The West Coast School
The Deluge: American Branch
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
I have suggested that the West Coast School established itself as a kind of topographical rival to the East Coast School. Ambrose Bierce, its de facto leader, not only became the mentor of a wide array of Californians who came under his influence, but harboured a certain hostility to the East Coast literary establishment for its failure to accord him the fame and recognition he felt he deserved. Accordingly, with the passing of years he and many of his disciples became resolutely resigned to being titans only on the Pacific coast, under the evident belief that celebrity, however local and contracted, was better than obscurity in the world at large.
In some ways it is surprising that Bierce (1842—1914?) wrote any fiction at all. The great majority of his literary career was devoted to newspaper and magazine journalism, and his stories appear to have been written at odd moments while he was otherwise engaged in being either a humourist or a censorious lampooner of the individuals and causes he despised—chiefly political chicanery, moral hypocrisy, and the general “cussedness” of human beings that impels them to act perversely against their own, and others’, best interests. Bierce has developed the reputation as an irremediable cynic and misanthrope, but it would be fairer to say that he did not truly hate the human race but rather was disappointed by it.
Bierce’s birth and upbringing in the Midwest and his service in the Civil War on the Union side are well documented—not least by himself in his “Bits of Autobiography” (published in the first volume of his Collected Works, 1909), which recount his harrowing participation in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Shortly after the war he drifted to California, where he found ready work as a journalist. The bulk of his literary work is in fact journalism, written for such papers as the San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser (1867—72), the Argonaut (1877—79), the Wasp (1881—86), and, most famously, the San Francisco Examiner (1887—1906), where he was William Randolph Hearst’s star editorial writer. He spent the years 1872—75 in England, hoping like Mark Twain to establish a literary reputation; he did so to some extent, but he acceded to his wife’s request to return to California after she became pregnant with their third child.
What is not generally known is that the bulk of Bierce’s fiction, especially his weird work, was written in a relatively short period between 1887 and 1893, during the first phase of his work for Hearst. He had written humorous sketches and tall tales since 1867, but it required years or decades of rumination for him to produce both his imperishable Civil War tales and his tales of supernatural horror—the former gathered in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891 [actually released in early 1892]) and the latter in Can Such Things Be? (1893). Later tales did appear in the Examiner and other papers, as well as in Cosmopolitan, where Bierce was a contributor and columnist from 1905 to 1909 after Hearst had purchased the magazine. At the urging of a young publisher, Walter Neale, Bierce assembled his own Collected Works (1909—12) in twelve volumes, in which he clearly took great care to collect his Civil War tales and his tales of psychological terror in Volume II (now retitled In the Midst of Life, after the 1892 British edition) and his tales of supernatural horror in Volume III (Can Such Things Be?).
It is notoriously difficult to characterise Bierce’s work as a fiction writer, especially as the totality of his work is of such diversity, ranging from light-hearted comic ventures to political fantasies in the manner of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to grim tales of psychological suspense to poignant accounts of the Civil War to stories of the supernatural. Perhaps the overarching focus of his work is satire—a focus that unites the entirety of his work, from journalism to fiction to fables to poetry (his Collected Works includes two full volumes of poetry, most of which consists of pungent skewerings of local and national celebrities). The conventional characterisation of Bierce as a cynic and misanthrope is a crude caricature; Bierce himself denied that he was either of these things, except insofar as he embodied his own definition of “Cynic” from The Devil’s Dictionary (1906/1911): “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” Bierce prided himself on an unflinching view of life and humanity; on occasion this view might lapse into something approaching misanthropy, as when he wrote (in contesting the Theosophical Society’s belief in “universal brotherhood”) that “Universal brotherhood, if it means anything, means (for me) a closer relation between me and the rest of the race. As a considerable majority of the rest of the race happens to be made up of knaves, dunces and savages, I am not seeking that kind of relations with it” (Sole Survivor 205). But a more straightforward expression of Bierce’s “relations” with his fellows can be seen in the following statement, where he is combating the views of a fellow journalist who had taken him to task for excessive harshness:
John Bonner, does it really seem to you that contempt for the bad is incompatible with respect for the good?—that hatred of rogues and fools does not imply love of bright and honest folk? Can you really not understand that what is unworthy in life or letters can be known only by comparison with what is known to be worthy? He who bitterly hates the wrong is he who intensely loves the right; indifference to one is indifference to the other thing. Those who like everything love nothing; a heart of indiscriminate hospitality becomes a boozing ken of tramps and thieves. Where the sentimentalist’s love leaves off the cynic’s may begin. (Sole Survivor 215—16)
It may be said that Bierce’s unrelenting emphasis on human weakness and folly implies a deeper level of misanthropy than he suggests in the above passage; but one can counter that, with the instances of human weakness and folly so prodigally abundant, there is more than a little philosophical justification for this kind of misanthropy.
