A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. That staff member is me.
I’m learning a lot about how readers read.
And also how to make decent coffee.
Ambrose Bierce wrote some strange stuff.
That was the general consensus—and one of the few unanimous agreements— this morning as we discussed his short story, “That Damned Thing,’ which was first published in 1893.
It begins with an inquest into the death of Hugh Morgan, a woodsman whose body has been mauled. The only witness is a young reporter named William Harker, for whom Morgan was acting as a hunting and fishing guide.
Harker claims that he heard a panicked gunshot and ran to Morgan, only to see the man being thrown about the clearing by something invisible. The creature then fled, knocking Harker down and making a path through a wild oatfield. The jury—made up of farmers and hunters—decides it was a bobcat and that the witness is crazy. The witness isn’t so sure he isn’t. The coroner gives him the dead man’s diary, which he felt had no bearing on the case.
The last few diary entries reveal Morgan’s growing certainty that there is much more to nature than human beings are aware . . . and his dawning terror that a “damned thing,” which could not be seen or heard by limited human senses, was hunting him.
The group was split among those who thought there was an invisible creature, natural or supernatural, those who thought Morgan was attacked by a well-camouflaged bobcat that Harker, a city man, simply didn’t see, and those who thought Morgan went insane with fear and damaged himself.*
Everyone saw this story as a different kind of “Lady and the Tiger,” where the reader has to draw his or her own conclusions.
We also agreed that the most interesting thing about the story wasn’t what had happened, but what was going to happen to the witness. Because if there was a damned thing, it might be after him. And even if there wasn’t, that kind of insane fear is contagious, isn’t it?
Brrrr. Moving on, now.
Disbelief is suspended by the reader’s experiences:
Those readers who were most frightened by this story lived (or had lived) in the country or near woody areas, “where odd noises live,” as one put it. They were more likely to believe that the killer was an invisible beast—or even the devil.
Those who weren’t as spooked lived in town, where natural noises are fewer and well-documented. They went for the more rational explanations.**
Which were still plenty scary, thanks very much—because Mr. Bierce provided something for each level of reader interpretation. I don’t know whether that was instinct or deliberate, but it’s something to ponder.
Good Writing makes up for a lot, but not everything:
Even those who were confused by this story, or didn’t care for it, thought it was extremely well-written. They loved the descriptions, if nothing else, and the turns of phrase. It was very easy to read . . . but that wasn’t enough for those who truly couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on.
As one lady put it, “His words put you right there, but where’s there?”
Satisfying endings are subjective—and perhaps beside the point.
Again, the group was divided between the readers who liked the mystery of the open ending and those who had wondered if they were missing the last page.***
“Well, was it there or wasn’t it?” said one frustrated reader, sparking off a twenty-minute (friendly) unresolved argument.
When it was suggested later that Mr. Bierce might have been warning us that human beings weren’t at the top of the food chain after all, the same lady said, “Okay, but I’d like to know for sure. It’s awful not knowing.”
Which may have been the point of the story all along.
*I believed Morgan, but I’ve seen Predator.
** As an aside, there was also more of a fear factor with readers who read this late at night as opposed to those who read it in the daytime—but that’s sort of a given.
**”Again,” they said. But that wasn’t my fault and I fixed it.