Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” first published in Tales From New York Town Topics in December 1893. Spoilers ahead.
In a cabin in an unnamed American wilderness, nine men have gathered. Seven, farmers and woodsmen, sit against the wall. One reads a worn account book, squinting in the light of a single candle. The ninth lies on a table within the reach of their arms, should any of them wish to touch a dead man. No one speaks, but from outside comes the chorus of the nighttime wilderness, coyotes and birds and insects.
A tenth man, William Harker, arrives. His clothing, though dusty from travel, sets him apart as a city dweller. The coroner (who has pocketed the account book) informs the newcomer that their business must be completed that night. He questions Harker closely about Hugh Morgan, whose corpse lies before them. Harker answers that he came to hunt and fish with his friend — also to study Morgan’s character, for Harker is a journalist and a writer of stories. He’s written one about Morgan’s death, which he witnessed—but he must publish it as fiction, not news, for it is incredible.
After the coroner swears him in, Harker reads the story aloud. He and Morgan are quail-hunting at sunrise. They come to a field of wild oats. At a little distance some animal thrashes in the brush. A deer? Too bad they haven’t brought rifles, only shotguns loaded for quail. Even so, the clearly agitated Morgan raises his weapon. Could it be real trouble, a bear? But Morgan, trembling, declares it’s “that Damned Thing.”
As revealed by the movement of the brush, the still-unseen beast is moving straight toward them. Morgan fires both barrels. The beast screams. Morgan drops his gun and flees. The same instant Harker’s knocked to the ground by something soft and heavy — and still unseen. He hears Morgan cry out in agony; mingling with his voice are “hoarse savage sounds as one hears from fighting dogs. Harker gets to his feet and watches his friend struggle with — nothing. And yet pieces of Morgan’s body keep disappearing, as if blotted out by the body of his antagonist.
Before Harker can reach him, Morgan’s dead, and the brush is again in motion, in a beeline for neighboring woods.
The coroner rises and pulls a sheet back from the naked corpse, revealing a body bruised and shredded, throat torn out. He then displays Morgan’s tattered and blood-stiffened clothing. There is no more evidence — what say the jurors? The foreman wants first to inquire what asylum Mr. Harker escaped from. Harker flushes, but stays long enough to ask the coroner for the account book, Morgan’s diary. The coroner says it’s not pertinent, and retains it. The jury deliberates briefly, then delivers their verdict: the “remains come to their death at the hands of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits.”
Though never put in evidence, Morgan’s diary may cast light on his death, if only through the fourth wall. Morgan writes about the strange behavior of his dog, who seems to sniff out something unseen and then runs off at top speed. One night he watches stars above a ridge disappear a few at a time, as if blotted out by something passing — another something he can’t see. He watches from cover all night, gun in hand, and still sees nothing; morning shows him fresh footprints. If his experiences are real, he’ll go mad; if they aren’t he’s mad already. The suspense is intolerable, but Morgan won’t be driven off his own land. Instead he’ll invite his level-headed friend Harker to visit.
A later entry outlines Morgan’s sudden epiphany that as there are sounds beyond the hearing of human ears, so there must be colors beyond the sight of human eyes, such as the “actinic” rays chemists have discovered at either end of the solar spectrum. So he’s not mad — there are simply colors he can’t see, and, God help him, the Damned Thing is of such a color!
What’s Cyclopean: Extravasated blood.
The Degenerate Dutch: Bierce makes much of the rural jurors’ semi-literacy.
Mythos Making: “Colors we cannot see.” Horrors invisible to the human eye are always predatory, of course. It seems like these abilities would be at least as adaptive for prey animals—why are there no invisible guinea pigs?
Libronomicon: Written documents include Morgan’s infodump diary, and Harker’s “fictional” article that needs to be dispatched to the newspaper on a really tight timeline.
Madness Takes Its Toll: One juror asks from what asylum Harker has escaped. The coroner dutifully passes on the question.
Snark is an all-too-rare quality in weird fiction. I suppose it interferes with the pure dark mood that horror writers strive to produce. Certainly this story produced fewer shivers than snickers. I’m okay with this. Though not so okay that I won’t snark a little in return.
“I sometimes write stories.” “I sometimes read them.” Clearly Bierce isn’t above the occasional authorial insert. Or above humor—at either his own or others’ expense. Every character in the story has their turn as the fool, with the possible exception of Morgan. Though taking your friend out to hunt snarks without explanation isn’t the brightest decision in the world, Bierce leaves the deceased as a source of pure infodump rather than an opportunity for mockery.
The influence on Lovecraft is clear, for the conclusion of “Damned Thing” is the premise for several of his stories: there are things beyond the bounds of human perception, and they are terrifying. The color out of space, the things from beyond, the unnamable monster invoked by Randolph Carter, the hound (as well as Frank Belknap Long’s Hounds)—all have ancestry in Bierce’s Thing. Lovecraft, though, takes this idea far beyond Bierce. For Bierce, the mere fact of things beyond human perception is sufficient revelation.
Morgan’s explanations refer directly to those parts of the electromagnetic spectrum insensible to human vision. They are, in fact, the dramatic reveal at the very end. I thought that perhaps the story was inspired by recent discoveries. It’s 1893; do you know where your wavelengths are? But no, infrared and ultraviolet were discovered in 1800 and 1801, respectively; Bierce just drew on them to pull a scientific veneer over an invisible monster. By this point researchers were presumably aware that such things are visible, just inadequately perceived. This makes the punchline less than impressive to the modern reader. “OMG, the monster is ultraviolet-colored.” Yes, and so are any number of birds and butterflies, but you can still see them. The described effect—something occludes the objects behind it, but you still can’t see the occlusion—is creepily paradoxical. The explanation helps no things.