The element that fuses Bierce’s tales of the Civil War, his tales of psychological terror, and even many of his supernatural tales is the focus on what might be called the psychology and physiology of fear. Whether that fear is produced by a ghost (as in “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” [Examiner, 17 August 1890]) or the false perception of danger (a supposedly animate corpse in “A Watcher by the Dead” [Examiner, 29 December 1889]; a snake that turns out to be a toy in “The Man and the Snake” [Examiner, 29 June 1890]), Bierce is relentless in dissecting the precise succession of emotions that transforms a sane, normal man (it is almost always a man) into a gibbering lunatic. Indeed, it can be seen that the Civil War tale “A Tough Tussle” (Examiner, 30 September 1888) and the “civilian” tale “A Watcher by the Dead” have, fundamentally, the same theme—the horror inspired by close proximity of the recently dead. (It is perhaps for this reason that Bierce placed the former in Volume III of the Collected Works, even though it is obviously a Civil War narrative that should have been placed in Volume II.)
One of the most notable features of Bierce’s writing is his ability to portray the harrowing terror that lurks in the deserted boom towns and other remote regions of the American West. For a land settled so relatively recently (by Anglo-Saxons, at any rate), the sense of almost mediaeval barbarism and remoteness that Bierce conveys in such tales as “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot,” “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch” (Wave, 25 April 1891), and “The Spook House” (Examiner, 7 July 1889) is remarkable. This, in effect, is Bierce’s answer to the strictures of many critics, beginning with William Hazlitt, who maintained that the United States was too new and “rational” a land to inspire the dread that can come only with centuries of settled habitation. While Easterners like Nathaniel Hawthorne were able to draw upon America’s heritage of New England Puritanism as a kind of ersatz Middle Ages and utilise it as a source of age-old horror, Bierce found terror in the mining towns of the West, whose rapid desertion after only a few years of frenetic activity cast a pall of eeriness that served him well.
At the same time, at least a few of Bierce’s tales contain conceptions so advanced that they could virtually belong to the later genre of science fiction. I refer specifically to two remarkable tales, “Moxon’s Master” (Examiner, 16 April 1899) and “The Damned Thing” (Town Topics, 7 December 1893). The former, possibly inspired in part by Poe’s essay, “Maezel’s Chess-Player” (1836), masterfully conveys the notion of an automaton slowly gaining human emotions, especially in the potent line describing the automaton’s moving of a chess piece “with a slow, uniform, mechanical and, I thought, somewhat theatrical movement of the arm” (SF 3.934). There has recently been some controversy as to whether we are to imagine Moxon’s machine as an actual instance of artificial intelligence or merely as a hoax, but I think the indications in the story point strongly to the former. “The Damned Thing,” with its breathtaking image of an invisible monster, may similarly draw in part upon such celebrated predecessors as Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” (although Bierce explicitly denied that he had this tale in mind when he wrote his own [see SF 3.1183—84]) and Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla”; and its provocative notion that “there are colors that we cannot see. And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!” (SF 2.863) may well point the way to H. P. Lovecraft’s use of the same idea in “The Colour out of Space” (1927).
