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Illuminating Supernatural Fiction, Horror, and the Gothic

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Ambrose Bierce's Haunted Houses -The Spook House and Others: A Summary and Literary Analysis

“Some Haunted Houses” is easily one of Bierce’s most entertaining series of tales. I recommend it as the ideal Hallowe’en reading choice – a collection of pithy short stories that exude the gloomy atmosphere and chilling mood that make stories like Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” or Poe’s “House of Usher” horror classics. Reading one after another, a strange feeling of uneasiness creeps into your imagination as Bierce’s reporterly prose calmly details what sound like the verifiable details of veridical hauntings. What follows are a series of Gothic delights: pirate ghosts, rolling heads, hidden rooms, bolts of cleansing lightning, haunted treasure, gruesome graves, and horrifying time slips. The stories form the bridge between the Gothicisms of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft – courtly, elegant, and yet ghastly. Although this anthology – like “Mysterious Disappearances” and “Soldier-Folk” – doesn’t rank first in literary value among Bierce’s corpus, it does have a unifying thesis: the power of personality and the spiritual energy of human emotion.

Bierce is not trying to get you to believe in ghosts, but he is trying to get you to believe in hauntings – the brutal power of rage, greed, fear, resentment, madness, regret, and despair to vicariously influence innocent bystanders. In each of these stories, outsiders find their lives being rocked by the vestigial emotions of dead persons which have infected the physical foundations of a house. H. R. Wakefield once wrote: “I always know the mood or character of a house. One welcomes you with the tail-writhing enthusiasm of a really nice dog, makes you at home, and at your ease at once. Others are sullen, watchful, hostile, with things to hide. They make you feel that you have obtruded yourself into some curious affairs which are none of your business.” The houses in Bierce’s stories do not wag their tails; they set their teeth and bite.

II.

THE ISLE OF PINES:

A hermit and miser named Herman Deluse lives in rural Ohio in an isolated house called the Isle of Pines. In spite of his shabby surroundings, the locals suspect him of having been a notorious pirate who sits on a hoard of treasure: not only does he have a sinister collection of seafaring weapons, but he always has plenty of cash on hand despite having no known source of income. After he is discovered dead at home (due to “visitation of God”), Reverend Galbraith – who had been out of town when the discovery was made – reports having sheltered at the Isle of Pines during a storm, and having been hosted by a strangely quiet Deluse. The ghostly figure seemed to have been nervous about something, as if he was desperately searching for a lost treasure, and with the knowledge that Deluse is dead and his goods are fair game, the Reverend, his son, and a lawyer friend of his break into the house at night. They begin to search the house, but a strange draught blows their candle out, and a heavy thud is heard. When the candle is finally relit, the Reverend’s son is found dead on the floor – clutching a bag of old Spanish coins…

A FRUITLESS ASSIGNMENT:

Henry Saylor is a hard living, rough and tumble reporter who lives in Cincinnati at the time that mysterious rumors were spreading about supernatural activity in a vacant house on Vine Street. Figures seemed to always be coming and going from it without any sign of where they came from or went. The house had been owned by the Roscoe family – all of whom had disappeared, one by one, until only an old woman remained, and then she disappeared, too. Rumors of murder were attached to the disappearances, but no one had any clues. Saylor is given the unique assignment of breaking into the home and spending the night there, and takes it on with sangfroid. He sneaks inside and watches from the window as dusk falls and a small crowd gathers outside, hoping to see a ghost. Suddenly, Saylor is shaken by the sound of footsteps in the upper storey. Drawing a revolver, he sneaks into the next room and bumps his foot against something. Stooping with a match, he discovers it to be a severed woman’s head. Picking it up he realizes that he is surrounded by a group of men and women. Thinking that the crowd from the street had caught him in a compromising situation, he starts to explain himself, but is interrupted by ghoulish, insane laughter. He drops the head, and the group suddenly rush around the room, kicking it like a soccer ball, and then a door slams and the phantoms are all gone. Saylor fled the house as fast as possible (the street was also empty, now), and went straight to his editor. The other man doesn’t recognize him (presumably he has aged), and is horrified, but when he asks Saylor what he observed, the report glibly replies, “nothing whatever.”

