“Staley Fleming’s Hallucination,” a very short story by Ambrose Bierce

“Staley Fleming’s Hallucination”


Ambrose Bierce

Of two men who were talking one was a physician.

“I sent for you, Doctor,” said the other, “but I don’t think you can do me any good.  May be you can recommend a specialist in psychopathy.  I fancy I’m a bit loony.”

“You look all right,” the physician said.

“You shall judge – I have hallucinations.  I wake every night and see in my room, intently watching me, a big black Newfoundland dog with a white forefoot.”

“You say you wake; are you sure about that?  ‘Hallucinations’ are sometimes only dreams.”

“Oh, I wake, all right.  Sometimes I lie still a long time, looking at the dog as earnestly as the dog looks at me – I always leave the light going.  When I can’t endure it any longer I sit up in bed – and nothing is there!”

“‘M, ‘m – what is the beast’s expression?”

“It seems to me sinister.  Of course I know that, except in art, an animal’s face in repose has always the same expression.  But this is not a real animal.  Newfoundland dogs are pretty mild looking, you know; what’s the matter with this one?”

“Really, my diagnosis would have no value: I am not going to treat the dog.”

The physician laughed at his own pleasantry, but narrowly watched his patient from the corner of his eye.  Presently he said: “Fleming, your description of the beast fits the dog of the late Atwell Barton.”

Fleming half-rose from his chair, sat again and made a visible attempt at indifference.  “I remember Barton,” he said; “I believe he was – it was reported that – wasn’t there something suspicious in his death?”

Looking squarely now into the eyes of his patient, the physician said: “Three years ago the body of your old enemy, Atwell Barton, was found in the woods near his house and yours.  He had been stabbed to death.  There have been no arrests; there was no clew.  Some of us had ‘theories.’  I had one.  Have you?”

“I?  Why, bless your soul, what could I know about it?  You remember that I left for Europe almost immediately afterward – a considerable time afterward.  In the few weeks since my return you could not expect me to construct a ‘theory.’  In fact, I have not given the matter a thought.  What about his dog?”

“It was first to find the body.  It died of starvation on his grave.”

We do not know the inexorable law underlying coincidences.  Staley Fleming did not, or he would perhaps not have sprung to his feet as the night wind brought in through the open window the long wailing howl of a distant dog.  He strode several times across the room in the steadfast gaze of the physician; then, abruptly confronting him, almost shouted: “What has all this to do with my trouble, Dr. Halderman?  You forget why you were sent for.”

Rising, the physician laid his hand upon his patient’s arm and said, gently: “Pardon me.  I cannot diagnose your disorder off-hand – to-morrow, perhaps.  Please go to bed, leaving your door unlocked; I will pass the night here with your books.  Can you call me without rising?”

“Yes, there is an electric bell.”

“Good.  If anything disturbs you push the button without sitting up.  Good night.”

Comfortably installed in an armchair the man of medicine stared into the glowing coals and thought deeply and long, but apparently to little purpose, for he frequently rose and opening a door leading to the staircase, listened intently; then resumed his seat.  Presently, however, he fell asleep, and when he woke it was past midnight.  He stirred the failing fire, lifted a book from the table at his side and looked at the title.  It was Denneker’s “Meditations.”  He opened it at random and began to read:

“Forasmuch as it is ordained of God that all flesh hath spirit and thereby taketh on spiritual powers, so, also, the spirit hath powers of the flesh, even when it is gone out of the flesh and liveth as a thing apart, as many a violence performed by wraith and lemure sheweth.  And there be who say that man is not single in this, but the beasts have the like evil inducement, and – ”

The reading was interrupted by a shaking of the house, as by the fall of a heavy object.  The reader flung down the book, rushed from the room and mounted the stairs to Fleming’s bed-chamber.  He tried the door, but contrary to his instructions it was locked.  He set his shoulder against it with such force that it gave way.  On the floor near the disordered bed, in his night clothes, lay Fleming gasping away his life.

The physician raised the dying man’s head from the floor and observed a wound in the throat.  “I should have thought of this,” he said, believing it suicide.

When the man was dead an examination disclosed the unmistakable marks of an animal’s fangs deeply sunken into the jugular vein.

But there was no animal.

“The Right to Take Oneself Off,” an essay by Ambrose Bierce

“The Right to Take Oneself Off”


Ambrose Bierce


A person who loses heart and hope through a personal bereavement is like a grain of sand on the seashore complaining that the tide has washed a neighboring grain out of reach. He is worse, for the bereaved grain cannot help itself; it has to be a grain of sand and play the game of tide, win or lose; whereas he can quit—by watching his opportunity can “quit a winner.” For sometimes we do beat “the man who keeps the table”—never in the long run, but infrequently and out of small stakes. But this is no time to “cash in” and go, for you can not take your little winning with you. The time to quit is when you have lost a big stake, your fool hope of eventual success, your fortitude and your love of the game. If you stay in the game, which you are not compelled to do, take your losses in good temper and do not whine about them. They are hard to bear, but that is no reason why you should be.

