The unknown in the natural world is a subject that authors seem to enjoy writing about. Short story writers especially. First there was Guy de Maupassant's The Horla (1887) which is my favorite of all these sorts of stories that I have read so far, and then there was Fitz-James O'Brien's What Was It? (1859). Actually the O'Brien came first, but I read the Maupassant years ago so it has always set the bar high in my mind. Then there is Edgar Allen Poe's Ms. Found in a Bottle (1833) with a seafaring slant and I am sure I have read a small handful of others that don't come immediately to mind. Now I have Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing" to add to my growing collection of supernatural-ish/unexplainable short stories.
Bierce is another writer I have not read before (that I can recall anyway, but I might have read one of his better known stories in school) and I don't know anything about him. He was an editorialist, journalist, satiri9st, fabulist and wrote short stories. He had a nickname of "Bitter Bierce" thanks to his sardonic view of human nature, which goes a long way to explaining the story I read. He spent time in Omaha which was the starting point of a survey he did of military outposts of the Great Plains. He disappeared in Mexico in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution when he was 71. He seems to have led an interesting life.
The story is divided into shorter segments with very tongue-in-cheek subtitles. So, in "One does not always eat what is on the table" describes the brutalized body of woodsman Hugh Morgan. Yes, he is laid out on his table, the center of attention and the main guest at a coroner's inquest. The coroner is a man set apart as being more worldly than the others. He sits with his nose in a book, which turns out to be the deceased's diary. And the jury sits along the wall but close enough for them to reach out and touch the body. William Harker, a friend of Hugh's, who had been visiting Morgan, is a writer and 'saw' what happened. And the result is not pretty.
In "What may happen in a field of wild oats" Harker describes what you would never ever want to happen in a field of wild oats or anywhere else. The two had been out looking for quail, so both had rifles in hand. They came to this field and heard a rustling noise thinking perhaps they had disturbed a bear. Neither was quite sure and when Harker asks "what is it", the reply is "this damned thing" which gives the impression Morgan had a run in with it some time earlier. Morgan was visibly shaken and clearly in a state of fright.
"Before I could get upon m feet and recover my gun, which seemed to have been struck from my hands, I heard Morgan crying out as if in mortal agony, and mingling with his cries were such savage sounds as one hears from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled to my feet and looked in the direction of Morgan's retreat; and may Heaven in mercy spare me from another sight like that!"
In "A man though naked may be in rags", the coroner lifts the sheet from the body for the jury to view. Well, needless to say, they wished he hadn't. It was an unpleasant sight and it was obvious that the body had been brutally attacked. When Harker explained what happened, which was more or less unexplainable, as there was literally nothing there in the field to see despite his friend's body being in such a state, the jury calls the death the result of an attack by mountain lion.
In "An explanation from the tomb" the coroner notes the interesting things Morgan had to say, some of which might even have a certain scientific value. Strange reactions his dog had to whatever unknown presence seemed to lurk about were noted, strange constellation formations in the night sky were observed and blackbirds in the trees that seemingly all take flight (or maybe that is fright!) at the same instant made Morgan fear that something was out there. What was it? Something indiscernible to the naked eye . . . Something just outside the view of what we can see and smell but obviously something that can be sensed. Something frightening.
"The Damned Thing" has been filmed before and I can imagine in the right hands it might indeed be quite scary.
Next up is a story by Henry James, which should have a very different tone and flavor than the last few stories I've read. I am looking forward to it. And after the James, finally a story by a woman author--Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.
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This week's (rather, the June 30 issue) short story is "The Pink House" by Rebecca Curtis. It is a ghost story and one of the quirkiest I have yet read. It's certainly not a traditional haunting and not really scary but an interesting take on the genre. The narrator is a young woman who moves from New York City to Syracuse and is told that the house she has rented is haunted. Of course there would be no problem as long as the person inhabiting the space doesn't 'invite' the ghost in. Unfortunately the narrator's annoyed father very tongue in cheek does so when she tells him she's found the ring of a dead man. You'll have to read the story for yourself to find out what happens--it has a nice modern, and very liberal twist to it.
The narrator's voice is sort of in your face and the story she tells is to a group of writers (the framing device) who are on a sabbatical-like vacation (working vacation? what do you call these set-ups anyway where you get to go away somewhere cool and practice your art for six weeks . . . ). The are strangers and having a meal together complete with spirits (of the liquid sort) which always loosens the tongue. She prefaces her story by telling them it's on the tawdry side. Definitely this is one of the more unusual stories I've read (then again, the one with the brother-sister who are being held captive by two angry dogs was a little on the unusual side, too). You can read The New Yorker's Q&A with her here.