A VINE ON A HOUSE:

An old house, abandoned since 1886, sits outside of Norton, Missouri. It was considered a “picturesque ruin” made impressive by its busted windows and splitting siding, all covered by a massive vine. It once belonged to the Hardings – Robert, Matilda, their two children, and Matilda’s sister, Julia. Robert and his sister-in-law were thought to be awkwardly chummy with each other, and their relationship was the source of no little scandal. Matilda, on the other hand – who was missing her left foot – stayed home, sad and alone, while her husband and sister laughed and flirted. One day, however, Robert loudly announced to his neighbors that Matilda had left to visit her mother in Iowa, and was not expected to return. She never did, and two years later, Robert and Matilda abandoned the house without a word, fleeing the country. One night, years later, two local men encountered each other in front of the house and struck up a conversation. They noted how eerie the setting was, and as they were talking the long vine that cloaked over half of the house suddenly started shaking violently even though there was no wind. The two men dismounted from their horses and crept forward to explore the vine, but no source of the shaking could be found. Soon after, the entire neighborhood is altered to the strange phenomenon, and a crowd gathers to explore its base. The trembling vine continued to shudder on the siding, and the horrified villagers determined to dig it up. They quickly discover that the roots seem to cluster in a strange but recognizable shape: a human face. And when excavated, the face made from roots attaches to a head made from roots, and to a body, and to arms and legs. But only one of the legs has a foot. Although no actual body was found, a quick inquiry was made of Matilda’s Iowa family, and they reported that they had not heard from her in years. Robert and Julia were never heard from again, and the vine grew more and more, engulfing the Harding house.

AT OLD MAN ECKERT’S:

Like Herman Deluse, Old Man Eckert was another miserly hermit suspected of being a retired pirate and living in a dilapidated old house in the woods (this time in the Vermont mountains). Unlike, Deluse, however, one day he simply disappeared without a trace, apparently while walking to get a pail of water. His house was abandoned and soon developed an evil reputation for sights and sounds that baffled explanation. A delegation of the town’s leading men decided to explore the house to see if they could uncover anything which might put Deluse to rest. They met at the house one night and all of them make the rendezvous except for Palmer, the local school teacher. The other men light a fire and start their vigil. Suddenly, after much waiting, the back door flies open and foots are heard rushing through the house. It’s Palmer, who appears before them pale and nervous, and without acknowledging them. Without a pause, he crosses the room, exits the front door, and is swallowed by darkness. Palmer was never heard from again. His footprints in the snow were traced back to his lodging, but none appeared on the other side of the house. It was as if Old Man Eckert himself had “reached out and pulled him in.” Where, no one could say.

THE SPOOK HOUSE:

A story surrounds the so-called “Spook House” near Manchester, Kentucky: of how the last owners – a family of seven – simply vanished one day, leaving behind their possessions, food, live-stock, and slaves one day in 1858. Since then, the abandoned plantation has been the source of many bizarre sights and uncomfortable experiences. One day, almost a year after the disappearance, two men were travelling from Kentucky when they were caught in a terrible thunderstorm near the Spook-House. They were a Colonel McArdle and a Judge Veigh, and both men were keen to get out of the rain and lightning, so they hitched their horses in the disused stable and entered the empty house. It was pitch black, and McArdle was at first afraid that he had lost his sight due to a lightning strike, so he grabbed the nearest door handle, hoping to step back outside to test his eyes. To his astonishment, he realized that he had opened another door to a hidden room. It was illuminated by a faint greenish light, and he found that it was inhabited by eight or ten human corpses in various stages of mummification: a man an adult woman, a young woman, a baby, and a handful of children. The corpses seemed to be glowing with putrefaction, and by this faint light, the Colonel observed that the door was made of iron and that it was equipped with a spring lock that would activate when the door closed. There was no knob on the inside of the door. As McArdle examined this, Veigh suddenly pushed him aside, despite the Colonel’s plea not to enter the room, and rushed to the side of one of the corpses, raising its “blackened and shriveled head in his hands.” Suddenly, McArdle is overwhelmed by the stench of decomposition and faints. His last memory is of the door swinging closed with a click. Six weeks later he awakens in a hospital where he had been treated for a raging brain fever after being found in the road several miles away. He is horrified to learn that Veigh is still missing (and now obviously dead), and leads an expedition to locate the hidden room. No such room can be found in the house, and years later it is all destroyed by a fire set by Union soldiers during the Civil War.

