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.
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.