But we are told with tiresome iteration that we are “put here” for some purpose (not disclosed) and have no right to retire until summoned—it may be by small-pox, it may be by the bludgeon of a blackguard, it may be by the kick of a cow; the “summoning” Power (said to be the same as the “putting” Power) has not a nice taste in the choice of messengers. That “argument” is not worth attention, for it is unsupported by either evidence or anything remotely resembling evidence. “Put here.” Indeed! And by the keeper of the table who “runs” the “skin game.” We were put here by our parents—that is all anybody knows about it; and they had no more authority than we, and probably no more intention.

The notion that we have not the right to take our own lives comes of our consciousness that we have not the courage. It is the plea of the coward—his excuse for continuing to live when he has nothing to live for—or his provision against such a time in the future. If he were not egotist as well as coward he would need no excuse. To one who does not regard himself as the center of creation and his sorrow as the throes of the universe, life, if not worth living, is also not worth leaving. The ancient philosopher who was asked why he did not the if, as he taught, life was no better than death, replied: “Because death is no better than life.” We do not know that either proposition is true, but the matter is not worth bothering about, for both states are supportable—life despite its pleasures and death despite its repose.

It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicide in the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on long after endurance has ceased to be a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable and unselfish act. Antony, Brutus, Cato, Seneca—these were not of the kind of men to do deeds of cowardice and folly. The smug, self-righteous modern way of looking upon the act as that of a craven or a lunatic is the creation of priests, Philistines and women. If courage is manifest in endurance of profitless discomfort it is cowardice to warm oneself when cold, to cure oneself when ill, to drive away mosquitoes, to go in when it rains. The “pursuit of happiness,” then, is not an “inalienable right,” for that implies avoidance of pain. No principle is involved in this matter; suicide is justifiable or not, according to circumstances; each case is to be considered on its merits and he having the act under advisement is sole judge. To his decision, made with whatever light he may chance to have, all honest minds will bow. The appellant has no court to which to take his appeal. Nowhere is a jurisdiction so comprehensive as to embrace the right of condemning the wretched to life.

Suicide is always courageous. We call it courage in a soldier merely to face death—say to lead a forlorn hope—although he has a chance of life and a certainty of “glory.” But the suicide does more than face death; he incurs it, and with a certainty, not of glory, but of reproach. If that is not courage we must reform our vocabulary.

True, there may be a higher courage in living than in dying—a moral courage greater than physical. The courage of the suicide, like that of the pirate, is not incompatible with a selfish disregard of the rights and interests of others—a cruel recreancy to duty and decency. I have been asked: “Do you not think it cowardly when a man leaves his family unprovided for, to end his life, because he is dissatisfied with life in general?” No, I do not; I think it selfish and cruel. Is not that enough to say of it? Must we distort words from their true meaning in order more effectually to damn the act and cover its author with a greater infamy? A word means something; despite the maunderings of the lexicographers, it does not mean whatever you want it to mean. “Cowardice” means the fear of danger, not the shirking of duty. The writer who allows himself as much liberty in the use of words as he is allowed by the dictionary-maker and by popular consent is a bad writer. He can make no impression on his reader, and would do better service at the ribbon-counter.

The ethics of suicide is not a simple matter; one can not lay down laws of universal application, but each case is to be judged, if judged at all, with a full knowledge of all the circumstances, including the mental and moral make-up of the person taking his own life—an impossible qualification for judgment. One’s time, race and religion have much to do with it. Some people, like the ancient Romans and the modern Japanese, have considered suicide in certain circumstances honorable and obligatory; among ourselves it is held in disfavor. A man of sense will not give much attention to considerations of that kind, excepting in so far as they affect others, but in judging weak offenders they are to be taken into the account. Speaking generally, then, I should say that in our time and country the following persons (and some others) are justified in removing themselves, and that to some of them it is a duty:

One afflicted with a painful or loathsome and incurable disease.

One who is a heavy burden to his friends, with no prospect of their relief.

One threatened with permanent insanity.

One irreclaimably addicted to drunkenness or some similarly destructive or offensive habit.

One without friends, property, employment or hope.

One who has disgraced himself.