The very short tales that Bierce grouped under the collective headings “Some Haunted Houses,” “Bodies of the Dead” (first published in the original edition of Can Such Things Be? but not included, oddly enough, in his Collected Works), “Mysterious Disappearances,” “The Ways of Ghosts,” and “Soldier-Folk,” are worth some discussion. These curious vignettes—many of them can hardly be deemed short stories in any meaningful sense of the term—evidently constitute an elaborate hoax that Bierce attempted to perpetrate upon his readers. They began appearing in the Examiner in 1888 under such collective titles as “Hither from Hades,” “Behind the Veil,” and so forth; and their targets, aside from credulous readers who were all too eager to swallow the accounts of disappearances, reanimations from the dead, and so forth, were the growing numbers of spiritualists and spiritualist organisations that actively fostered such beliefs. Their original appearance in a newspaper, without any indication that they were works of fiction, no doubt enhanced the effect Bierce wished to create. Indeed, in “Behind the Veil” (later carved up into the stories “The Isle of Pines” and “A Cold Greeting”), Bierce soberly prints a letter by one Richard Hodgson, of the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research, asking for further particulars of an earlier account (the segment later entitled “’Dead and Gone’” in “Bodies of the Dead”), to which Bierce replies in his inimitable deadpan manner:
In the absence of my notes I am unable to comply with Mr. Hodgson’s request; if in my published account I did not state the source of my information with as great particularity as I am confident I did all the essentials that it embodied, it was an oversight which I promise myself the pleasure of rectifying later, for the benefit of the Society of Psychical Research. In the mean time the data that I have at hand enable me to supply the society with a few facts which it may perhaps deem worthy of its attention. (SF 1.606)
This is a scarcely veiled admission that Bierce had in fact made up the whole story.
In many ways the most interesting stories of this type are those gathered under the heading “Soldier-Folk,” for it is here that, for apparently the first time, Bierce definitively fused his Civil War tales with his tales of the supernatural. These four sketches were all written quite late in his career (they were published in Cosmopolitan between 1905 and 1908), at a time when the events of the Civil War had themselves receded to such an extent that they could serve as a backdrop for the bizarre episodes Bierce recounts. (Another story of a somewhat similar type, “A Resumed Identity” [Cosmopolitan, September 1908], is an intriguing tale of a Civil War soldier who has lost his memory and only regains it when he sees a memorial to a battle he had fought in more than forty years before.)
Self-parodic as they may be, the feature that unifies these apparent hoaxes with the rest of Bierce’s supernatural work is the fascination they reveal with the phenomenon of death, and the awful threshold it represents between life and the beyond. Bierce in all likelihood was an atheist who did not believe in an afterlife and who habitually ridiculed belief in ghosts, apparitions, and revenants; but he nonetheless found in death a potent and baffling conception. It is significant that he does not even provide an entry for “Death” in The Devil’s Dictionary: it was, perhaps, the one phenomenon he could not poke fun at. Many of his supernatural tales—“Beyond the Wall” (Cosmopolitan, December 1907), “A Jug of Sirup” (Examiner, 17 December 1893), even the richly evocative “The Moonlit Road” (Cosmopolitan, January 1907)—have as their “climax” merely the revelation that a ghost or revenant has in fact been seen or experienced. In many cases the ghost does nothing except manifest itself; even in the supernatural revenge tale “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” the ghost of a woman effects her aim—the death of the man who had killed her—by her mere presence.
Bierce’s most complex supernatural tale is “The Death of Halpin Frayser” (Wave, 19 December 1891). This extraordinarily rich story—whose haunting initial scene, in the wilds of Napa Valley, was taken from a dream Bierce had, as recorded in the essay “Visions of the Night” (Examiner, 24 July 1887)—is interpretable on many levels. There is, indeed, a scholarly dispute over the bare events of the tale; and Cathy N. Davidson, in The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce (1984), has maintained that it was deliberately written in such a way as to make no sense even on the level of plot. I strongly dispute this interpretation and maintain that a coherent plot can in fact be determined. In my view, the story goes something like this:
Halpin Frayser, who has an unnatural affection for his mother, Catherine, leaves for California. Some years later, Catherine, now widowed, follows him. She and Frayser marry, living under the name Larue. Frayser then murders his mother, but, overwrought by his actions, loses his memory of these events (Frayser experiences a horrible dream that he believes “was in expiation of some crime which, though conscious of his guilt, he could not rightly remember” [SF 2.805]). In accordance with the epigraph (a passage from the prophet Hali), Catherine rises from the dead, a soulless lich, and murders Frayser over her own grave in a California cemetery. Bierce leaves sufficient clues for the piecing together of this scenario; the comment by one of the two detectives tracking Frayser down—“There is some rascally mystery here” (SF 2.815)—does not indicate, as Davidson believes, that the story is inexplicable, but rather that something supernatural (and therefore not amenable to “solution” by ordinary methods of detection) has occurred. (See further my article “What Happens in Ambrose Bierce’s ’The Death of Halpin Frayser.’”)
