The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Damned Thing" (1893)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Damned Thing” was written by Ambrose Bierce and first appeared in Tales from New York Town Topics (Dec. 7, 1893). Bierce (1842-1924) was one of the best American short story writers, critics, and satirists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But he has always had an uncertain spot in the literary canon, something which speaks volumes about academia’s critical judgment.
Bierce was a wonderful writer. That he is not better known today is a shanda fur die mundanes. That he is so little read beyond his best-known stories is the literary equivalent of a crime. Many people can at least name-check The Devil’s Dictionary (1875-1906) and more than a few know the plot of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890), but most of those have never read it, and far more people are ignorant of Bierce’s other works, which are usually witty and sharp gems like “The Damned Thing.”
Somewhere in the Western mountains of the United States a farmer, Hugh Morgan, is hunting and being hunted by something which he cannot see. He cannot see the thing not because it is invisible, but because the human eye physically can’t take it in:
It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between, will sometimes dive at the same instant - all gone out of sight in a moment. The signal has been sounded - too grave for the ear of the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck - who nevertheless feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred by the bass of the organ.
As with sounds, so with colours. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as ‘actinic’ rays. They represent colours - integral colours 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 colours that we cannot see.
And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a colour!1
When the Damned Thing attacks Morgan his friend William Harker is present and is unnerved by what he cannot see:
I remember - and tell it here because, singularly enough, I recollected it then - that once in looking carelessly out of an open window I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, as warning of unthinkable calamity. So now the apparent causeless movement of the herbage and the slow, undeviating approach of the line of disturbance were distinctly disquieting.2
Whatever it is, it attacks and kills Morgan and presumably wanders off into the wilderness. When Harker is called to an inquest into Morgan’s death, he testifies as to what he saw, and what he didn’t see, but the coroner and witnesses disbelieve him, finding “that the remains come to their death at the hands of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits.”3
“The Damned Thing” is a concise and witty horror story. There are surface similarities to de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” especially the invisible being at the story’s core, but “The Horla” is less of a traditional horror story and more of an ambiguous, horrifying tale of either insanity or vampirism or both. “The Damned Thing” is a traditional horror story, albeit one smartly told. The Biercean sardonic humor is deployed between the chapter headings (“One does not always eat what is on the table,” “A man though naked may be in rags”) and the dialogue:
The foreman rose - a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely clad.
"I shall like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner," he said. "What asylum did this yer last witness escape from?"
"Mr. Harker," said the coroner gravely and tranquilly, "from what asylum did you last escape?"4
The unknown nature of the Damned Thing, and the way it stalks Morgan, adds to the frisson of terror produced by the story.
“The Damned Thing” fits neatly into the category of American Gothic in its fear and loathing of the American wilderness and what lies within it, a phobia that dates back to the seventeenth century and the Puritans. However, Bierce was writing in the 1890s, unlike Charles Brockden Brown (see: Wieland; or, The Transformation) or Nathaniel Hawthorne (see: “Young Goodman Brown”), and the wilderness Bierce wrote of was the western frontier rather than the eastern frontier. This has led some critics to view “The Damned Thing” as a commentary on the American westward expansion, with Bierce expressing ambivalence via the portrayal of the landscape and the portrayal of the men within it.
Moreover, Bierce wrote when the western frontier had closed. This, interestingly, adds to the Gothic feel of “The Damned Thing:” the westward expansion had its (simplified, racist) narrative of civilization vs. the wilderness, but after the frontier was closed the narrative becomes Gothicized, with the past—both the wilderness and the peoples who formerly inhabited the wilderness—haunting the present, a very Gothic trope.5
Because of its use of an invisible creature—a relatively recent creation in horror fiction when “The Damned Thing” was written, dating back only to 1859 and Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It? A Mystery,”—“The Damned Thing” and Bierce are often described as being influenced by or ripping off Bierce and “What Was It?” Bierce himself rebutted this, pointing out in his autobiography that O’Brien’s creature was “supernatural and impossible,” while Bierce’s creature is “a wild animal that cannot be seen because, although opaque, like other animals, it is of an invisible color.”6
Horror tales are essentially subjective. The reader is either scared by them or not. If the story does not frighten, all too often what is left is an underwhelming story which relies on the shock of fear to power the story. Bierce was a much better writer than that, and even those not frightened by “The Damned Thing” will be entertained by it.
Print: Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. New York: Library of America, 2011.
1 Ambrose Bierce, “The Damned Thing,” Can Such Things Be? (New York: A & C Boni, 1924), 295-296.
2 Bierce, “The Damned Thing,” 287.
3 Bierce, “The Damned Thing,” 292.
4 Bierce, “The Damned Thing,” 291.
5 See Kevin Corstorphine, “’The blank darkness outside’: Ambrose Bierce and wilderness Gothic at the end of the frontier,” in Andrew Smith and William Hughes, eds., Ecogothic (New York: Manchester University, 2013), 120-133, for more on this.
6 S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds., A Sole Survivor: Bits of an Autobiography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1998), 254.