“Beyond the Wall”
The protagonist of Bierce’s “Beyond the Wall” is an aristocrat of a different sort:
… Dampier … a handsome, strong young fellow of scholarly tastes, with an aversion to work and a marked indifference to many of the things that the world cares for, including wealth, of which, however, he had inherited enough to put him beyond the reach of want. … it was, I think, a matter of pride that no member of it had ever been in trade nor politics, or suffered any kind of distinction. Mohun was a trifle sentimental, and had in him a singular element of superstition, which led him to the study of all manner of occult subjects … He made daring incursions into the realm of the unreal without renouncing his residence in the partly surveyed and charted region of what we are pleased to call certitude.
That’s the old Dampier. After not seeing him for years, the narrator decides to pay a social call. Dampier is now a stooped, gray-skinned man. And their meeting starts with some frank dialogue.
Dampier notes the narrator must be disappointed in him, throws out a bit of Latin, “… being a dead language it grows in appropriateness … where I am going there is perhaps a better tongue.”
The air of impending doom and death is lightened by a rap on the wall. Dampier shows the narrator nothing but air exists on the other side of the wall, tells him he’s heard the sound before, and starts his tale.
Essentially, it’s a tale of obsession, not exactly sexual, but certainly romantic in the classic sense. Living in a row house in San Francisco about ten years ago, the narrator saw one of its tenants, a young girl, walking outside. The effect she has on Dampier is extreme:
… no one could look at her face and think of anything earthly. Do not fear; I shall not profane it by description; it was beautiful exceedingly. All that I had ever seen or dreamed of loveliness was in that matchless living picture by the hand of the Divine Artist.
But Dampier only observes and watches from afar. The weird elements of the story seem somewhat superfluous to the social satire.
Dampier’s own class ideals conspire against any attempt to enter into any kind of relationship with the girl.
… despite her beauty, her charms and graces, the girl was not of my class. … My income was small and I lacked the talent for marrying … An alliance with that family would condemn me to its manner of life, part me from my books and studies, and in a social sense reduce me to their ranks. … Let judgment be entered against me, but in strict justice all my ancestors for generations should be made co-defendants and I be permitted to plead in mitigation of punishment the imperious mandate of heredity. …
Honor, pride, prudence, preservation of my ideals — all commanded me to go away, but for that I was too weak.
Instead Dampier just decides not see the girl. Still obsessed, though, he takes to rapping on the wall he shares with her. It’s hardly a conversation or a meeting of the minds. The girl just repeats his signal. (One wonders, given Dampier’s occult studies and the rapping, if Bierce wasn’t mocking Spirtualism.)
The weird part comes in when Dampier hears that the woman died of fever but that her last effort was to arise from her deathbed and knock on the wall, a
poor passing soul had exerted its failing will to restore a broken connection — a golden threat of sentiment between its innocence and a monstrous baseness owing a blind, brutal allegiance to the Law of Self.
Like his “The Eyes of the Panther”, Bierce, who doesn’t seem terribly religious, hints at some divinity that renders judgment and retribution, and the weird element takes second place to a satire on how the ideals of class can bound an aristocrat and, perhaps, keep him from happiness.
The Mingling of Souls and Bodies
Several Bierce stories play with the theme of souls switching places and even effecting the bodies that host them. We are not, though, dealing with anything as straightforward as transmigration or body-swapping.
The narrator of “A Psychological Shipwreck” strikes up an acquaintance with a Janette Harford on board the Morrow. One day, July 3, 1874 to be exact, he has an odd experience when talking to Janette. He gets the impression that she is “looking at me, not with, but through, those eyes”. Then he senses, vaguely and briefly, “men, women and children, upon whose faces I caught strangely familiar evanescent expressions”.
Then he wakes up. To a sinking ship. After an hour, Janette is torn from his grasp in the wreck, and he faints.
The weirdness starts, after an earlier evocation of Bierce’s invented tome of metaphysics, Denneker’s Meditations.
The narrator isn’t on the Morrow. He’s on another ship and always has been. Janette Harford is the fiancé of his roommate and traveling on the Harford. At story’s end, after weeks past, we are told the Morrow was never heard from again.
Bierce’s quote from Denneker — somewhat clumsily repeated twice — hints at cosmic forces, “rills” which we travel on but that allow kindred souls to cross paths though their bodies eventually part. In a sense, this is transmigration not of souls from dead bodies but living ones and not full on body-swapping but a temporary sharing of consciousness via a kind of telepathy. Perhaps Poe’s “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” was a model though the gulf in time and space is not as great as that bridged in that story.
“The Realm of the Unreal”, from 1890, is one of those weird stories where an illusionist turns out to be a genuine magician in the occult sense.
This story uses Bierce’s typical structure of introducing weirdness and conflict and then backfilling in time to explain the opening. Here, though, nothing weird goes on. The narrator happens to meet an old acquaintance on the road between two California towns. Dr. Dorrimore is, to the distaste of the narrator, going to the same Auburn hotel where the narrator is waiting for his fiancé and her mother. He has a sensation of “spiritual peril” in tow with the doctor.
We then hear of his first meeting with Dr. Dorrimore at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco (Bierce was a founding member). Dorrimore, in a conversation about illusionists, says that he has seen genuine magic in India (including the famed “Indian Rope Trick” though it is not called that here). The narrator and Dorrimore argue about this claim on their way home.
They come across a body, pierced with a sword in the street. On examining it, the narrator sees it shares, “to the minutest detail”, Dorrimore’s appearance. And Dorrimore has disappeared. Then he’s is grabbed by the dead man, now erect, who pulls the sword out of his chest. The sword vanishes when it hits the sidewalk. Now, to all appearances, Dorrimore is beside him again.
“It is what some are pleased to call jugglery,” jokes Dorrimore
After Bierce has a little rant about literature being blighted by the tyranny of the “Young Girl” and tales of love, we pick up the story again. Miss Corray, his fiancé, spends way too much time with Dr. Dorrimore in the two weeks they’ve both been at the hotel. One night, the narrator follows them and springs on Dorrimore with a murderous rage.
The next morning finds our narrator in bed, finger marks on his throat. When he asks for Miss Corray and her mother, he’s told there are no such guests at the hotel.
The story concludes after Corray and the narrator are married. His wife never does go to Auburn, and the narrator comes across a newspaper article where Professor Valentine Dorrimore, the hypnotist, notes that “a peculiarly susceptible subject” may be placed in hypnoses for months, even years, with planted delusions in their head. Thus, here, the seeming doubling of Dorrimore is explained as an hypnotic delusion with no appeal to cosmic forces. Yet, in a sense, the will, Dorrimore’s spirit, has mingled with the narrator’s perceptions.
“John Bartine’s Watch” is a fairly straightforward tale of an odd heirloom, a family watch. Bartine owns a watch he has a compulsion to look at, a compulsion that becomes stronger the closer the time gets to eleven o’clock. One day, predictably, he doesn’t resist and is found death with a dark circle around his neck. There are physical echoes, transmitted via the watch, of the death of the watch’s original owner. He was Bartine’s Revolutionary War ancestor, hung for being a spy. At the eleventh hour, of course.
“The Middle Toe of the Right Foot”
At its core, this is one of those tales where a piece of physical evidence, here the prints, in dust, of a maimed foot belonging to a dead woman, confirms a supernatural interpretation. More interesting is the black humor of a man killing his wife and children, her ghastly revenge, and, as I’ve mentioned already, what I take to be the influence of Bierce’s days in the post-Civil War South.
Previous Installments in This Series
More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.