The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Moonlit Road" (1893)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

"The Moonlit Road" was written by Ambrose Bierce and first appeared in Can Such Things Be? (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. “The Moonlit Road” is another of Bierce’s fine horror stories.

“The Moonlit Road” is a story of murder, ghosts, and regret, told in three parts. The first narrative is told by Joel Hetman, Jr., the son of Joel Hetman and his wife Julia. Joel, Jr. tells the sad story of how he, as a nineteen-year-old student, received word from his father that his mother had been strangled by an unknown intruder. Junior quit school to stay with his father, whose manner changed from taciturn to dejected. But his father also showed a great apprehension “at any small surprise of the senses.”1 One night the pair were walking home when Joel, Sr., pointing at the moonlit road, seemed to see something frightful. Junior saw nothing and felt no fear, although he was enveloped in an icy wind. Joel, Sr. flees, and Junior never hears from or of him again. The second section of “The Moonlit Road” is told by “Caspar Grattan,” who used to be Joel Hetman, Sr. Caspar has lived a life of misery for over twenty years. He has no memory beyond a certain point. He became conscious as an adult, in a forest, but with no memory of his past, and in the years since then has lived a life of sadness. In his memories, “if there is ever sunshine, I do not recall it; if there are birds they do not sing.”2 He has lived all that time with a sense of guilt, of “terror in punishment of crime,”3 and has been haunted by one dream, in which he decided to test the faithfulness of the wife he loved and distrusted, and on finding her, he thought, unfaithful to him, strangled her. Beyond that, Caspar has no memories. The third section of “The Moonlit Road” is told by the ghost of Julia Hetman through the medium Bayrolles (who also gave voice to the story of Hoseib Alar Robardin in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”). Julia had gone to bed early but awoke and heard some awful thing moving in the house. Eventually the door to her room opened, and although she hid in the corner, hands found her in the dark and strangled her. Julia does not know who or what killed her. As a ghost she tried for a long time to make herself visible to her husband and son. The only night she was successful in doing so, her husband took fright and fled, and Julia never managed to manifest herself to Joel, Jr.

“The Moonlit Road,” with its tripartite structure, each part of which provides a partial understanding of what really happened, was an influence on the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon (1950), which uses multiple contradictory viewpoints to tell a story. Rashomon’s screenplay was

an adaptation of two short stories written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1952), each of which was itself a vernacular elaboration of two twelfth-century Japanese anonymous tales. Akutagawa elaborated and expanded using techniques absorbed from reading such Western authors as Ambrose Bierce and Robert Browning. For example, in writing In a Grove / Yabu no naka, he borrowed the most important structural component from Ambrose Bierce’s short story entitled The Moonlit Road (1918/2012) about three different deposition-like statements recounting the circumstances of a murder, one of which is the murder victim’s spirit speaking through the voice of a medium. This is clearly the source of Akutagawa’s and later Hashimoto’s insertion of testimonies from the three involved parties, including that of the slain husband through the mouth of a miko medium.4 

“The Moonlit Road” has the same precise wording and cruelly ironic message of Bierce’s other supernatural stories. However, unlike “The Damned Thing” and “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” the tone of “The Moonlit Road” is not sardonic. Bierce stays in character, so that Junior’s narrative is straightforward, Caspar’s is wretched, and Julia’s is appropriately misty and sad. The tripartite structure of the story works well. The reader is forced to work to piece together what happens, but Bierce is such a good storyteller that the work is a pleasure. Like many of Bierce’s other supernatural stories, “The Moonlit Road” is not frightening so much as dark, both in its vision of human nature and in the fates it inflicts on its characters. “The Moonlit Road” is not so much nihilistic as willing to let its characters create their own hells and then inhabit them. Accompanying this is the story’s sadness. Julia is unhappy and lonely as a ghost, Junior has been deprived of both his parents, and Joel Senior has been wretched with guilt for over twenty years. A sad, dark story, is “The Moonlit Road.”

Recommended Edition

Print: Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. New York: Library of America, 2011.



1 Ambrose Bierce, “The Moonlit Road,” in Can Such Things Be? (New York: A.&C. Boni, 1924), 64.

2 Bierce, “The Moonlit Road,” 72.

3 Bierce, “The Moonlit Road,” 70.

4 Jan Walls, “From Konjaku and Bierce to Akutagawa and Kurosawa: Ripples and the evolution of Rashomon,” in Blair Davis, Robert Anderson and Jan Walls, eds., Rashomon Effects: Kurosawa, Rashomon and Their Legacies (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 11.