If this reconstruction is accepted, it can be seen that the horror is engendered on numerous levels—the hideous incest implied in the cohabitation of son and mother as husband and wife, and the supernatural horror of the “lich” of the dead mother killing her own son (not through vengeance but through blind hatred) over her own grave. It is not surprising that Frederic Taber Cooper, who came close to deciphering the full scope of the plot’s tale (but failed to notice the incest aspect), wrote that “In all imaginative literature it would be difficult to find a parallel for this story in sheer, unadulterated horror” (352).
“The Eyes of the Panther” (Examiner, 17 October 1897) is another provocative tale, and there is serious question as to whether the supernatural is involved. Is it the case that Irene Marlowe is a shape-changer who at times turns into a panther, or is she merely subject to hallucinations? Shortly after the story was first published, Bierce wrote a letter that may clarify the point: “My story is not a ’wonder-story,’ and does not, I think, even pass the bounds of probability—merely an instance of pre-natal influence. The girl can see in the dark—which means gleaming eyes—and has a mania for looking into windows o’ nights. Transformation into an animal is another matter” (quoted in SF 3.912). This would seem to suggest that Irene is not in reality a shape-changer, but the matter remains open—as perhaps Bierce intended.
The two prose-poems “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (San Francisco News Letter, 25 December 1886) and “Haïta the Shepherd” (Wave, 24 January 1891) embody some of Bierce’s most evocative prose. On the whole, following the early experiment “The Haunted Valley” (Overland Monthly, July 1871), Bierce generally wrote in such a spare, proto-Hemingwayesque manner that H. P. Lovecraft referred dismissively to his “prosaic angularity” (S 52). Bierce manifestly felt that the narration of incredible or supernatural incidents required such a degree of sobriety and restraint that all superfluous matter, including the richly textured prose of Poe and his followers, must be eliminated. Bierce was, otherwise, a devoted follower of Poe’s principles of short story writing, consciously adopting Poe’s notion of the “unity of effect” and maintaining that neither the long poem nor the novel was a viable aesthetic entity.
If I have refrained from discussing Bierce’s most celebrated tale, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (Examiner, 13 July 1890), it is because it lies only on the borderline of the weird. The notion that a man facing execution by hanging can experience what appears to be hours and even days of life in the split-second between life and death is psychologically clever—and perhaps even true—but is not an inherently weird conception, for of course nothing supernatural is predicated to have occurred. And although this ingenious premise has served as the inspiration for several later literary works and even a horror film or two (Jacob’s Ladder), the power of Bierce’s story rests precisely on the very possibility of its occurrence.
Other Civil War tales contain their doses of terror (terror, that is, not specifically involving the gruesomeness of war). “One of the Missing” (Examiner, 11 March 1888) is worth singling out. A hapless scout, Jerome Searing, finds himself immobilised after a deserted house collapses upon him; what is worse, his own rifle is now pointed directly at his forehead, and the least movement on his part might send a bullet through his brain. This is one of several Bierce stories where the scenario seems a bit contrived to generate a particularly ironic sense of terror; but the working out of Searing’s conflicted emotions as he struggles with his fate is masterful. Of course, he perishes of fear.
What separates Bierce from his many disciples and imitators is the unusually grim and cynical vision that underlies his tales and, indeed, the rest of his work. In this sense Maurice Lévy is not entirely in error when he asserted, “One is almost tempted to believe that one day [Bierce] decided to instill fear into his contemporaries by hatred, to gain revenge on them” (Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic 14). I have already suggested that this may be, at a minimum, an exaggeration, but the low opinion Bierce maintained of the human species and of human accomplishment is undeniable. It is significant that, in the tutorial essay “To Train a Writer” (Examiner, 27 August 1899), he declared flatly that “this is a world of fools and rogues, blind with superstition, tormented with envy, consumed with vanity, selfish, false, cruel, and cursed with illusions—frothing mad!” (Collected Works 10.77). Such later authors of satirical horror as L. P. Hartley, A. E. Coppard, and Roald Dahl may have borrowed various elements of Bierce’s manner; but perhaps only Shirley Jackson comes close to echoing both Bierce’s jaundiced view of humanity and the rapierlike prose that lays bare the emptiness of human aspirations and the cowardice, hypocrisy, perversity, and folly that condemn our species to eternal wretchedness and misery. The sum total of Bierce’s accomplishment in supernatural and psychological horror establishes him as the most distinguished figure in weird fiction subsequent to Poe and preceding the “titans” of the early twentieth century.