Why do we honor the valiant soldier, sailor, fireman? For obedience to duty? Not at all; that alone—without the peril—seldom elicits remark, never evokes enthusiasm. It is because he faced without flinching the risk of that supreme disaster—or what we feel to be such—death. But look you: the soldier braves the danger of death; the suicide braves death itself! The leader of the forlorn hope may not be struck. The sailor who voluntarily goes down with his ship may be picked up or cast ashore. It is not certain that the wall will topple until the fireman shall have descended with his precious burden. But the suicide—his is the foeman that never missed a mark, his the sea that gives nothing back; the wall that he mounts bears no man’s weight And his, at the end of it all, is the dishonored grave where the wild ass of public opinion “Stamps o’er his head but can not break his sleep.”

Write It Right, Ambrose Bierce’s Blacklist of Literary Faults

In addition to his famous Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce also composed another dictionary of sorts, Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Sample entry:

Commit Suicide. Instead of “He committed suicide,” say, He killed himself, or, He took his life. For married we do not say “committed matrimony.” Unfortunately most of us do say, “got married,” which is almost as bad. For lack of a suitable verb we just sometimes say committed this or that, as in the instance of bigamy, for the verb to bigam is a blessing that is still in store for us.

Bierce’s tongue-in-cheek introduction is particularly funny:

The author’s main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern. It is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else. As Quintilian puts it, the writer should so write that his reader not only may, but must, understand.

Few words have more than one literal and serviceable meaning, however many metaphorical, derivative, related, or even unrelated, meanings lexicographers may think it worth while to gather from all sorts and conditions of men, with which to bloat their absurd and misleading dictionaries. This actual and serviceable meaning—not always determined by derivation, and seldom by popular usage—is the one affirmed, according to his light, by the author of this little manual of solecisms. Narrow etymons of the mere scholar and loose locutions of the ignorant are alike denied a standing.

The plan of the book is more illustrative than expository, the aim being to use the terms of etymology and syntax as little as is compatible with clarity, familiar example being more easily apprehended than technical precept. When both are employed the precept is commonly given after the example has prepared the student to apply it, not only to the matter in mind, but to similar matters not mentioned. Everything in quotation marks is to be understood as disapproved.

Not all locutions blacklisted herein are always to be reprobated as universal outlaws. Excepting in the case of capital offenders—expressions ancestrally vulgar or irreclaimably degenerate—absolute proscription is possible as to serious composition only; in other forms the writer must rely on his sense of values and the fitness of things. While it is true that some colloquialisms and, with less of license, even some slang, may be sparingly employed in light literature, for point, piquancy or any of the purposes of the skilled writer sensible to the necessity and charm of keeping at least one foot on the ground, to others the virtue of restraint may be commended as distinctly superior to the joy of indulgence.

Precision is much, but not all; some words and phrases are disallowed on the ground of taste. As there are neither standards nor arbiters of taste, the book can do little more than reflect that of its author, who is far indeed from professing impeccability. In neither taste nor precision is any man’s practice a court of last appeal, for writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light; and their accuser is cheerfully aware that his own work will supply (as in making this book it has supplied) many “awful examples”—his later work less abundantly, he hopes, than his earlier. He nevertheless believes that this does not disqualify him for showing by other instances than his own how not to write. The infallible teacher is still in the forest primeval, throwing seeds to the white blackbirds.

Read/peruse/download Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right at Project Gutenberg.

“An Inhabitant of Carcosa” by Ambrose Bierce

“An Inhabitant of Carcosa”


Ambrose Bierce

For there be divers sorts of death — some wherein the body remaineth; and in some it vanisheth quite away with the spirit. This commonly occurreth only in solitude (such is God’s will) and, none seeing the end, we say the man is lost, or gone on a long journey — which indeed he hath; but sometimes it hath happened in sight of many, as abundant testimony showeth. In one kind of death the spirit also dieth, and this it hath been known to do while yet the body was in vigor for many years. Sometimes, as is veritably attested, it dieth with the body, but after a season is raised up again in that place where the body did decay.

Pondering these words of Hali (whom God rest) and questioning their full meaning, as one who, having an intimation, yet doubts if there be not something behind, other than that which he has discerned, I noted not whither I had strayed until a sudden chill wind striking my face revived in me a sense of my surroundings. I observed with astonishment that everything seemed unfamiliar. On every side of me stretched a bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn wind with heaven knows what mysterious and disquieting suggestion. Protruded at long intervals above it, stood strangely shaped and somber- colored rocks, which seemed to have an understanding with one another and to exchange looks of uncomfortable significance, as if they had reared their heads to watch the issue of some foreseen event. A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation. Continue reading ““An Inhabitant of Carcosa” by Ambrose Bierce”

“The Man and the Snake” — Ambrose Bierce

“The Man and the Snake”


Ambrose Bierce


It is of veritabyll report, and attested of so many that there be nowe of wyse and learned none to gaynsaye it, that ye serpente hys eye hath a magnetick propertie that whosoe falleth into its svasion is drawn forwards in despyte of his wille, and perisheth miserabyll by ye creature hys byte.

