Where Bierce’s “The Man and the Snake” has a man frightened to death by a stuffed snake he mistakes for the real thing, his “Staley Fleming’s Hallucination” has a man killed by another sort of animal.
Staley consults with his doctor because he keeps waking every night and seeing a “big black Newfoundland dog” in his room. It’s not even one of those “mild looking” Newfoundlands but one with a sinister look.
The doctor suggests that the dog resembles one belonging to Atwell Barton, dead three years. The doctor goes on to rather heavily suggest that Staley had something to do with the death, by stabbing, of his old enemy Barton. Staley claims he was out of the country at the time.
The doctor, of course, has no practical solution other than telling Staley he’ll stay in the room next door and will come if Staley rings a bell.
And, of course, the ending is predictable with Bierce in his clear, weird fictioneer mode. The doctor hears a noise and enters Staley’s room where he finds Staley dead, “the unmistakable marks of an animal’s fangs deeply sunken into the jugular vein. But there was not animal.”
Bierce manages to get away with mixing a weird plot with a bit of what may be called satire and irony. He defined “marriage” in his The Devil’s Dictionary as “The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.” The opening chapter heading of the story is another attack on that institution: “ONE DOES NOT ALWAYS MARRY WHEN INSANE”.
Irene Marlowe, lithe, “young, blonde, graceful” and with eyes of “feline beauty”, turns down the proposal of Jenner Brading. Her mien is odd, though. At first, she is “smiling through her tears and her pallor”. But when she is pressed to explain her refusal, her look and tone are described as mechanical.
She gives her reason. She is insane. Or, at least, that’s what a doctor would say. She says she’s possessed.
She then launches into the story which makes up the second part. First, though, Bierce assures that he has spared the reader from Irene’s “artless method of an unpracticed historian” and substituted his words for hers.
Bierce traveled to many areas and set his stories in many places, but this story uses a setting I’ve rarely seen in his work: the vast northern woods of America “that stretched along the eastern slope of the Mississippi Valley, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico”. He introduces us to Charles Marlowe, one of the woodmen pioneers who once lived in this wooded expanse but, at the time of the story’s telling, are now extinct. Charles has a wife and child. Theirs is a blissful life. Continuing the wry tone, Bierce says Charles’ wife is happy with her “light household tasks, her child, her husband and her few foolish books”.
Like Caesar’s wife on the Ides of March, she begs her husband not to leave the house one morning. Yes, like Calpurnia, she’s had a dream. Granted it’s a bit less specific than that Roman matron’s. “I cannot recollect it, but I’m almost sure that it will come to pass if you go out.”
Mustering his “kindly badinage”, Charles leaves his wife and Baby. Yes, we only know the child as Baby in this section. More evidence of Bierce mixing humor with the uncanny, and Bierce’s composition is going to become less unified further on in the stories.
Charles leaves her. When he’s still not back by nightfall. She bars the door and puts a single candle in the open window. Baby is put to bed, and the woman dreams.
She has two children in her dream, but one is dead. Her father is dead. The home she sees is unfamiliar, its doors heavy, its walls of stone, and the windows barred with iron. Most disturbing, the living child in the cradle has a “the face of a wild animal”. It introduces the idea of a panther in human guise, and we begin to look at Irene’s “feline beauty” as suggesting something else.
The woman wakes and sees “two bright objects starring the darkness with a reddish-green glow”. A panther is in the open window. She tries to shield Baby from it.
Charles returns late that night. Finding the door barred, he goes around the side of the cabin. He thinks he hears footfalls and a rustling in the forest, but he sees nothing.
After climbing through the window, Charles finds his wife against a wall, clasping, fatally as it turns out, their child. She breaks into laughter described, like her daughter Irene’s mien, as “mechanical”.
Breaking to the third part of the story and rejoining the beginning scene, Bierce begins to set up some puzzling counter currents into what we thought was just going to be a straightforward story of some family curse of lycanthropy of the werepanther variety.
The first is the third part’s puzzling title “THE THEORY OF THE DEFENSE”. Defense of what? Who’s being accused? Seemingly, what is being defended is Irene’s self-accusation.
The second current is Bierce consciously, deliberately fraying the cables on the suspension bridge of disbelief: “That is what occurred during a night in a forest, but not all of it did Irene Marlow relate to Jenner Brading; not all of it was known to her.” Bierce flat out calls attention to his putting third person omniscience in a first person narrative. He goes out of his way to break the illusion of a true, if secondhand, story.
Irene continues the story by stating that she was Charles Marlowe’s second child and that her mother died in childbirth. Presumably her mother’s dream on that fatal night was a premonition of her pregnancy, but you can also see it as using the medieval notion of grotesque sights entering the eyes of women and causing grotesque births. We get more details suggesting Irene is not human.
There are “her hands clasping and unclasping themselves as they lay in her lap” which suggest a cat flexing its paws. And Jenner, her would-be husband, can’t bring himself to take her hand.
Brading begins to think about the peculiarities of Irene’s life: the solitude shared only with her father, the lack of visitors at her home, her fear of the night and never being seen in it. He doesn’t believe her story, but he does begin to think Irene really is crazy. Just as he’s about to test his theory that she has “mistaken an effect of her mental disorder for its cause”, Irene bolts back to the house. In the shadows around the cabin he thinks he sees, for a moment, a panther.
The judicial metaphor inherent in the third section’s title continues, with an added overtone of theology, in the concluding section’s title: “AN APPEAL TO THE CONSCIENCE OF GOD”.
Jenner is living by himself in a cottage at the end of town. One night, he fires at “two gleaming eyes” at an open window. After hearing “the wild, high scream of the panther”, he goes outside. He and some other men from nearby find the expected: a dead Irene though Bierce is not explicit in naming her. In fact, Bierce is vaguer than usual even in giving us a specific place and date for this story.
Ok, Charles Marlowe’s mother somehow becomes a werepanther and passes the curse on to Irene. Irene in panther form shows up at her would-be lover’s house and gets shot. All pretty standard.
Then Bierce, in two long, final sentences, complicates things again:
What it was is told, even to this day, upon a weather-worn headstone in the village churchyard, and for many years was attested daily at the graveside by the bent figure and sorrow-seamed face of Old Man Marlowe, to whose soul, and to the soul of his strange, unhappy child, peace. Peace and reparation.
“Reparation”? For what? Is Marlowe guilty of some dark crime? I can find no hints of that or any guilt by Irene except for showing up at Jenner’s house.
And what of the section’s title? An indictment of a god that would allow such odd things to exist as a woman-panther?
Are we to infer that, as implied in “Staley Fleming’s Hallucination”, some sort of psychic will has been asserted by Irene or her mother to create this situation? Irene does say she is possessed. Bierce may be exploring, very obliquely, a notion he explicitly mentions in 1906’s “Staley Fleming’s Hallucination”, via Denneker’s “Meditations”:
… it is ordained of God that all flesh hath spirit and thereby taketh on spiritual powers, so, also, the spirit hath powers of the flesh, even when it is gone out of the flesh and living as a thing apart, as many a violence performed by wraith and lemure sheweth.
There may be a were-critter here, but Bierce has abandoned the well-traveled road of the conventional werewolf tale to go off into the darker, enigmatic woods of his own imagination.
Previous Installments in This Series
More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.