The Meta-Weird Story
You are brave enough to read me in a street car, but — in a deserted house — alone — in the forest — at night! Bah! I have a manuscript in my pocket that would kill you.
So Colston, writer of ghost stories, says during a tirade to his editor Marsh. Colston says a writer of supernatural fiction has the “right to the reader’s undivided attention”, that his stories be read in “The Suitable Surroundings” of the story’s title. To evoke horror, his work must be removed from the context of the newspaper which signals it as fiction.
What happens that night in a deserted farmhouse ten miles outside of Cincinnati is, in typical Bierce fashion, the beginning of the story. We see a farmer’s boy going by the putatively haunted Breede house about midnight. Surprised at seeing a strange light on in the house, he overcomes his fear and looks in the window. There he sees a man seated at a desk with papers on it.
The man’s eyes were fixed upon the blank window space with a stare in which an older and cooler observer might have discerned something of apprehension, but which seemed to the lad altogether soulless. He believed the man to be dead.
And dead he is.
The next day the boy returns with three officials. They proceed to read the manuscript.
It opens with a statement from Colston, a suicide note, in which he states he intends to die at midnight on July 15th — the anniversary his “friend in time and eternity, Charles Breede” committed suicide. After that prelude, a P.S. tells Marsh that his own death is detailed in the main part of the manuscript. Colston promises to come, after his death at midnight, to confirm Marsh has read the story.
Bierce at His Most Oblique
And then the story gets very enigmatic. One of the men, who turns out to have been the son-in-law of Charles Breede, burns the rest of the manuscript. We never learn what it says.
The story concludes with a newspaper story telling us that Colston, seemingly on the verge of slitting his throat on July 15th, was taken into custody and put in a mental asylum.
Bierce has a great last line: “Most of our esteemed contemporary’s other writers are still at large.”
But there’s a whole lot of unanswered questions.
When we discussed this story at LibraryThing‘s Weird Tradition group, here were some questions:
- Is Marsh the victim of Charles Breede’s revenge from beyond the grave?
- Did Colston know something that drove his friend Breede to suicide and did that something, or some force, kill Marsh and drive Colston mad?
- Was Marsh, in an apprehensive state, scared to death by the boy suddenly appearing at the window? (And how much of the manuscript did Marsh read?) And did he mistake the boy for Colston’s ghost?
- What secret did Breede’s son-in-law conceal?
- Is the whole story a mordant comment on exactly what Bierce thinks a reader owes a writer?
Previous Installments in This Series
More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.