THE OTHER LODGERS:

An old soldier is talking to a friend about an upcoming trip to Atlanta. He sarcastically recommends that his friend stay at the Breathitt Hotel, and then clarifies that he had a strange experience there once. It was during the war, and the hotel was in abominable shape – virtually abandoned – but he was desperate for shelter. He checked in with the clerk, who silently led him to a musty room where he leaves him with a candle, and the soldier settles in to sleep. In the middle of the night he wakes up to find himself surrounded by corpses: rows of men laying on their backs with their feet to the wall and their faces covered by sheets. Horrified, he races out of the room and berates the clerk, who is sitting and staring blankly out of a colorless face. The clerk silently rises to take the soldier’s curses and bows apologetically before disappearing. Suddenly, the soldier feels a hand on his shoulder and finds himself facing a kind-faced watchman who is happy to answer his questions and lead him away from the hotel. It had not been a hotel for quite some time, he explains: it was a hospital most recently, and the room that the soldier was led to had been the morgue. The watchman also recognizes the description of the clerk. The man described was indeed the hotel clerk originally, and later booked the patients into the hotel, however, he died himself a few weeks prior. Trying to be helpful, the watchman pulls out the ledger and offers to “have a look [at booking you] that room,” to which the soldier shouts “I’ll see you at the devil first!” and runs out the door never to return.

THE THING AT NOLAN:

A house in Nolan, Missouri has been abandoned and fallen into disrepair, and has attached to it the dark story of Charles May and his son, John. John was a morose and angry young man who was known for lashing out when upset and having to apologize for his outbursts. One day the two got into a physical altercation in public and Charles struck John in the face. John bristled with anger at the slight and swore that his father would “die for that.” Two weeks after this, the father goes into the woods to dig up a spring and John keeps himself busy most of the day, but disappears for a short time, and returns later with his clothes wet and disheveled and his mood very dark. Charles never returned from the woods. Two days later, however, he appeared to a group of men at a general store some miles away: he entered the store from the front and walked out the back, and his forehead was deeply gashed by a wound which covered his face and shirt with thick blood. They were too stunned to address him, but this report that Charles had been seen walking through the store was enough to absolve John of suspicion, and the son promptly fled the country. Not long after, however, a group of boys discovered the body of Charles May wounded in the forehead and buried with a bloody shovel. This ventured the question: if May was dead, after all, then what was the Thing seen at Nolan?

III.

Throughout “Some Haunted Houses” we are introduced to places in space which have been indelibly electrified by powerful human emotions and tainted by secret sins. Each episode follows a building which has been stained either by past crimes, past miseries, or past tragedies, and the hauntings serve to illustrate these events – perpetuating the lessons of human folly. “The Isle of Pines” takes its cue from Washington Irving’s “Golden Dreams” (about a treasure hunter who unadvisedly trails a retired pirate and runs into ghosts, murderers, and intrigues) and would later greatly influence H. P. Lovecraft’s very similar “The Terrible Old Man.” Its story of Deluse’s ghost pining over his buried hoard and of his revenge on the treasure hunters is a comment on the fatal infectiousness of greed and its power to overwhelm the personality: when he is supposed to be peacefully dead, Deluse is stuck in his ratty shack, and when young Galbraith dies from horror, it is because the psychic reverberations of Deluse’s crime-ridden life echo beyond his physical existence. Indeed, the episode teaches us that obsessions overtake the soul and dominate our existence – potentially even extending beyond life into our long-deserved rest.

