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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 Mysterious Disappearances: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

Like his earlier short-story scrapbooks The Ways of Ghosts and Some Haunted Houses, the following anthology series is written in a particularly reporterly style which lends it to being taken as non-fiction. In fact, while the other two anthologies have only occasionally been mistaken as genuine reports on local supernatural accounts, Mysterious Disappearances has been so effective at creating the atmosphere of journalism that it has been extensively reprinted in many books on strange events and Fortean happenings. When first published as an article in the San Francisco Examiner, these stories appeared in the entertainment section of the paper – implying that they must be fictitious – and scholars have proven that none of the characters ever existed. This hasn’t stopped readers and supernatural buffs from trying to find truth in them.

While merely ironic, it is almost customary – a matter of literary tradition – to introduce these tales by pointing out that Bierce’s own life was dissolved in an unaccountable disappearance. In fact, if you Google “Ambrose Bierce” and “Mysterious Disappearances,” more will come up on Bierce’s unknown demise than on this set of stories. Bierce’s vanishing into the Mexican warzone in December of 1913 certainly resembles the various vaporizations of these three tales, and while we have no reason to suspect anything more ordinary than his death by murder, suicide, execution, or exhaustion, it doesn’t prevent the following reading from tingling the spine with the awareness of its author’s own mysterious disappearance...


The Difficulty of Crossing a Field

The first episode begins on a July evening in 1854 near Selma, Alabama. A planter named Williamson was sitting on his porch with his family, looking out over a flat pasture that was completely free of trees, rocks, people, or even animals at the time. Farther beyond, a group of his enslaved workers were being driven by his overseer, Andrew. Suddenly, he stood up and mentioned that he needed to speak to Andrew about some horses that he'd recently purchased.

He tossed his spent cigar, walked down a gravel path, picked a flower, and waved at his neighbor, Mr. Wren, who had just sold him the said horses, and was driving by with his son. As Williamson began to cross the pasture, Wren’s son called out in disbelief when he noticed that Williamson had vanished entirely.

At a deposition, Wren would later recall that he looked up and saw that Williamson had indeed disappeared in the middle of the plain, featureless meadow. His son grew hysterical, demanding an explanation for the disappearance. At this point, his wife and child rush from the porch with a group of enslaved domestics, all stunned and horrified.

The only real witness of the vanishing was Wren’s son, who never seems to have been deposed. Mrs. Williamson lost her mind, and her husband – who was never seen again – was declared dead after an exhaustive search of the plantation and county. The only ones to try to explain the event were Williamson’s enslaved workers, who spread “monstrous and grotesque” rumors about the nature of his disappearance, much to the discomfort of the local whites.

An Unfinished Race

The second relation comes from Leamington in Warwickshire, on 3 September 1873. It tells of James Burne Worson, a shoemaker known for his habit of bragging while drunk – boasts which often resulted in elaborate public wagers. On this instance, he had vouched for his prowess as a sprinter, and bet an unnamed patron a sovereign that he could run to and from Coventry (a round trip of forty miles).

They left the pub accompanied by two men who planned to follow him in a wagon. Worson had been running – at a good pace – for several miles, when – without cause or notice – he stumbled, screamed “a terrible cry,” and vanished before he hit the ground.

The three men were just a dozen yards behind him, and were looking directly at him when the incident occurred. They waited in the middle of the road until it became apparent that he would not be returning, and upon arriving back in Leamington and sharing their tale, they were arrested under suspicion of foul play. However, all three were sober at the time, men of good repute, and cleared of suspicion after an investigation provided no evidence of a crime.

Charles Ashmore’s Trail

The final tale takes place in Quincy, Illinois, on 9 November 1878. It was here that Christian Ashmore lived with his wife, two daughters, and sixteen year old son, Charles. On this evening, at 9pm, Charles was dispatched with a tin pail to a nearby wellspring to bring back some water. When he failed to return, Christian took a lantern and – accompanied by his grown daughter – went searching for his son. The ground was covered in snow, and Charles’ prints were clear to see, so the two tracked them on their way towards the well.

Suddenly, however, Christian stopped and held the lantern aloft in a stupor: the tracks stopped suddenly without any apparent hesitation or diversion, as if he simply and casually stepped up into space. Christian looked up into the heavens but saw nothing other than the stars. He then walked around the trail in a circle (so as not to contaminate the evidence) and went to the wellspring with his terrified daughter struggling to keep up with him. They found the water frozen over, with no further traces of Charles. Haplessly, they returned home, after confirming that no tracks led away from the trail in any direction.

