The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Death of Halpin Frayser" (1891)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Death of Halpin Frayser” was written by Ambrose Bierce and first appeared in The Wave (Dec 19, 1891). 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. “The Death of Halpin Frayser” is a dark piece of horror lacking a happy ending or anything resembling cheer.
Halpin Frayser is the child of a well-to-do Tennessee family who is ignored by his absentee father:
Frayser père was what no Southern man of means is not - a politician. His country, or rather his section and State, made demands upon his time and attention so exacting that to those of his family he was compelled to turn an ear partly deafened by the thunder of the political captains and the shouting, his own included.1
Frayser is beloved and cosseted by his mother. Halpin and his mother are close, both when he is a child and when he grows up, and “by strangers observing their manners were not infrequently mistaken for lovers.”2 As an adult Halpin decides to go to San Francisco, and while there is shanghaied on to the crew of a ship, and then cast ashore on a Pacific island, so that he does not return to San Francisco until six years have passed. Halpin is living in St. Helena and waiting for news from home when he goes hunting in the hills west of Napa Valley. He falls asleep and has a fearsome dream of something awful hunting him and then strangling him. He awakens to find his mother’s corpse about to strangle him.
Some time later two detectives, looking for “Branscom,” a wife murderer, find Halpin’s body, lying next to a headstone reading “Catherine Larue.” One of the detectives notes that “Larue” was the real name of Branscom, and that Larue’s murdered wife had been named “Frayser.” And then:
There came to them out of the fog - seemingly from a great distance - the sound of a laugh, a low, deliberate, soulless laugh which had no more of joy than that of a hyena night prowling in the desert; a laugh that rose by slow gradation, louder and louder, clearer, more distinct and terrible, until it seemed barely outside the narrow circle of their vision; a laugh so unnatural, so unhuman, so devilish, that it filled those hardy man hunters with a sense of dread unspeakable! They did not move their weapons nor think of them; the menace of that horrible sound was not of the kind to be met with arms. As it had grown out of silence, so now it died away; from a culminating shout which had seemed almost in their ears, it drew itself away into the distance until its failing notes, joyous and mechanical to the last, sank to silence at a measureless remove.3
Bierce is an underappreciated storyteller. He has a lean, naturalistic style, with both characters and description solidly grounded in reality, reflecting Bierce’s training as a journalist. This makes the creepy dreams and the scary laugh of “Halpin Frayser” that much more effective, when they come. The tone of the story is, typical for Bierce, sardonic. And despite the seeming long-windedness of the above passage, the story is concisely told. The descriptive passages are all necessary for delivering the creeps. As with “The Damned Thing,” “The Death of Halpin Frayser” is exactly as long as it needs to be to produce the desired effects.
“The Death of Halpin Frayser” is also interesting as an example of the Gothic story as it was being told in the late nineteenth century by American writers. These stories dealt with the classic Gothic themes; “Halpin Frayser” features a hidden family trauma emerging to torment those in the present. But the worst aspects of the Gothics are missing from the fin-de-siècle stories. The authors of these stories did not include the Gothics’ length, their often nearly impenetrable prose style, their shrill sentimentality, the motifs which had become clichéd by the end of the nineteenth century, or the stereotypical lustful clerical villain or power-mad baron. The fin-de-siècle Gothics were instead told with an economy of style (reflective of the opportunity and often economic necessity to publish in magazines rather than in novel form), with a dispassion that heightened the horror of the stories, and in modern settings with modern characters. The themes remained the same, but everything else had changed.
“Halpin Frayser” is in fact Bierce’s most Gothic story.
Written in 1891, “The Death of Halpin Frayser” is a complex tale that adheres almost perfectly to the five characteristics of the male gothic that Anne Williams defines. First of all, Bierce incorporates multiple points of view, as well as a confusing chronology and numerous plot dislocations, throughout the story’s four sections. Then, he posits the supernatural as a premise for the fiction by prefacing it with an epigraph attributed to the hypothetical mystic “Hali,” preparing the reader for a tale in which a spiritless body appears to strangle the protagonist in a dream of death that seemingly becomes his reality. The story also meets the third criterion because its isolated protagonist meets his death as a result of violating the Law of the Father. Fourth, the story has long puzzled readers because of its lack of narrative closure regarding the mysteries surrounding the death of the protagonist. And finally, as is typical of the male gothic, Bierce focuses less on the terror of death associated with the Oedipal crisis and more on its pre-Oedipal horror by depicting the primitive, gendered link between the mother and death in its more physical, “abject” manifestations.4
“The Death of Halpin Frayser” is a story not soon forgotten.
Print: Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. New York: Library of America, 2011.
1 Ambrose Bierce, “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” Can Such Things Be? (New York: A & C Boni, 1924), 21.
2 Bierce, “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” 24.
3 Bierce, “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” 43.
4 Sharon Talley, Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2009), 17.