Ambrose Bierce's The Damned Thing: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis
Invisibility in literature is as old as history itself. Some the earliest references come from Greek and Roman mythology – such as the “Ring of Gynges” spoken of by Plato. In this revealing story, a shepherd discovers a ring of invisibility that he uses to seduce the Queen of Lydia and murder the king. It hints at both sides of the issue: the possibility (invisibility could raise a shepherd to a king) and the horror (even a king has no defense against an invisible man), and can be read as both a tale of fantasy and horror. In the early modern era, the idea of rings, caps, or cloaks of invisibility found their way into European fairy tales. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is a Grimm Fairy Tale relating how twelve princesses managed to sneak out of their castle every night to dance the night away. Disturbed by the cost of buying them new shoes, their father promises to reward any man who can discover their secret: the first to succeed will have his pick of the daughters as a wife, but any who fail will be executed. The mystery is solved by a shabby veteran who is given a magic cloak by an disguised enchantress; using this, he spies on the princesses while invisible, and uncovers their secrets to the delight of the king.
Less magical stories made their way into modern literature, usually with more of an aura of horror. Most famously, Fitz-James O’Brien wrote “What Was It? A Mystery” in which a man is falling to sleep on his bed when a creature lands on top of him. Wrestling in the darkness, he is quickly aided by friends who turn up the gas to reveal – nothing. Yet he has a hold on something, and his friends quickly verify this. Horrorstruck, they tie it to the bed and wait for it to surrender. The beast ultimately starves to death, and when a plaster cast is made of the corpse, an unearthly monster’s visage is revealed. Twenty years later, Guy de Maupassant wrote a similar story, “The Horla,” about an invisible alien entity which latches onto a hapless man, leeching his strength with its vampiric power without ever being seen. Chillingly, the creature only makes its appearance known by drinking standing water, and by kneeling on its victim’s chest during his sleep. The man is driven to the brink of madness, and commits arson in a desperate bid to free himself from an enemy that he cannot see.
In “The Damned Thing,” Bierce takes this awe of the invisible and visits it upon something completely unknown and alien. Like O’Brien and de Maupassant, his specter is an otherworldly predator who invades the physical world without a single word of explanation. All three stories succeed because they demonstrate the rare discipline to expose the world to what H. G. Wells (whose “The Invisible Man” is the most famous contribution to all of invisibility literature) called a “marvel” without needing to supply an elaborate backstory. All three invisible monsters arrive and disappear without any word of their sources, motives, natures, or fates. What makes Bierce’s monster unique from the other two is a further level of literary discipline: we never even encounter the beast as readers – we only encounter the mangled leftovers of what it has eaten…
A postmortem inquest is taking place in the interior of a cabin deep in the woods , with eight men in attendence: the coroner (who is quietly reading a journal), a sworn-in witness, and a small jury of local woodsmen, while the ocabin's owner -- the late Hugh Morgan -- lies dead and shrouded on a table nearby. The witness, a reporter named William Harker, claims to have been with Morgan in his last moments and to have witnessed his bizarre death. He produces an account of the men's recent experiences in the woods together.
They had been hunting quail in the brush when they heard the sounds of a great animal thrashing violently in a field of dense oats. Morgan becomes alarmed and levels his gun at the sound, which causes Harker to guess that he thinks it is a bear, but Morgan dismisses this by saying that it is "that damned thing!" Harker looks in the direction of his gun barrels and observes the oats being bent and pressed down by some invisible force -- moving in their direction without any clear cause.
Terrified, Morgan fires, then turns to run away. Harker is shoved to the ground by something large but unseen, and hears a savage roar, as of wild dogs tearing an animal to pieces. He stands up and watches in horror as Morgan wrestles on the ground with something that seems to be pinning him down and ripping him apart:
"At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand—at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible. At times, as my memory now reports this extraordinary scene, I could discern but a part of his body; it was as if he had been partly blotted out—I can not otherwise express it—then a shifting of his position would bring it all into view again..."
Everything goes still for a moment, and then the oats part and bend as the Damned Thing makes its way slowly through them and disappears into the dark woods just beyond. When Harker reaches Morgan, he is dead.
Harker steps aside for the coroner, who pulls the sheet back on Morgan's corpse:
"The coroner moved round to the end of the table and undid a silk handkerchief, which had been passed under the chin and knotted on the top of the head. When the handkerchief was drawn away it exposed what had been the throat. Some of the jurors who had risen to get a better view repented their curiosity, and turned away their faces..."
The jury are then dismissed to arrive at a verdict. As they do, the foreman wonders which asylum Morgan has escaped from. Meanwhile, Harker recognizes the journal which the coroner has been reading as belonging to Morgan. He asks to see it, but the coroner denies his request since the journal is, he says, immaterial. The jury returns with a verdict: death by mountain lion.
Bierce then allows us to peek into Morgan's journal to round out the story with his own strange experiences. This begins with Morgan's hunting dog sniffing out the Damned Thing in the woods, which draws his attention to it for the first time. Shortly after he observes stars being blotted out one night as if something is walking between him and the sky, but while the Thing appears to be solid, and having a defined form, it is colorless. The following morning he finds the footprints of a massive animal.
After tracking the Damned Thing for a month, Morgan begins to lose his grip on reality and finds himself wrestling with insanity, worsened by sleep deprivation. Desperate to regain his confidence in his senses, he invites Harker -- whom he considers level-headed and rational -- to spend a stint with him at his cabin. As he waits for Harker to arrive, he spends his last days pondering the mysteries of the universe: the wide range of sights and sounds which are beyond the detection of the human senses, and he develops a thesis:
"'As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as 'actinic' rays. They represent colors—integral colors in the composition of light—which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real 'chromatic scale' I am not mad; there are colors that we can not see. And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!'"
AS with so many of his stories, Bierce uses the hubris of human intellect to cause the horror in “The Damned Thing.” The jurors find the suggestion of an invisible animal ludicrous, but the coroner seems to be so disturbed by the suggestion, that he censors Morgan’s journal in what appears to be a Roswell-esque attempt to quell panic among the masses. Bierce was fascinated by the idea that human beings are blind to the realities of science: that our “imperfect instruments” are incapable of telling us the whole story of the universe, as surely as a worm is unaware of sight, and that the sureness which modern science has provided humanity would wash away in a flood of terror if we were ever introduced to something with naturally defied what we consider natural laws. The only people who take Morgan’s strange death seriously are Harker, who considers it with youthful awe, and the coroner, who surpresses it with prudent fear. The masses of men – whom Bierce lampoons with Twain-esque mockery as simple, smallminded, and vulgar – are unimpressed by what they consider a fairy tale.
While hardly the first such story, together with O’Brien and de Maupassant, Bierce would have a substantial influence on the genre of invisible horror, leaving their impressions on H. G. Wells’ “Invisible Man,” as well as John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and the “Predator” series (which were both largely an adaptation of “The Damned Thing” and its non-Euclidean science). Like O’Brien and de Maupassant, Bierce’s creature is vaguely theorized upon, but never explained – a feature of many of his horror stories. It was not written – like so much science fiction – with an aim to postulate about scientific possibilities, requiring the description of undiscovered planets, universes, and technologies. Rather, its aim is to disturb us with what we don’t know, will never know, and can’t know, leaving us – like the concerned coroner – dazed by our own stupidity and ignorance, and horrified by our puny insignificance in a universe haunted by terrifying marvels.
You can read the original story HERE!
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Bierce's best horror and weird fiction HERE!