Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 4

Bierce LOA

Another Ghost Town

Bierce uses another of his abandoned mining camps as the setting for “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch”

The narrator is out quail hunting and decides to spend the night in an abandoned cabin near an old mining camp. He feels apprehension as he looks out the open doorway, fears “a more familiar face\Than that of man”.

Nodding off, he dreams of a married couple in a distant land. They are the MacGregors of Edinburgh. She is a woman of “certain grave beauty”, a plaid shawl about her shoulders. Mr. MacGregor has “an evil face”.

Waking from the dream, the narrator gazes into the fireplace which then flares up and goes dark. He then hears a “horrible cry”. But, as his lights adjust to the darkness, he finds no evidence of anyone about.

Then, as he so often does, Bierce puts an interlude of several years into the story. He meets a Mr. Morgan who relates the tale of how, while staying in the same cabin years after the narrator, he discovered the skeleton of a woman, her skull smashed in by a pick-axe, beneath the floorboards. She was Mrs. MacGregor.

“The Moonlit Road”: The Rashomon Story

In one sense, Bierce’s “The Moonlit Road” may be more famous than his “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.

The reason for that is that it is often seen as the inspiration, by way of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’ s story “Yabu no naka” (“In the Grove”) for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Like that movie, it “explains”, through perspectives of different characters, a crime.

Martin Griffin has a lengthy plot synopsis and analysis of Bierce’s story. Akutagawa’s story and Kurosawa’s film are discussed here.

I’m not entirely convinced, though, of the connection. While Akutagawa may have read Western literature, I’d like confirmation that he had access to and read the Bierce story. So far, online, I haven’t come across that confirmation.

A point of minor interest in the story is the appearance medium Bayrolles.  He or she was first mentioned in Bierce’s “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”.

“A Diagnosis of Death”

This short work starts out like a ghost story. Doctors Frayley and Hawver are discussing the nature and origins of ghosts. Hawver only concedes that the living “are sometimes seen where they are not”.

While visiting a relative the summer before, Hawver rents a room in a dwelling once inhabited by the “eccentric doctor” Mannering. After retiring from his practice, Mannering devoted himself to writing a book expounding his theory that it is possible to forecast, precisely and up to eighteen months in advance, the time a healthy person will die. One night, Hawver sees an oil portrait of Mannering come to life.

But Mannering is not dead. In fact, Hawver has met Mannering earlier that very day.

Then Bierce wrenches his story out of the mode of what Hawver calls “a very commonplace ‘ghost story'”. Frayley reveals that Mannering is died three years ago under Frayley’s care.

Mannering’s ghost characteristically gestured in the way he did when delivering a diagnosis. And the unspoken, but understood, realization of Frayley and Hawver is that the latter’s death has been predicted by Mannering’s ghost. Hawver dies the next day after he’s taken out his violin to play “Chopin’s funeral march”.

Bierce gives us a story where a doctor has perfected his ability to predict a patient’s death — except they are not patients but in good health. Frayley also believes that Mannering’s theory will turn out to be “the most striking and important of the century’s contribution to medical science”. It would seem a practical skill but a socially uncomfortable one. .

Frayley tells Hawver that he is “the healthiest man I ever knew” which, like the spy only thinking he’s escaped hanging in “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, is a sign that our perceptions are suspect and are fortunes more precarious than we think.

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 Tales, Part 1

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Tales, Part 2

Reading Bitter Bierce, The Weird Tales, Part 3


More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.

10 thoughts on “Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 4

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