Ambrose Bierce's The Death of Halpin Frayser: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis
Unquestionably Bierce’s most popular and critically acclaimed ghost story, “The Death of Halpin Frayser” also brings with it a great deal of confusion and mystery. Several credible theories have been floated around as to the nature of its plot and the identities of its characters, but no one interpretation has been universally accepted. What is clear, however, is that Bierce’s favorite themes of familicide, loathsome family secrets, hidden identities, sexual depravity, and cosmic irony have found their ultimate expression in this story.
Like “The Moonlit Road” and “The Middle Toe on the Right Foot,” it involves the return of a murdered woman, a nonsequential plot which steadily unravels the background to the deed, a family torn apart by secrets, rage, and lust, and a telltale ending that attempts to expose the story’s rotten heart. Bierce hold back from peeling it all away, however, leaving this one of his most perplexing and mysterious tales. What it lacks in clarity it makes up in psychological power, unpacking such heavy ladden topics as incest, misplaced aggression, repression, denial, and existential terror.
The atmosphere of the story deftly illustrates how Bierce has come to be known as the bridge between Poe and Lovecraft. Like Poe it involves complex psychologies, an unwinding plot, heavy symbolism, and borrows imagery from stories and poems like “Ulalume,” “Silence,” “Berenice,” “The House of Usher,” and “Ligeia.” Like Lovecraft it involves brutal irony, cynical depravity, a shock ending, and prefigures stories like “The Tomb,” “The Hound,” “In the Vault,” “Charles Dexter Ward,” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” For all of Poe’s cynicism, he always favored aesthetics and the ideal, celebrating beauty and poetry while admitting their inability to soothe the pain of the human condition.
Lovecraft, on the other hand – more like Bierce – had a thoroughly pessimistic view of human aspirations, and instead of featuring mourning husbands and heartbroken lovers, was likely to write stories about living ghouls, depraved eccentrics, and misanthropic grave robbers. “The Death of Halpin Frayser” coolly unites the two impulses: the celebration of grief and the rejection of human pity. We identify with the confused, emotionally vulnerable Frayser, even as we are repelled by his bizarre attachment to his mother. In this relationship a third archetype rises from American literature, one with clear and powerful connections to this story, and one which we will discuss after it has been read: the detestable Norman Bates.
“One dark night in midsummer a man waking from a dreamless sleep in a forest lifted his head from the earth, and staring a few moments into the blackness, said: “Catherine Larue.” He said nothing more; no reason was known to him why he should have said so much.” This is how Bierce opens this story about the demise of its 32-year old protagonist, and aimless, amateur poet. This bizarre experience follows on the heels of another unsettling episode that took place earlier in the day as he was hunting doves in the wooded foothills of Napa Valley’s Mount Saint Helena.
It was late in the afternoon, and he had become lost and overwhelmed by the scorching Californian sun, and finally decided to lay down at the base of a tree, which soon led to his “dreamless sleep.” He awoke from this abruptly with a shiver, with the words “Catherine Larue” echoing in his mind, and although startled to find himself alone in the woods at night, he lays back down to resume his sleep – but it is no longer dreamless.
He finds himself lost in a dark, mythic forest, following a road that is white with moonlight. But as he proceedes down it, he comes to a fork, with one road appearing more travelled-on and the other having the look of neglect and abandonment (“abandoned, because, he thought, it led to something evil”). He decides that it is necessary for him to take the road less travelled by, and while he enjoys the sense of adventure, he also feels watched or followed by something unseen: strange voices hound him, speaking in unknown languages that he, nonetheless, seems to half-understand as “a monstrous conspiracy against his body and soul.”
Trudging onward in the weak moonlight, he notices an oddly-colored puddle in an old wagon rut, but is horrified – upon dipping his fingers into it – to find that it is stale blood: “Blood, he then observed, was about him everywhere. The weeds growing rankly by the roadside showed it in blots and splashes on their big, broad leaves. Patches of dry dust between the wheelways were pitted and spattered as with a red rain.
Defiling the trunks of the trees were broad maculations of crimson, and blood dripped like dew from their foliage.” He seems to connect it with some secret crime that he appears to know about, and he tries to shout its sinful details, but finds his voice is too weak.
