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A House is Not a Home: Ambrose Bierce’s Development of a Unique Gothic Writing Style Appropriating Romanticism and Realism “We…have

repudiated it [the dark side of existence]…because we strive to construct a conscious world that is safe and manageable… Yet, even in our midst, the poet now and then catches sight of the figures that people the night world—the spirits, demons and gods.” (Jung, Modern Man 63) In modern civilization, the house, whether of lowly or superior composition and stature, is considered the most common, central, trusted place, where a human being ought to find opportunity for repose, renewal, refuge, recreation and reproduction. The house, serving as the most common structure or place where a human being might possibly center one’s own life, indeed to establish identity and ego, might earn the name of ‘home,’ and thus ideally, thereby, be transformed into an almost sacred place. The familiar house, or home, is where a human being might, in the old sense, repair. But when the house or home becomes, instead, a place where dangers, death, chaos, mystery, fear, or terror can enter (or, indeed, inhabit) its interior, its deepness, a primal horror touches the human soul. A house ought not be such a place! The child who once feared what was under the bed, who agonized when things went bump in the night, is then reawakened within the adult, and the child cannot reason as can an adult. The adult might use every form of logic and persuasion, but no rhetoric or reason can prevail against the child’s suspicions. After all, the bumps in the night occur when the adult is not present, and when all the lights are off. Ambrose Bierce must have understood the helplessness and the easily roused state of terror, to which the infant and the child is subject, and which, once having entered the mind, dwells stubbornly within. Bierce deliberately keeps his stories short, easily and quickly absorbed by the reader, and therefore better understood by the repressed (if silent and forgotten) child of the self. We may get a glimpse of this “child” and its relationship to house and home through which Bierce generates his brand of horror in stories such as Chickamauga. Here, a deaf-mute child serves Bierce’s purpose. The child encounters “a host of wounded soldiers hideously crawling from the battlefield, and thought they were playing a game. Rebuffed by the jawless man, upon whose back he tried to ride, the child ultimately returns to his home, to find it burned and his mother slain and horribly mutilated…it probes the very depths of material horror.” (Starrett 32) The wounded soldiers and the child cannot communicate. At first, the child even mistakes pain and agony for a kind of crude game. The child believes that what is happening is not so much sinister as it is a species of strange pleasure. The opportunity to develop terror in the reader depends upon humoring the child’s first interpretations. The child’s thoughts almost amuse the reader. But in the end the adult will not, curiously, want to believe the final, if mute, testimony of this child. The adult knows “everything.” But everything – all that is dear and safe to the child -- in the end is destroyed. Just as the child has no way to communicate to any adult what has happened – ever – so, too, the adult is incapable of communicating anything comforting to the child. The mother calls out to her wandering child, but he is deaf. When she screams and dies, he doesn’t hear that, either. He

is rapt in his own fantasy world, and it takes enormous tragedies to rip him away from its allures. His house, too, was supposed to be a haven, but the child finds, instead, a repository of unspeakable horror.. It is the house which Bierce most frequently sets as the site where the adult and the inner child first deny, then confront the terrors of the night, the dark side. And it is the house that ultimately betrays them both. Bierce’s house, when presented as the betraying “accomplice,” generates a “touchable” horror. Using The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce --the first collection of all Bierce’s short stories -- as our guide, we can explore stories where Bierce-created “houses” function to betray builders and inhabitants. In “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch,” “one confronts the actual and imaginary perils of the night with far less apprehension in the open air than in a house with an open doorway.” (33) The next story in the collection, “The Eyes of the Panther” uses a similar approach: that of an open window, through which can be seen the glaring eyes of a panther. That same open window is used later in the story to induce the fatal firing of the gun into the face of what was, however mad, that of a human being. “A room may be too narrow for three,” writes Bierce in this story, “though one is outside.” In both cases, these stories also represent the area outside the houses as a wilderness, a frontier filled with questions and unknowns. Bierce was aware that the western frontier was all but closed in his day. The wilderness and frontier regions of which he speaks may be considered more internal, existing within, than external. Floyd Harwell (39) wrote that “Without excess in the Gothic novel, one must expect a typicality and concreteness…that one could even call romantic realism.” Harwell elaborates on the idea of excess, which we can apply to Bierce’s short stories: 1. Excess in dimension: size, solidity, height and depth. 2. Excess of states; hate, love, greed, sin, and pride. 3. Excess of flaw – found in the grotesques: the hunchback, villain, and lunatic; and the witch and demon. 4. Excess of reality: supernaturalness, hallucination, and nightmare. 5. Excess in sex: rape, vampirism, wantonness, lust, and…homosexuality. 6. Excess of effect: shock instead of recognition, tears instead of restraint, and murder instead of natural death. 7. Then, sublimity instead of sense, throbs instead of intimations, and screams instead of articulation. Not least, blasts instead of breeze… shouts instead of hallos, horror instead of terror…” (40). Bierce had an unhappy childhood , which Davidson (Hopkins 43) notes, adding that Bierce, the youngest of eight strictly-raised children, never visited his home again after leaving it. The home, for Bierce, was only a house, after all. It was therefore an easily violated, if idealized concept Bierce seems never to have been able to claim for himself. For example, though it was reported that he loved his wife and children, Bierce, at the last, could not bear to actually live with them. He was happier in his office writing invective than at home by the fireplace reading it. This resistance to claim the house as home was strengthened, possibly, by Bierce’s experiences as a soldier and man of war, and by his illfated Black Hills venture, which separated him from hearth, home, wife and family. Early in life, Bierce personally experienced the “excess” of war. An accomplished military officer of

