Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ambrose Bierce's "That Damned Thing," 12 Days of Lovecraft, and Why Seamus Cooper is Wrong


While I was reading the notes regarding the collaboration between C L Moore and Forrest Ackerman on her story "Nymph of Darkness," (I posted about the collaboration here) I was intrigued by Moore's reference to Ambrose Bierce's "That Damned Thing" as an inspiration for the way Nyusa's invisibility worked. I knew that Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" featured a creature made of a color no one had ever seen before, and that Ambrose Bierce was one of Lovecraft's influences. I had just never taken the time to read Bierce's tale "That Damned Thing" ...until last night.

"That Damned Thing" is a short and enjoyable tale, that isn't at all what I expected based on my earlier assumptions. Having read Moore's correspondence with Ackerman, and Lovecraft's description in Supernatural Horror in Literature, I expected something Gothic and atmospheric. I expected a tale filled with madness and despair. Lovecraft's description of "That Damned Thing" points to it as an exception in Bierce's narrative style, a style which Lovecraft describes as "a jaunty and commonplacedly artificial style derived from journalistic models." Gothic and atmospheric are not words that I would use to describe "That Damned Thing." It certainly has its disturbing elements, and it is a wonderful commentary on willful disbelief, but it is a shockingly straight-forward tale.

"That Damned Thing" is a perfect example of the modern procedural tale. The story opens with men, Mountain Men to be specific, gathered around a table upon which lies the body of Hugh Morgan. The use of Mountain Men is likely very intentional with regard to what Bierce is aiming at with the story. Frederick Jackson Turner's presentation on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" had been made earlier in the year that "That Damned Thing" was published, and the stages of Turner's hypothesis are witnessed in the tale.

First, we have the Mountain Men those rugged adventurers who explore the vast unknown wilderness. Then we have the "coroner," a figure who is one of the Mountain Men in dress and composure, but who has a job associated with greater civilization. In fact, the reason the men are gathered around the table is to perform a kind of coroner's inquest and decide upon the cause of Hugh Morgan's death. Finally, we have William Harker, the young journalist and fiction writer who had come to the Frontier to write a story about Hugh Morgan. William completely represents the final stage of development in Jackson's work. We have explorer's, law bringers, and the civilized, and they are all gathered around a table to guide us through the narrative.

The narrative is broken into four clear acts.

There is the establishing act where we find out that the men have gathered as a jury and that William Harker will testify regarding how Hugh Morgan died. We also learn that there is an additional piece of evidence, a book, that will play a role in the story even after it fails to play a role in the jury.

The next act consists of Harker's testimony about his hunting trip with Morgan and the beast that they encountered, a beast responsible for Hugh's death. A couple of things stand out here. We are finally given hints as to the location of the story. Bierce consistently uses the term chaparral when describing the environment, a flora commonly associated with the West. The use of chaparral lends further evidence to the Turner-esque nature of the story. When the beast is introduced, it is described as "the wind" moving vegetation. It is only after Morgan shoots at the beast, and it charges Morgan, that Harker realizes that they have encountered some creature...an invisible creature. The description of the invisibility is intriguing and somewhat puzzling.

"At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand -- at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible."


We know from Harker's description that the creature is invisible, and transparent. We can see through it as it moves through the bushes in the earlier description. We also learn that things within its grasp are similarly obscured from our vision in the places where the creature holds its victim. There is obviously some cause, other than mere transparency, for the beast's invisibility.

In the third act, the Jury deliberates and determines that the death was caused by a mountain lion. The coroner assures the jurors that there is no other evidence available to help them in their determination of cause of death. The jury rejects a purely supernatural cause for the death, but acknowledges that Harker bears no fault. We also learn that the coroner was lying when he said that there was no other useful evidence. The book the coroner had been reading at the beginning of the tale happens to be Hugh Morgan's diary.

