while the visitor says nothing. First, though, he suggests the visitor “skedaddle”. When the visitor declines, Beeson tells him, if he does decide to leave after he tells his tale, Beeson will escort him as far as to “where Baldy Peterson shot Ben Hike — I dare say you know the place.”
When the camp was suddenly deserted upon news of a new finding of ore elsewhere, Beeson and two companions left with everyone else. A few days prior to that, their “Chinese domestic” had died. Since the ground was frozen, they buried him under the floorboards of a cabin — the cabin Beeson still lives in. On the way out of the camp, Beeson realized he forgot his revolver and returned to the cabin.
Beeson’s explanation as to why the Chinaman died seems too strident:
“I stated, did I not, that the Chinaman came to his death from natural causes? I had, of course, nothing to do with that, and returned through no irresistible attraction, or morbid fascination, but only because I had forgotten a pistol. This is clear to you, is it not, sir?”
But Beeson didn’t just bury the Chinaman. With “extremely bad taste”, Beeson cut off his pigtail and hung it above the Chinaman’s grave. Without that pigtail, the Chinaman will not be able to ascend to his heaven.
The Chinaman, Beeson tells us, keeps coming back for his pigtail.
Beeson, out either a deranged mind, perversity, or a guilty conscience, angrily reacts to his visitor as if the mute latter is suggesting he accede to the dead Chinaman’s wishes. Beeson tells him to do so would be to be a coward.
(At this point in the story, Bierce goes into a brief aside about California mining camp slang. Specifically, he tells us that the phrases “to be played for a Modoc” or “Chinaman” meant to be taken for a coward.)
But Beeson is beginning to rethink the wisdom of his act. He suggests that the visitor and someone at a neighboring mining camp could bury the Chinaman. Beeson can’t, alone, not in the frozen ground. Beeson then falls asleep but not before uttering an outburst “They are swiping my dust!”
The stranger goes to bed — after taking a revolver off the shelf. It is, in fact, the revolver which supposedly necessitated Beeson’s return to the cabin.
As has happened before, the Chinaman’s ghost moves the trapdoor over his grave, begins groping for his pigtail nailed to a beam. This time, though, the mute visitor, now dressed with “faultless taste”, is waiting by the fire. He fires the revolver. The Chinaman finally grasps, in his teeth, his pigtail. A cry rings out.
The following spring visitor’s to the cabin find Beeson’s body. He seems to have been killed by a single bullet, a bullet which also severed the “braided horsehair” (so it appears to them) nailed to a beam. They also find mouldering clothes which are “identified by respectable witnesses as those in which certain deceased citizens of Deadman’s had been buried years before.”
A spectral vengeance but why? Did Beeson kill the Chinaman? Beeson as a killer would explain the obsessive vindictiveness involving the pigtail.
If so, why the seeming collective vengeance Bierce implies in the last sentence: “But it is not easy to understand how that could be, unless, indeed, the garments had been worn as a disguise by Death himself — which is hardly credible.”? Is it an example of community outrage at Beeson possibly killing the Chinaman?
I think there is another possibility hinted at with Beeson worried exclamation, as he nods off, about people stealing his dust. Did he kill his two companions? It seems odd he didn’t rejoin them — though he may, we are not told, seen the Chinaman’s ghost the first night. But it strikes me as odd we are not given the companions’ names.
Or maybe there never was a Chinaman. The people at the end only see horsehair, not the silk and human hair Beeson mentions in describing the pigtail. And the Chinaman’s body is not mentioned. He was buried beneath the floorboards rather than in a grave and a trapdoor was cut in the floor to do so. No mention is made of the gaping hole or a skeleton on the ground below. It seems unlikely that we are to take the description of the trapdoor moving as a ghostly apparition and not a physical reality.
This is another Bierce story, I think, that gains from its mysterious, enigmas, and ambiguities.
An Historical Note
“The Night-Doings at ‘Deadman’s'” mentions the “tall trestles which had once supported a river called a flume”. I don’t know if that line was in the story’s original 1877 publication, but, in 1880, Bierce was to have considerable involvement in the building of the Rockerville Flume in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Previous Installments in This Series
More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.