courage and ability, Bierce personally figured in many battles, as well as participating in the raw and primitive acts of burning and pillaging the enemy’s houses and homes. Surely he had also, through such experiences, fully explored and experienced the machinations of fright, anger and hate deep within himself. He must have noticed the effect upon others of these and other emotions. Bierce sat at campfires or hid in trenches in the dark, and under these conditions of war, he heard the most terrifying legends and chilling tales which imagination can produce, reeling out from the mouths and minds of soldiers confronting death daily; he heard the nervous laughter and rude oaths of men who faced battles far more easily from known sources than from the uncharted and unknown. He was able to plainly discern the shapes and shadows of the monsters who lurked just outside the edges of the light of the campfire and of the lantern, and he heard different kinds of lamentations mingling with the groans of the dying: evildoers and the good perished together. He did not hear refinement and civilized speech in these cries and groans, but the primal cries of the animal within, at bay, at an end of life (Nettells 118). Bierce survived interior and exterior battles of such magnitude that description stands wordless: to the present day, more men were slain in the Civil War than in all our other wartime ventures combined, and this on native soil (Lee 145). After these events, Ambrose Bierce settled down to writing, but the ghosts who had invaded his imagination never settled down. As the post Civil War era extended into the Gilded Age, where the contrasts between masses of aliens (lured by the Homestead Act of 1862 and the vision of gold-paved streets) – those unfortunates who kept pouring into overcrowded cities -- clashed against the improvident and garish lives and the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy (however many were self-made); such contrasts provided their own series of horror stories (Lee 4-10). When Bierce attacks the reader’s sense of an ordered universe, fed by wells of realism, science and pragmatism, he frequently attacks the concept, too, of the home or house as place of haven and refuge, placing it most often as a foil to the frontier, or as an external picture of isolation, or starkly outlined by violence in nature. There is always darkness, storm, and peril, perhaps in forms such as lightning and floods, but just as often, there is the ghostly shapelessness of the dreaded unknowable and untouchable. Bierce was not the first nor only writer to produce Gothic horrors, but with Poe is probably the most prolific of the short story writers. He might have been influenced further into his world of darkness by writers as diverse as Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, all of whom also used the symbolism of house and home in contrast to the horror generated by any or all of the factors which we have here termed excesses. For example, the composite monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is sequestered in a hovel attached to a decently built English house (“a cottage of neat and pleasant appearance”). The monster peers through the chinks and views the normal world, which is denied him. Just on the other side of that wall is every human pattern of family, home, learning and thought: the hidden monster, though isolated, notes every detail (91-92). In Wieland, Brown’s first supernaturally orchestrated event occurs in the summer-house, where the spontaneous combustion of a human being apparently occurs in “the temple of his Deity.” Near the end of the novel, the heroine cries out, concerning the villain of the story: “had not this chamber witnessed his atrocious purposes?” (222) Indeed, the house witnesses the most horrible incidents in silence, almost as an accomplice. As if to renounce the houses in Weiland, where so much joy, and then so many sorrows occurred, the perpetrator confesses that he “purposed to seek some retreat in the wilderness.” (240)