The final act is where all is made clear, in non-supernatural terms. Morgan's diary reveals to the audience that Morgan had indeed been encountering an invisible creature for some time, but Morgan had a scientific explanation. This was no mythic beast, rather the creature only reflects light that the human eye cannot see. Somehow light bends around the creature. This is where the description of the invisibility of the creature is at its strongest and weakest. The reason for the invisibility is ingenious, the execution is lacking. Bierce refers to Morgan noticing the creature because its form blocked his ability to see a couple of stars, yet he can "see through" the creature to the world behind it. In essence, the creature may not actually be invisible in the sense we tend to think of invisibility. Rather we may just be unable to see the thing, no black absence of light and no true transparency. A little awkward, but still cool.

What is even more interesting is what Bierce is doing here. One can readily understand why authors might write tales about the inability of those who follow a material metaphysic to acknowledge or engage with the supernatural. THE EXORCIST is a wonderful horror tale of this sort. The science being applied to the victim of possession is as horrifying as, if not more than, the effects of the actual possession. What happens in Bierce's tale is a material metaphysician, or rational realist if you will, in the form of the coroner unable to cope with a plausible scientific description of an unimaginable thing. Some scientists might want to explore the chaparral to find the beast, but the coroner essentially asserts that it is "better not to know." One wonders if Bierce was critiquing particular rigid dogmatists in the scientific community with this tale.

One can see why Lovecraft and Moore were inspired by the piece. Lovecraft liberally borrows names from "That Damned Thing" in his story "The Colour Out of Space." The only person who will share the tale of the invisible beast stalking the lands around Arkham is named Ammi Pierce -- clearly Ambrose Bierce -- and the name Nahum Gardner is close enough to Hugh Morgan for government work. The reluctance of the townsfolk to talk with our narrator in "Colour" fits with the jury's reluctance to deal with the unknown. Which brings me to today's 12 Days of Lovecraft Tor website post by Seamus Cooper.

Cooper asserts that "The Colour Out of Space" is quite bad. A strong opinion regarding a story that Lovecraft thought his best, and about a tale that is largely praised among Lovecraft fandom. Cooper believes that "Colour" is "ill-conceived and poorly executed." This belief seems to largely stem from the fact that Cooper believes that the stakes of the tale have already taken place and that there is nothing left to chill the spines of the reader.

He is wrong on both counts. Kenneth Hite discusses some of the merits of the tale in his Tour de Lovecraft, so I won't repeat them here. Instead, I'll make a couple of my own observations.

With regard to the tale being poorly executed, one finds this a particularly baffling claim. The story begins with what may be the best written first sentence and introductory paragraphs in all of Lovecraftian fiction, "West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut." The words are poetry without purple prose. Lovecraft sets the tone of the wild and unexplored marvelously, and he sets the tone for the foulness of the place itself in exquisite fashion. This story is rife with beautifully constructed wordsmithing, something I wouldn't often credit Lovecraft's fiction.

It is also remarkable how Lovecraft has transformed a hunting encounter with an unknown beast into a horrifying encounter with an alien presence. An encounter, I might add, that extends the interaction between the alien and the scientific beyond the mere coroner. In the end the beast does vanish, leaving a small piece behind trapped in a well, putting a seeming end to the stakes. But given the fact that there is soon to be a reservoir on top of the location of the small (trapped) piece, and the nature altering and mind altering affect this piece has on the land and the people surrounding it, one wonders what will happen when the reservoir comes and possibly frees the beast.

The end of this tale is as creepy as the end of the first FRIDAY 13th, when we discover that it might be possible for Jason to rise from the bottom of the lake, or John Carpenter's THE THING. The creature is destroyed at the end of Carpenter's movie...or is it. The same is true here. Just how has the beast altered those around it? What effect will it have?

The stakes are subtle, rather than grotesque. They are social, rather than personal. But the stakes are horrifying none the less.

This beast represents something more than a colorless thing. No wonder the story inspired the source story for THE THING and the narrative of THE BLOB.

"Can't git away...draws ye...ye know summ'at's comin', but 'tain't no use..."
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