Undeterred, he pulls a red, leather-bound notebook from his pocket, breaks off a twig, and – using the blood as ink – writes impulsively and furiously. But when is halfway through a particular sentence, he finds that he cannot force himself to finish it. At that moment, he looks up and is horrified by what he sees: “he found himself staring into the sharply drawn face and blank, dead eyes of his own mother, standing white and silent in the garments of the grave!”
* * *
Here the story goes back in time and gives us some of Frayser’s biography. He was raised in Nashville, Tennessee in a prosperous family of respected public figures, but found himself drawn to poetry instead of politics – a road which was also chosen by his great-grandfather, Myron Bayne, who was known for his sensational, gothic verses. As he grows up, he is increasingly close to his mother, Kate – who spoils him with attention and lavishes him with physical affection. His own father is so disgusted with their odious relationship (they are frequently mistaken for a couple) that he rejects them both.
As he enters manhood, Frayser asks his mother to let him depart for California to make his own way in the world. She answers by telling him of a dreams she had, where Myron Bayne stood beside his own portrait while pointing ominously at Halpin’s – showing her that Halpin’s image now had the bruises of strangulation on his throat.
Frayser ultimately gets her blessing, but is almost immediately kidnapped when he arrives in San Francisco, and is forced to work as a sailor, before being marooned on a South Pacific island for six years. After his return to California, he wires Tennessee with news of his return and waits to hear back.
* * *
Once again the narrative moves forward, back to Frayser’s encounter with his mother’s corpse: he is repulsed at the sight and turns to run, but is frozen in places. The dead-eyed woman springs upon him and begins choking the life out of him, and although he makes an attempt to save himself, he dreams that he dies in her clutches.
* * *
As the sun rises, we meet a sheriff named Holker and a detective named Jaralson. Holker is from Napa, but is joined by Jaralson, who hails from San Francisco: they are armed and on the trail of a murderer named Branscom who had been spotted near his wife’s grave at the White Church in the forests outside of St. Helena, California. Shouldering their rifles, they discuss the case. Branscom is wanted for the murder of a woman whose throat had been cut, and it is suspected that “Branscom” is an alias, although Jaralson can’t remember his true name, although he thinks it was "something like Pardee."
Entering the graveyard of the White Church, they immediately spot Halpin Frayser’s corpse under a bank of milky fog: he has been strangled to death; beside him is a red, leatherbound notebook with the name “Halpin Frayser” written in it. The last entry is a ghoulish poem (about being drawn into a haunted forest where the gloom is worsened by the voices of “conspiring spirits” whispering “the stilly secrets of the tomb” behind trees dripping with blood) written in red liquid, in a frantic hand. Jaralson – an amateur student of American poetry – declares that this must be a quotation from a unpublished poem by Myron Bayne (a poet whom he knows well and whom he calls a poet of “mighty dismal stuff”).
The body is badly beaten and the signs of a violent struggle are everywhere. Nearby they see the toppled headstone bearing the name “Catherine Larue.” Suddenly, Jaralson remembers that “Larue” was Branscom’s original last name, and reports that “Frayser” was the surname of the woman whose throat he is said to have cut.
Suddenly, as if responding to the revelation of a brilliant joke, a “low, deliberate, soulless laugh” thunders from the dense fogbank around them. It builds in intensity, but ultimately dies away “until its failing notes, joyless and mechanical to the last, sank to silence at a measureless remove…”
As mentioned in the opening notes, Halpin Frayser shares a great deal with another literary figure that would follow him by nearly seventy years: Robert Bloch’s Norman Bates. While Bates was famously inspired by the ghoulish Ed Gein, a historical serial killer from Wisconsin, there are obvious parallels between Bierce’s character and Bloch’s. Both suffer from an attachment to their mothers which are almost explicitly incestuous, both have gaps in their memories, are haunted by the memory of their mothers, and are incapable of healthily expressing their feelings. Bierce, who loved to write about sex and murder being kept within the family, had strong personally feelings about his own parents, and would later transfer much of his maternal antipathy onto his own wife, making this a deeply personal story.