Bierce is not alone, as we have already observed, in recognizing the importance of the house in the Gothic mode: Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables” come to mind. Bierce’s houses, however, are more often accomplices to evil: in “Moxon’s Master,” “a burning house…struck by lightning” obliterates all traces of the vicious machine that ruled Moxon. (96). In “The Realm of the Unreal,” Putnam House, the name of the hotel sheltering Dr. Dorrimore, also shelters and harbors the shades – or, rather, hallucinations – of Margaret Corray and her mother, though the clerk swears to Dr. Dorrimore’s unhappy victim that the women were never registered there, nor had they ever dwelt there. In “A Fruitless Assignment,” a haunted house apparently allows only ghosts to open its door (111). “A Vine on a House” concerns yet another haunted house, where a vine’s enigmatically twisted roots bear resemblance to a murdered woman, down to the detail of a missing foot. The mutilations and murders found in the majority of Bierce’s short stories are connected most often with such half-alive houses. “At Old Man Eckert’s” the haunted house has “moving lights, dolorous sounds and startling apparitions” (154). Andrus Palmer, one of the men who had decided to meet with his friends inside a haunted house, enters it in full sight of his two friends, walks across the room, and forever vanishes. Palmer’s passage is described, not surprisingly, as an entry into darkness. In “The Spook House” (159) “tenanted by evil spirits, visible and active,” the family which inhabited it suddenly disappeared. The harrowing end of this story involves a mysterious door with a smooth interior surface of solid iron that can close forever behind its occupants. Upon accidentally opening this strange door, and discovering the entire missing family as mummified corpses, the narrator endures the horror of seeing his friend go inside the room: as the odor of death reaches his nostrils, he feels faint. “I felt myself falling…” he tells us, and as he fell, the door was pushed shut “with a sharp click.” “Six weeks later I recovered my reason” the narrator goes on to explain. By then his friend has surely died, for we all know that the house will not give up its victims. “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” concerns the history of the Manton house – yet another abandoned home which was once filled with life but now only exhales the fumes of death. It doesn’t seem to be especially sinister by daylight. During the day, the house seems pleasant enough, if neglected and falling to ruin. But at night, in the dark, there are those things going ‘bump!’ in the night again, in this case wreaking havoc upon a murderer who has been deliberately abandoned inside the house to face his guilt in total darkness. In some strange manner, the house holds the murderer against itself as the ghosts of the wife and children he killed approach and surround him. His body is found in a corner of a room, quailed over, with the telltale footprints of the ghosts imprinted into the dust of the floor. Many more examples in these stories could be listed. What intrigues me about this idea of presentation of ‘house’ as something other than that familiar place of refuge is that a house symbolizes everything that should be normal in a human’s existence. In Bierce’s time, realism in literature had a specific aim: namely, “…the representations of the realities of life. (But) What are the realities – what is most certainly real (Foerster 105)?” Norman Foerster considers the literary movements in history which produced realism, though realism; he reminds us, has always been found in literature since Homer. Then he relates to us the particular circumstances under which American fiction developed in its course towards realism:

“…writers have represented what seemed to them real, but…in American literature, the Puritans were overwhelmed with a supernatural reality, a personal God and Satan, a human soul…(from which men turned away) in the neo-classical period …to a faith in the high reality of a dependable human reason matching the order of nature; and (then)…the romantics, disparaging reason, sought an ideal reality through feeling, imagination, symbolism. Now so-called realists in turn rejected the romantic vision of life as unreal, and proposed instead their conception of reality, the world of actual experience which modern science was so patiently and fruitfully exploring (105).” Foerster displays the contrast between realism and romanticism: there is “a scientific outlook upon life, sociological and psychological, instead of the artistic and poetic.” He continues to deliver a series of contrasts: “it implies…self effacement instead of warm, personal feelings… patient observation instead of flashes of intuition and insight; facts …instead of guesses, dreams, visions…the local and familiar instead of the remote and strange…everyday living, however humdrum or sordid –instead of the rich traditions and legends of the past…so far reaching was this change that little was retained from the romantic regime…except keen senses, the concrete and specific, and the life of the humble (106).” Using the apparent machinery of realism, Bierce most often produced short stories in a style that seems to be oriented, at the beginning, only by the usual introductory remarks found in either realism or romanticism. Realism, in particular, often seems to reign in his introductions. And what appears at first to be a normal sequence of events, involving, of course, foremost people, then involves their houses; these houses are most frequently presented in the light of realism, reason and logic. Just as did Poe, Bierce places before the reader narratives and stories apparently fully seated in the arms of realism, if sometimes embellished with what appears to be a bit of the romantic. But these houses are not long kept in the light of reality. The excesses will be used to hamstring realism in Bierce’s stories, as will his use of opposing, even polarizing, elements of romanticism. Indeed, wherever Bierce does not immediately introduce the reader to an outrageous idea or image, he tends to stress the ordinary and real, lulling the reader into a sense of false security, from which he will be sure to soon arouse with a shrill alarum. Bierce seems to use realism not to present actual reality, but to unmask realism’s limitations in dealing with the unknown, the bizarre, the macabre and all else beyond the pale of reason, which unaccountably keeps rearing its ugly head even in the midst of Gilded Age dreamers and doers. And he uses houses (often masquerading as homes) to invite these readers – and us -- into a stereotypical kind of comfort zone, a familiar environment, where we are certain to suddenly be accosted with an excess – or a romantic opposite – quite foreign to realism. It’s a trap Bierce seems to enjoy creating. I came upon my first clue to Bierce’s approach when I read Vincent Starrett’s slim biography – a little treasure trove because it was written soon after Bierce’s disappearance -and it was written by a friend. Starrett correctly describes the force of Bierce’s power-bypen when he writes:

