The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (1886)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“An Inhabitant of Carcosa” was written by Ambrose Bierce and appeared in San Francisco Newsletter (Dec. 25, 1886). 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. Like many of Bierce’s other supernatural and horror stories, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” is strange and compact and powerful, and leaves the reader with only questions and no answers.
Hoseib Alar Robardin ponders the words of the poet Hali and loses track of where he is. The landscape he walks through is dreary and unfamiliar to him. Hoseib wanders and realizes that he can’t remember how he got there. He remembers that he had been ill and had demanded of his family that they take him outside, but he does not recognize where he is, although it is clearly some distance away from his home, the ancient and famous city of Carcosa. Hoseib wonders if he is still feverish and delusional, and when he encounters a lynx and then a ragged-looking man, neither acknowledge his presence. He becomes certain that he is mad, although despite his confusion he feels a sense of mental and physical exaltation. When he looks closely against the stone of a grave, he notices his own name, in full, with the dates of his life and death, and he realizes that he is dead, and the ruins around him are those of Carcosa. “Such are the facts imparted to the medium Bayrolles by the spirit Hoseib Alar Robardin.”1
“An Inhabitant of Carcosa” is told in a different style than most of Bierce’s other stories. Bierce’s terse, sardonic humor is absent, and in its place is a more formal and old-fashioned narration which makes use of archaic vocabulary: “withal,” “herbage,” “tumuli.” This does not render the story unreadable by any means; Bierce is always readable and entertaining. But it is a different approach from the one he usually takes. Bierce is more descriptive than normal in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” conjures some vivid images, and in general creates a mood of unease and lurking evil before the revelation of the final secret.
Unlike “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” which though a Gothic is “in the tradition of Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’…there are competing natural and supernatural explanations.”2 “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” is pure fantastika, “in the tradition of Poe, not Hawthorne.”3
‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’ probably is the most influential of Bierce’s stories for later writers, and helped to establish the conventions of the ‘weird tale’ in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The weird tale, which became a popular genre with dedicated pulp magazines, would continue in the line of Poe and Bierce to use fantastic settings and supernatural menace to produce the requisite chilling emotional response sought by the reader.4
Print: Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. New York: Library of America, 2011.
1 Ambrose Bierce, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” Can Such Things Be? (New York: A.&C. Boni, 1924), 314.
2 Charles L. Crow, History of the Gothic: American Gothic (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009), 99.
3 Crow, American Gothic, 99.
4 Crow, American Gothic, 99.