I wonder how much of this story’s effect was insufficient at the time, and how much is simply lost to a modern reader who can buy an ultraviolet light at the pet store and cheap infrared glasses at the toy shop. Our invisible world is accessible with only a little effort. Part of Lovecraft’s own genius was the ability to make horror more—rather than less—terrifying with comprehension.
The Color—the most fully developed of Lovecraft’s imperceptibles, suffers a little when Miskatonic’s instruments both pick up a signal and show it to be incomprehensibly inhuman. But the effects of that incomprehensibility, the ways they insinuate themselves into plants and minds, overcome that barrier. Those effects, and not the pseudo-scientific explanation, carry the story’s weight.
One commonality between “Damned Thing” and Lovecraft is the way the story’s told. Although we don’t have one of Howard’s overarching first-person-nameless narrators, we do have the story witnessed at second- and third-hand: Morgan’s diary, Harker’s testimony, all found texts and official statements. And then the coroner, a weird fiction type even if we never get his direct perspective. He’s the one who withholds the diary, with its terrible ultraviolet revelation, from witnesses and judges alike. He knows, of course, that there are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know—or at least, Things Rural Jurors Were Not Meant to Know Lest They Make Me Late for Dinner.
We’re surrounded every second by invisible creatures, for the simple reason that they’re too small for us to see them with the proverbial naked eye (so, an eye with a microscope is well-dressed?) You know, everything from omnipresent bacteria and viruses to those dust mites that stalk the crumpled linen of our beds like Imperial Walkers. But are unseen-because-tiny things scary? I don’t think so, though their effects on us can be. You know again—allergies, disease, really ripe body odor.
Whole dimensions of life may swarm beyond the space we occupy, but as long as we avoid metaphysical drugs and magical eyeglasses and portal-skipping, their denizens should remain invisible to us and hence only intellectually scary. If that.
It’s the things we should be able to see, because they’re big enough and roaming our own plane of existence, that terrify us. Sure, humans can also hear and smell, taste and touch, but vision is our dominant sense, often our first line of defense. Invisible beings don’t play fair, because for us SEEING is believing. In this story, Morgan wonders if dogs can SEE with their noses — that is, whether their brains can translate smells into images. I wonder if a dog would even have to translate odor into picture to run scared, as smell is the dominant canine sense. To cheat a dog, wouldn’t a monster have to be scentless? Dog: So, I see something freaky, but without a signature odor, can it be REAL?
The Damned Thing’s real enough to put a shredded body on the table. It occupies space, blotting things out with its bulk, shifting vegetation, leaving tracks. So, in this limited sense, it’s visible. By implication, as it were. It smells, as Morgan’s dog can attest. It can be heard when it deigns to bellow. It can be felt, as Harker finds out when it bowls him over. I guess it would have a taste, were you foolish enough to take a bite out of it. Morgan tries to explain it via science, not superstition. Okay, chemists say there are colors beyond the range of unassisted human vision. Say the DT is a lovely shade of infrared or ultraviolet. That would mean it reflects wavelengths of light we can’t see. Hence invisible.
Or would it be? It can’t be reflecting the intermediate wavelengths of red and orange and yellow, green and blue and purple, in whatever combination, or we’d see it. If it’s reflecting only invisible colors and absorbing the visible rainbow, wouldn’t we see it as BLACK, a shadow-being?
There’s also refraction to factor in, as Wells attempts to do in The Invisible Man. But I’m not going there now, for fear the technical overload would worsen my pollen-headache.
Supernatural explanations, shrugging off physics as we know it, are easier. Bierce doesn’t go there. The Damned Thing could be a ghost. We all know ghosts are frequently the opposite of good children, to be heard but not seen. It could be a demon, endowed with magical powers. Getting toward Lovecraftian pseudoscience, it could be a THING from OUTSIDE, where the laws are different, like “Dunwich Horror’s” invisible Yog-Sothoth spawn or whatever spectral food processor pureed poor Abdul Alhazred before horrified spectators.
In the end, “The Damned Thing” strikes me as a bit of shivery fun, based on the notion that an earthly beast could be monochromatic (or multichromatic only in the humanly-invisible spectra) and so remain unseen. The atmosphere is nice, with the unseen (!) but noisy soundtrack of night creatures. The coroner has a couple of high snark moments, perfectly timed, with which he deflates that city-slick journalist Harker. The coroner is cool. I wonder what he’ll do with Morgan’s diary, whether he may have a whole collection of artifacts from the victims of the Damned Thing. Whether the Damned Thing’s actually a locally tolerated or even favored beast, which coroner and jurors protect through feigned incredulity and some variation of that verdict of mountain lion and/or fits.
Hey, it just occurred to me. What about a little Invisible-Monsters-Lovecraft-Knew-And-Admired series? Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” and Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” come at once to mind as antecedents to the DT.
DT, heh. I’m surprised my friend the coroner didn’t make a little joke about Damned Things and delirium tremens sharing initials….
Next week, British adventurers meet the denizens of Y’ha-nthlei in Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish.” You can find it in the Cthulhu 2000 anthology or in Newman’s own The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.