It is perhaps unfair to consider W. C. Morrow (1854—1923) a mere pupil of Bierce, as he has customarily been regarded. Born in Selma, Alabama, he emigrated to California around 1879. In that year he published in the Argonaut two striking tales of the Civil War, “The Bloodhounds” (13 December 1879) and “The Three Hundred” (10 January 1880), both of them set in the South. The first tale that might conceivably be termed weird was “A Glimpse of the Unusual,” appearing in the Californian for April 1880. Although purely a tale of psychological horror, it already displays the features that would come to typify much of Morrow’s later work: a crisp, tightly controlled prose style, penetrating psychological analysis of a disturbed mentality, and an unrelenting focus on the protagonist’s psychological state—tantamount, in some later works, to a kind of proto-stream-of-consciousness. It would be difficult to find parallels for these tales in the entire range of nineteenth-century literature—except, perhaps, in the tales of Poe (clearly a dominant influence on Morrow), some of the later work of Guy de Maupassant (written after Morrow’s early work), and the tales of Bierce, who may well have been influenced by Morrow’s example in his own memorable Civil War tales and horror stories of the later 1880s.
In 1882 Morrow published his first novel, Blood-Money (1882), a searing indictment of the rapacity of the huge railroad companies that were dominating Californian politics and economy at this time. When William Randolph Hearst took over the operation of the San Francisco Examiner from his father in 1887, one of the writers he urged to contribute (probably on Bierce’s recommendation) was Morrow. Now began a fruitful phase of Morrow’s short-story writing, and some of his best work appeared in that newspaper. Morrow resumed contributions to the Argonaut as well, writing such works as the grim non-supernatural tale of revenge “His Unconquerable Enemy” (11 March 1889), the tense detective thrillers “The Woman of the Inner Room” (12 January 1891) and “The Red Strangler” (18 May 1891), the conte cruel “The Wrong Door” (9 February 1891), and the science-fiction/horror story “The Surgeon’s Experiment” (15 October 1887), later titled “The Monster-Maker.”
By 1896 Morrow evidently felt that he had enough tales to assemble a collection. In fact, by this time he had written enough to fill two or three volumes, and it is not entirely certain that he exercised sound judgment in the tales he decided to include in the celebrated collection The Ape, the Idiot and Other People (1897). Nevertheless, this volume is a landmark for all lovers of the weird, the strange, and the unusual. But because it appeared later than Bierce’s two collections, it was naturally assumed that Morrow had been influenced by Bierce.
Strangely enough, after the publication of his seminal collection, Morrow appeared to lose interest in the short story as a form of expression. Only random tales—rarely in the weird or even the suspense mode—emerged from his pen over the next decade or so during which he was a practising writer. Possibly economic concerns were a factor. By no later than 1899 Morrow had begun a school for beginning writers. His relatively few book publications of the first decade of the twentieth century suggest that he was either trying to capture the tastes of a more general readership or, in fact, had declined into hackwork. No work published subsequent to 1909 has been located.
It is difficult to characterise Morrow’s literary work—even his short stories—in small compass. Writing at a time when the rigid division of literature into well-recognised “genres” was unknown, Morrow chose to experiment at will in what would only later be termed mystery, suspense, weird, or even science fiction. In many ways, it is his seamless amalgamation of several of these modes within a single tale that lends it its distinctiveness.
It is worth noting that there may not be a single orthodox tale of the supernatural in Morrow’s entire corpus. His most celebrated story, “The Monster-Maker,” clearly relies upon a conjectural development of medical science—whether plausible or not—in its depiction of an anencephalous man; “The Woman of the Inner Room” advances a pseudo-scientific argument for a woman’s ability to perceive a man’s thoughts when she inserts a finger into a bullet wound in his head and touches his brain. Similar medical erudition is utilised in “The Permanent Stiletto” (first published as “A Peculiar Case of Surgery” in the Argonaut for 4 February 1889), about a man who is stabbed in the neck with a stiletto that doctors are unable to remove entirely; he spends the rest of his life a shattered man, pondering his imminent death. The bizarre story “The Queen of the Red Devils”—published in the Christmas 1892 issue of the San Francisco weekly magazine, the Wave (later known for its publication of many of the tales of Frank Norris)—is a fantasy of sorts.
