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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Ambrose Bierce's An Inhabitant of Carcosa: A Detailed Summary and Literary Analysis

Bierce would probably be shocked at the massive mileage that the following story has yielded for his legacy. When Robert W. Chambers incorporated many of its place names and fictional deities in his “King in Yellow” mythos (along with some from Bierce’s pastoral parable, “Haïta the Shepherd”), Hastur, Hali, and Carcosa would become infamous in the world of horror, finding additional notice in the works of H. P. Lovecraft (who refers to them in many stories, especially “The Whisperer in the Darkness”) and the TV series True Detective.


“An Inhabitant of Carcosa” was primarily inspired by the works of Poe, who often used fictitious places and names to create a sense of esoteric otherworldliness and antiquity. His poetic stories “Silence” and “Shadow,” and funereal poems like “Annabel Lee,” “Ulalume,” “Lenore,” and “The City in the Sea” share much with Bierce’s “Carcosa”: the prevalence of death, the use of heavy symbolism, and a journey through a dark landscape which ends in a horrifying revelation.




“For there be divers sorts of death—some wherein the body remaineth; and in some it vanisheth quite away with the spirit. This commonly occurreth only in solitude (such is God's will) and, none seeing the end, we say the man is lost, or gone on a long journey—which indeed he hath; but sometimes it hath happened in sight of many, as abundant testimony showeth. In one kind of death the spirit also dieth, and this it hath been known to do while yet the body was in vigor for many years. Sometimes, as is veritably attested, it dieth with the body, but after a season is raised up again in that place where the body did decay.” 

—  Hali


The narrator, a resident of the great metropolis of Carcosa, ponders the writings of the ancient philosopher Hali, which contemplate the mysteries of death (viz., the possible independence of the soul and body). He finds himself in a confused state – wandering in darkness – unsure of where he is or why he is there. His last memory is of languishing in bed from a bad fever, and his first instinct is that he may have left his home in a delirious state and become lost in the countryside: a “bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn wind with heaven knows what mysterious and disquieting suggestion,” populated only by “strangely shaped and somber-colored rocks” and “a few blasted trees” which gave the suggestion of “leaders in [a] malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation.”


Proceeding forward in the darkness – under a heavy ceiling of leaden clouds and buffeted by sharp winds – he finds himself standing in a wood which seems to be growing up around the ancient remains of a neglected burial ground “of a prehistoric race of men whose very name was long extinct.”

None of this is familiar, and he notes that although it must be terribly cold, he is not experiencing any coldness. Ranging further into the country, he encounters a dishevlled, primitive man dressed in animal skins and bearing a crude torch accompanied by a lynx and an owl, all of whom ignore him. He tries to greet the barbarian, but cannot get his attention.


Looking up through a rent in the clouds he recognizes the Hyades and Aldebaran constellations – the first thing he has been able to recognize, and the only suggestion that he is awake and experiencing reality – but they provide little comfort, and he decides to sit at the base of a massive tree while he ponders his next steps among the ruins of the ancient tombstones.


Sitting there, among the crumbling monuments, his eyes are drawn to one in particular which is wrapped up in the roots. Looking past its “greatly decomposed” state, he is horrified to recognize – in the almost entirely faded inscription – his own name, date of birth and a date of death. In the eastern sky the sun begins to rise, but casts no shadow from the narrator’s body, and, as wolves howl in the distance, it literally dawns on him: not only – he now realizes – is he dead, but the “ancient and famous city of Carcosa” has likewise been lost and forgotten by time:

“And then I knew that these were ruins of the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.” 


The story concludes with a footnote revealing that the proceeding narration was received and dictated by a psychic medium named Bayrolles from a spirit calling himself Hoseib Alar Robardin.  



The primary message that Bierce seems to be communicating is the mutability of all things. It shares its basic plot, imagery, and thesis with Percy B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which famously tells of the discovery of a buried monument vainly declaring a long-forgotten Middle Eastern prince to be “King of Kings.” Likewise, the spirit of Hoseib is shocked to discover the “famous city of Carcosa” – which might be compared to Babylon, Rome, London, or New York – a neglected ruin. We are almost entertained by how confidently he pronounces the name of the forgotten deity of Hali (whom he refers to with proto-Abrahamic reverence) and discusses Carcosa as if we have any idea what he is referring to.


Someday, Bierce implies, our spirits may also be wandering around the abandoned shells of Los Angeles, Beijing, or Tokyo, stunned to find our civilization extinguished and forgotten. The plot seems to echo an Ancient Greek belief that the world regularly developed up from rural simplicity to urban splendor, and was summarily destroyed at the apex of its evolution, only to begin the cycle again, eons later. Carcosa, it would seem, is a metropolis from one of these past cycles, and Hoseib may have died millions of years ago, along with his gods, culture, and civilization.


Chambers and Lovecraft chose to view Carcosa as an extraterrestrial or other-dimensional place haunted by the eldritch spirits of Hastur and Hali, turning them from long-forgotten gods into evil deities who consume and overshadow the Judeo-Christian worldview. While these extradimensional beings certainly are more frightening than Bierce’s rendering, their fate – the pathetic shadows which were once worshipped by millions – has a terror to it of an entirely different kind.




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