“It is no exaggeration to say that corrupt politicians, hypocritical philanthropists and clergymen, self-worshipers, notoriety seekers, and pretenders of every description trembled at his name (17).” Starrett recognizes Bierce’s antagonism to realism, offering Bierce’s formulas for good writing as the reason for his tersely written and often truncated stories, but he does not really notice how Bierce seems to commingle romanticism and realism to produce (in my opinion) a hybrid different from both. He decides that “the miracle of Bierce’s fascination is as much of what I call a lack of style as anything else…(33).” Davidson’s Forward in Hopkins’ collection of Bierce’s works includes (having had the verdict of time to aid her in her assessment) this paean: “(His) stories represent an almost unprecedented accomplishment in American literary history. They differ markedly from the realistic or naturalistic fiction admired in Bierce’s time and from the tales of western regionalism made popular by Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller. Given the tastes of his contemporaries and the dramatic difference between his own work and anything else published in America in the 2880’s and 1890’s, it is surprising that Bierce was published in the first place (1).” “Bierce derided the novel of his time,” Davidson also notes, which gave me another clue. He mocked Henry James’ work as “ponderous” – and other writers of realism fared no better. Davidson offers an example of Bierce’s satirical use of realism (though she does not label it as such) which illustrates what Bierce decided to do with it: he took realism prisoner and exploited it in the most biting way: “Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father -- an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.” (Opening sentence from “An Imperfect Conflagration”) It is a classic Bierce opening: realism drawn to excess. And it is only the opening sentence. The remarkable quality of Bierce’s works, when investigated closely, is that realism is used, as is the romantic, to focus on a realm of excess and the fantastic in a concave prism where the two kinds of literary styles might be said to meet and create fire. The result is Bierce’s own style, now recognized by many, says Davidson, as “ahead of its time.” “Bierce is “Kafkaesque,” Davidson concludes (3). In conclusion, by examining the Biercean house – which ever masquerades as haven, home, or hotel—hiding the unknowns and excesses in apparent innocence-- the reader can better comprehend Bierce’s approach in all his short stories. In realism, the house stands as a mere edifice, subject to the whims of humankind and the wanton acts of nature, while romanticism adds elements of humanity, such as joy, goodness and peace. But the house, for Bierce, has a character specifically its own, which may or may not conform to reality or to romantic notions. The world we enter, when we enter a Biercean house, is that juxtaposition between realism and romanticism in an otherworld which has only casual connections to reality in the normal or conventional sense. It its excess, and oppositions, and concurrent horror, the corridors of a Biercean house lead, truly, where no man has gone before.

Works Cited, With Notes

Bierce, Ambrose. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. Commentary by E. J. Hopkins; Forward by Cathy Davidson. London: U Nebraska Press, 1984. _______, Can Such Things Be. New York: Cape and Smith, 1909 (used to contrast texts with the 1984 imprint, above, for accuracy.). Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland. Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1962. Fatout, Paul. Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills. Norman: U of Oklahoma Press, 1951. Foerster, Norman. Image of America: Our Literature from Puritanism to the Space Age. Notre Dame and London: U Notre Dame P, 1970. Harwell, Floyd. “Toward a Gothic Metaphysic: Gothic Parts.” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association, Vol. 12, Number 2, Fall, 1986. (33-40). Lee, Brian. American Fiction 1865-1940. London and New York: Longman, 1987. Nettles, Elsa. Language, Race, and Social Class in Howell’s America. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1988. Starrett, Vincent. Ambrose Bierce. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1920.