The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce

There are eight men in a small log cabin in the American wilderness. One of them is dead. He is lying on a table in the centre of the room. Another is reading by the light of a candle. Outside there are the sounds of wild animals like coyotes and “night birds, so different from those of the birds of day.” The book belongs to the dead man. The man reading it is a coroner. That’s why he’s reading it: he has access to the deceased’s possessions.

A ninth man comes in through the door. Only the coroner greets him. The new man is a newspaper reporter. He’s late because he was sending a report about the death to his editor. His role at the inquest is to relate the circumstances surrounding the man’s death which are, it seems, controversial. There are versions of events. The coroner must have heard at least one version, a version he doesn’t imagine will be recounted in the inquest. We wonder about it.

The inquest, which is the purpose of the gathering, begins now and the coroner interrogates the witness, William Harker. Harker knew the dead man, Hugh Morgan. He was at the cabin to go shooting and fishing with Morgan and to maybe write a short story inspired by him. His account of Morgan’s death is written down and Harker reads it aloud.

At first it all seems plausible. The two men go out hunting for quail. But then an event occurs that serves as the pivot on which the whole story turns. What happened to Hugh Morgan? Harker’s account is strange, even unbelievable, certainly not the kind of story that would fall easily on ears of an inquest and one which prompts the foreman of the jury to ask, “What asylum did yer last witness escape from?”

The book in question is Morgan’s diary. Oddly, it is not entered into evidence in the inquest into his death. This is even more curious given its accounts of unique events and experiences that presage the one which eventually killed him: “If these amazing experiences are real I shall go mad; if they are fanciful I am mad already.”

When you read a short story ask yourself: “How would I retell this story?” You immediately have to decide which parts to include and which to leave out. This selection process will be different for everyone. I might well insist on telling an audience that none of the men in the cabin could hear (still less imagine) “the drone of great blundering beetles” outside because it struck such a chord with me.

A story is not all about the plot – which is pretty straight-forward here; it’s also about senses, character and meaning. We have higher senses that are often grouped together as “perception” and these are highly valued. We admit their worth by exalting language. A story should appeal to these higher senses so as we can better ensure we’ll engage with intelligence. In “The Damned Thing” Bierce captures phenomena we’ve all observed but would never have thought to express, in all likelihood. In describing the sounds outside the cabin he writes of “all that mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly ceased, as if conscious of an indiscretion.” This noun-phrase is the product of the author’s own experience of sound, an experience that we surely have shared but never formulated into words. And who amongst us hasn’t met people “not overmuch addicted to idle interest in matters of no practical importance”? This is character, how everyone is unique, even if similar in some ways to everyone else. The coroner says to Harker: “This account that you posted to your newspaper differs, probably, from that which you will give here under oath.” This sentence is all you need to attempt an understanding of him. Doesn’t it suggest an attitude to newspapers? Isn’t he jealous of his position as coroner?

We all of us are always looking for meaning, whether or not we want to admit it. “Meaning is more important than happiness,” is the only line I remember from a movie I saw recently. Anyone who has no interest in meaning at all is not sentient. We want there to be meaning to the things we do, to the things that happen to us. Reading short stories is no different. Why does the coroner dismiss Morgan’s diary when it clearly supports Harker’s account of events? Sometimes we let our imaginations down.

The coroner isn’t named; why are Harker and Morgan named? What makes them so special?

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