Four days later, heartbroken Mrs. Ashmore visited the spring to collect a bucket of water when she was dismayed to hear her son’s voice calling as she passed the spot of his disappearance. While she continued to hear it, it seemed to effortlessly shift places, as if it was moving all around her. When she reported this, she was unable to deliver any message: the words were unclear, though delivered in the cadence and tone of her son’s speaking voice.

At first her report is regarded as a hysterical hallucination, but throughout the following months – at random intervals – his family members each detect his voice, seeming “to come from a great distance,” but none were able to pick out his words or even identify the direction from which they came. The sound fades over the ensuing months, disappearing forever by July. Bierce concludes that “if anybody knows the fate of Charles Ashmore it is probably his mother. She is dead.”

Science to the Front

In an epilogue, Bierce calls upon science to help explain what otherwise appear to be supernatural freaks. He refers the reader to Dr. Hern, a German philosopher and physicist who has made a special study of spontaneous disappearances, which he explores in his book Disappearances and Its Theory. Hern believes in non-Euclidean dimensions beyond, parallel to, and enmeshed within our own.

He points to his belief that “in the visible world there are void places – [vacuums], and something more [italics mine] – holes, as it were, through which animate and inanimate objects may fall into the invisible world and be seen and heard no more.” He compares these interdimensional “cavities” to caverns in the earth or holes made by bacteria in Swiss cheese, claiming that not even sound or light would not be capable of escaping them, going on to describe something which will likely remind modern readers of some combination of black holes and wormholes.

Ultimately, he warns that victims of such liminal spaces are likely doomed to be encrypted in a zone where they can “neither see or be seen… hear nor be heard… feel nor be felt… live nor die…” He derives this final, particularly disturbing hypothesis from a belief that life would be suspended in time there, lacking the energy to either sustain or extinguish consciousness.

Bierce concludes his essay with the observation that Hern’s theories (which he accuses of being self-important and overly long) are not without their obvious weaknesses. The one which most seems to haunt him, and the one with which he closes the discourse, is the memory of Charles Ashmore’s voice – faintly calling out from the void…


By concluding with the false document from the fictitious Dr. Hern, Bierce catapults his story from supernatural to science fiction – and the DNA of many 20th century sci-fi writers (from Lovecraft to Clarke, from Asimov to Bradbury) can be easily recognized in this blood-chilling theory of non-Euclidean space. Lovecraft would most famously appropriate Bierce’s logic in “The Call of Cthulhu” where the submerged citadel of R’lyeh – an extraterrestrial city with mind-warping geometry – is uncovered, and one unlucky discoverer falls into a seemingly solid angle which causes him to disappear.

The ever-mystical Algernon Blackwood would also utilize this concept in “A Disappearance and Reappearance” wherein a young man unwittingly finds himself sucked into an alternate dimension where his cries can be heard by his horrified fiancée, but his form has completely disappeared.

Like “The Damned Thing,” which introduces the idea of extraterrestrial science and senses that exceed the detection of the human senses, Mysterious Disappearances is effective because it challenges modern science’s unflappable confidence. It posits – with disturbing sensibility – that even with all that we currently know and understand, that all of reality could be a house of cards that requires only one false step – one step in 1,000,000,000,000 – to lead us into a zone of complete chaos and disorder.

To quote the estimable Dr. Hern, once a human victim has fallen through one of these multi-dimensional trapdoors “A man inclosed in such a closet could neither see nor be seen; neither hear nor be heard; neither feel nor be felt; neither live nor die, for both life and death are processes which can take place only where there is force, and in empty space no force could exist.”

Such a state baffles the mind and defies comprehension just as “Hern’s” examples of tying a knot in an infinite rope or turning a rubber ball inside out without rupturing it challenge our sense of terrestrial physics. This is precisely Bierce’s aim: as in his earlier, equally unsettling story, “The Spook House,” he hopes to challenge our smugness, defy our confidence, and upend our intellectual security. And he does not do so with wildly ludicrous threats, but with accounts told in the sort of journalistic vigor that inspires a dreadful trust.

This is the reason that these stories continue to be printed in books as factual: they seem factual. We might be open – with the right scientific authority – to the idea of physical reality being as volatile as Hern describes, and while the most intellectually secure among us might balk at the very suggestion, if Bierce’s authoritative prose doesn’t strike our imaginations with its artful credibility, perhaps his own unaccountable vaporization might.


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