“A Fruitless Assignment” has always been one of my favorite Bierce stories: with its slow-burning build up and mind-twisting delivery of the rolling head and laughing ghosts, it poses far more questions that it offers answers. While we have no way of knowing the backstory of this ghostly party, what seems clear is that the deceased inhabitants of Vine Street repressed many outrageous secrets, and that after death they were bound to the house by the power of these atrocities. Critics have frequently noted the high rate of domestic violence that pervades his fiction. In particular, there is a great deal of parricide, but children, mothers, siblings, and cousins are also frequent victims of assaults from their kin. The house on Vine Street seems to have held just such a family – one infected with so much hate that at least one member was driven to viciously decapitate a female relative – and represents the lurking horrors that haunt many homes which can be found if one only dares to look long enough. This helps explain why Saylor refuses to report on his assignment: he is horrified by the revelation that this house (and, he likely deduces, many others) had hidden such a violent, insane history. Gary Hoppenstand writes that in stories like this and “The Spook House,” “Bierce used the ghost story simply as a device to challenge smug satisfaction with an empirical understanding of reality. Bierce tells his reader in these ghost stories that surface appearance is meaningless, that the world contains untold frightening mysteries, and that fate may be a capricious victimizer of the morally innocent as well as the guilty.”

This leads us, naturally into “The Spook House” – my favorite of Bierce’s haunted house stories. Shocking, frightening, and confusing, it seems to depict a family who were accidentally (or purposely) locked in a mechanical safe room (with clear tones of Edgar Allan Poe) where they starved to death. It doesn’t matter who locked them there, why they have a safe room to begin with, or what the circumstances were that led up to the tragedy. All that matters is what we see: the phosphorescent corpses of a father stupefied with horror, a mother helplessly cradling a skeletonized child, a young woman ravished by her own dismay, and a young boy collapsed in the lap of his father’s remains. It is a scene of mysterious agony, and while we cannot know its cause, its experience is plainly illustrated: unwarranted horror and hopelessness.

When Veigh is accidentally locked in the room (we assume that he has died weeks before McArdle revived from his coma), we can only imagine what his fate was – dying of thirst, madness, and hunger amidst the glowing corpses – just as we can only imagine what drove them there. The bolt of lightning which knocks McArdle out of his senses – a trope which Lovecraft would indulgently use in many of his stories, like “The Picture in the House” – it represents the shock of understanding which traumatizes him into a psychologically induced delirium. Knowing that the world is home to many such undiscovered corpse rooms (read: hidden, unrecognized human tragedies) is too much for his mind to digest.

“At Old Man Eckert’s” has a similar tale to tell: like “A Fruitless Assignment” it warns against intellectual arrogance, and like “The Spook House” and “Mysterious Disappearances” it involves the chilling disappearance of a harmless, upstanding citizen who has been sucked into a supernatural vortex. The implication is that whatever “got” Eckert “got” Palmer, and that we may want to be warry of being enlightened know-it-alls who feel confident of our understanding of the world – indeed there is still much to puzzle and terrify even in the Information Age. While “The Thing at Nolan” and “A Vine on a House” are classic “murder-will-out” ghost stories, and “The Other Lodgers” is a chilling rendition of the “psychic impression” type of tale (where a traumatic human event causes manifestations to replay those events on the loop of the collective unconscious) all three overstep the boundaries of childrens’-campfire-tale through Bierce’s mastery of atmosphere and visuals.

We are sucked into these stories of residual hauntings and lingering traumas through his ability to slowly entwine us in the plot – as thoroughly as Mrs. Harding’s corpse is encased in the roots of the vine. All three tales pound in the profound ability of human misery to bleed into the future: once an atrocity has been committed, or an agony experienced, it doesn’t cease with death; there are spiritual, social, and psychological ramifications for years, decades, and even generations, and we ignore or underestimate them at our own peril. And this is the thesis of the entire “Haunted Houses” anthology: trod carefully, take in history, be sensitive to the past, and conscientious of the present, and above all, be selective of which houses you chose to enter.