Morrow can now take his rightful place as a distinctive voice in the American literature of the later nineteenth century. His gripping tales—the products of a powerful and unusual imagination, a taut prose style, and an insight into aberrant psychology rarely displayed in his time—retain the power to fascinate and terrify.
Another member of the West Coast group, and an early colleague of Bierce, Emma Frances Dawson (1851—1926), produced a single volume of stories, An Itinerant House and Other Stories (1897), that has some strange elements but, in my judgment, is not sufficiently weird to be worth discussing here. Dawson vividly depicts the early days of San Francisco, teeming with miners, Chinese immigrants, and other distinctive figures, and she occasionally employs the haunted house theme in a curious manner; but her work is too mannered and diffuse to produce a genuinely weird effect.
Gertrude Atherton (1857—1948) might represent a kind of bridge between the East Coast and West Coast schools of weird fiction. Although a lifelong Californian, she took frequent trips to the East and also overseas, spending much time in England. As a young writer she became acquainted with Bierce; in fact, she maliciously tells the story of how Bierce once tried to embrace her—but in her strong-minded way she eluded his grasp and mocked his clumsy attempt at lovemaking. Like Edith Wharton, her writing—including her weird writing, embodied in nine tales long and short—extends over a very long period, a partial function of her unusually long and vigorous life. And unlike Morrow and even, to some degree, Bierce, Atherton established a genuine—if, as it turns out, fleeting—popular and critical reputation, becoming a best-selling author whose work sold generally better than that of Wharton, Willa Cather, and other women writers of the period. Much of this work—chiefly in the form of a good many very long novels—has been forgotten, and probably deservedly; and, as with so many others, it may be her slim body of weird work that ensures her continuing reputation. Two of her story collections, The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories (1905) and The Foghorn (1934), contain the bulk of her weird work, although some stories remained uncollected until recently.
In a scant nine tales, Atherton has effectively displayed mastery in several of the significant subdivisions of weird fiction: the fantastic allegory or parable (“The Caves of Death,” “When the Devil Was Well”), the psychological horror tale (“A Tragedy,” “The Greatest Good of the Greatest Number”), the orthodox ghost story (“Miss Markham’s Wedding Night”), the tale of supernatural realism (“The Striding Place”), the ambiguous horror tale (“Death and the Woman,” perhaps “The Bell in the Fog”), or sundry combinations of these. Her apparently casual tossing off of these stories in the course of a career devoted to very different concerns points to the truth of her own comment in “The Bell in the Fog”: “Possibly there are few imaginative writers who have not a leaning, secret or avowed, to the occult” (77).
One of the central concerns in Atherton’s weird work is the awesome threshold of death. At least three of the stories utilise this topos in varying ways. “The Caves of Death” (San Francisco News Letter, 25 December 1886) is a manifest allegory of the afterlife. Atherton has used the dream or vision of an afterlife as a means for the expression of a number of cynical reflections on human foibles, for it is evident that those who have gone to the Great Beyond are afflicted with the same follies, hypocrisies, and vanities that they carried in life. The other allegory in Atherton’s work, “When the Devil Was Well,” was included as the final story in her volume of California tales, Before the Gringo Came (1894). It too is highly cynical in its suggestion that the Devil will find in California a ready haven for his machinations.
“Death and the Woman” (Vanity Fair [London], 14 January 1893) presents a straightforward expression of the fear of death, embodied here both by a dying man and the apparent presence of the actual figure of Death at the end. Is this latter merely a metaphor? Does the man’s wife, increasingly agitated by the trickling away of life from her husband, merely hallucinate the presence of Death coming up the stairs and into the death-chamber? Atherton wisely leaves the matter unresolved. “The Greatest Good of the Greatest Number” (in The Bell in the Fog), the third of Atherton’s stories focusing specifically on death, is a very different proposition. The very title speaks of its philosophical underpinnings, pointing to the central principle of the utilitarian moral philosophy as outlined by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Of course, these philosophers would by no means have advocated the withholding of medical attention from the sick, as Atherton’s physician does here: his ultimate decision that the death of the ailing woman will benefit several others in her circle, whereas her continued existence will only create a continuation or augmentation of misery, is in some senses a reflection of a Social Darwinist mentality that Atherton had adopted early in life and retained to the end.
The power of this tale rests not in its display of the supernatural—for there is no supernatural phenomenon—but in its careful dissection of psychological states, both that of the physician and that of the dying woman. Atherton’s masterpiece in this regard is a previously unknown and uncollected story, “A Tragedy,” first published in the London Vanity Fair for 11 February 1893. This extraordinary account of a woman who is, at the outset, ignorant of the fact that she has been housed in an insane asylum for decades was later rewritten—not necessarily with greater effectiveness—as the long story “The Foghorn” (Good Housekeeping, November 1933). The secret of the tale’s effectiveness is the gradual manner in which the woman—and, accordingly, the reader—come to be aware that she has woken not merely from a single night’s sleep, but from decades of amnesia or madness. And because she “was a woman who revelled in her beauty, worshipped it” (18) (as Atherton’s own mother and, perhaps, Atherton herself did), the revelation of her true state is manifested largely by physical tokens: the fact that her hair has been cut (“That glorious mane, of which she had been so proud!” ), the fact that her once-beautiful hands had become “large-veined [and] skinny” (21); and so forth. It is particularly ironic, given her own physical repulsiveness, that the man “who had sent her here” (presumably by jilting her) was himself “a wonderfully preserved man; sixty, probably, but looking little more than forty” (24). To some degree Atherton may be guilty of an antifeminist concentration on physical beauty and its decay; but in reality the tale underscores the “tragedy” of a wasted life in which twenty years have passed as if in a single night.
Skilful as several of these tales are, Atherton’s signature piece of weird fiction remains “The Striding Place”; it has appeared in more than half a dozen anthologies of supernatural tales and is the tale by which she is chiefly recognised by devotees of the genre. The story had been rejected by the Yellow Book as too gruesome and was published in the Speaker for 20 June 1896, under the title “The Twins.” As a tale of purely physical horror, in which the grisly climax is suddenly revealed in the final line, it is difficult to surpass. It underscores the peculiarly philosophical nature of the weird tale in that it is exemplifies the “truth” of a casual utterance made by the protagonist (“I cherish the theory … that the soul sometimes lingers in the body after death” ), who little knows that he himself will verify that utterance at the end.
Considerably more conventional is “Miss Markham’s Wedding Night” (Vanity Fair [London], 28 November 1895), a relatively straightforward ghost story that begins as a light-hearted social comedy but quickly turns darker. “The Dead and the Countess” (Smart Set, August 1902) appears, at the outset, rather quaintly allegorical, as we are led to believe that the dead spirits in a cemetery in Brittany find their repose disturbed by the rumbling of a new train line—a charming conceit expressing protest at the ruin of a pristine natural landscape by technological development. But although the train itself (“a brute of iron and live coals and foul smoke” ) in some senses suggests the fires of hell, the tale resolves into an uneasy mix of allegory and supernatural realism.
“The Bell in the Fog” could qualify as an ambiguous horror tale: we can never be quite certain that the little girl at the centre of the narrative is or is not a reincarnation of the girl depicted in the painting found in the portrait gallery at Chillingsworth. But the chief focus of the tale is on the psychology of Ralph Orth, who is manifestly a Henry James stand-in: he is an American who left the United States “soon after his first successes” (67), who focuses on portrayals of European society, and who remains single and unattached. Atherton’s passing comment about “his own famous ghost stories” (76) makes one realise that she has read them with care. The Bell in the Fog is dedicated to James.
Two other stories by Atherton should be addressed. A Christmas Witch, a nearly novel-length work of about 40,000 words published in Godey’s Magazine for January 1893, suggests the supernatural in a number of features, but resolves itself into a non-supernatural Bildungsroman of an unruly and headstrong girl (clearly based on Atherton herself as she remembered her own childhood and upbringing), the daughter of a French count who has come to California to seek his fortune. “The Eternal Now,” included in The Foghorn, is a curious tale apparently involving a man who, fascinated with fourteenth-century France, somehow goes back in time to that era, but with faint recollections of his life in the twentieth century.