Stretched at ease upon a sofa, in gown and slippers, Harker Brayton smiled as he read the foregoing sentence in old Morryster’s “Marvells of Science.” “The only marvel in the matter,” he said to himself, “is that the wise and learned in Morryster’s day should have believed such nonsense as is rejected by most of even the ignorant in ours.”

A train of reflections followed—for Brayton was a man of thought— and he unconsciously lowered his book without altering the direction of his eyes. As soon as the volume had gone below the line of sight, something in an obscure corner of the room recalled his attention to his surroundings. What he saw, in the shadow under his bed, were two small points of light, apparently about an inch apart. They might have been reflections of the gas jet above him, in metal nail heads; he gave them but little thought and resumed his reading. A moment later something—some impulse which it did not occur to him to analyze—impelled him to lower the book again and seek for what he saw before. The points of light were still there. They seemed to have become brighter than before, shining with a greenish luster which he had not at first observed. He thought, too, that they might have moved a trifle—were somewhat nearer. They were still too much in the shadow, however, to reveal their nature and origin to an indolent attention, and he resumed his reading. Suddenly something in the text suggested a thought which made him start and drop the book for the third time to the side of the sofa, whence, escaping from his hand, it fell sprawling to the floor, back upward. Brayton, half-risen, was staring intently into the obscurity beneath the bed, where the points of light shone with, it seemed to him, an added fire. His attention was now fully aroused, his gaze eager and imperative. It disclosed, almost directly beneath the foot rail of the bed, the coils of a large serpent—the points of light were its eyes! Its horrible head, thrust flatly forth from the innermost coil and resting upon the outermost, was directed straight toward him, the definition of the wide, brutal jaw and the idiotlike forehead serving to show the direction of its malevolent gaze. The eyes were no longer merely luminous points; they looked into his own with a meaning, a malign significance. Continue reading ““The Man and the Snake” — Ambrose Bierce”

“The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” — Ambrose Bierce

“The Middle Toe of the Right Foot”


Ambrose Bierce


It is well known that the old Manton house is haunted. In all the rural district near about, and even in the town of Marshall, a mile away, not one person of unbiased mind entertains a doubt of it; incredulity is confined to those opinionated persons who will be called “cranks” as soon as the useful word shall have penetrated the intellectual demesne of the Marshall Advance. The evidence that the house is haunted is of two kinds; the testimony of disinterested witnesses who have had ocular proof, and that of the house itself. The former may be disregarded and ruled out on any of the various grounds of objection which may be urged against it by the ingenious; but facts within the observation of all are material and controlling.

In the first place the Manton house has been unoccupied by mortals for more than ten years, and with its outbuildings is slowly falling into decay—a circumstance which in itself the judicious will hardly venture to ignore. It stands a little way off the loneliest reach of the Marshall and Harriston road, in an opening which was once a farm and is still disfigured with strips of rotting fence and half covered with brambles overrunning a stony and sterile soil long unacquainted with the plow. The house itself is in tolerably good condition, though badly weather-stained and in dire need of attention from the glazier, the smaller male population of the region having attested in the manner of its kind its disapproval of dwelling without dwellers. It is two stories in height, nearly square, its front pierced by a single doorway flanked on each side by a window boarded up to the very top. Corresponding windows above, not protected, serve to admit light and rain to the rooms of the upper floor. Grass and weeds grow pretty rankly all about, and a few shade trees, somewhat the worse for wind, and leaning all in one direction, seem to be making a concerted effort to run away. In short, as the Marshall town humorist explained in the columns of the Advance, “the proposition that the Manton house is badly haunted is the only logical conclusion from the premises.” The fact that in this dwelling Mr. Manton thought it expedient one night some ten years ago to rise and cut the throats of his wife and two small children, removing at once to another part of the country, has no doubt done its share in directing public attention to the fitness of the place for supernatural phenomena. Continue reading ““The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” — Ambrose Bierce”

Language (Ambrose Bierce)


Future (Ambrose Bierce)


“An Arrest” — Ambrose Bierce

“An Arrest”


Ambrose Bierce

Having murdered his brother-in-law, Orrin Brower of Kentucky was a fugitive from justice.  From the county jail where he had been confined to await his trial he had escaped by knocking down his jailer with an iron bar, robbing him of his keys and, opening the outer door, walking out into the night.  The jailer being unarmed, Brower got no weapon with which to defend his recovered liberty.  As soon as he was out of the town he had the folly to enter a forest; this was many years ago, when that region was wilder than it is now.

The night was pretty dark, with neither moon nor stars visible, and as Brower had never dwelt thereabout, and knew nothing of the lay of the land, he was, naturally, not long in losing himself.  He could not have said if he were getting farther away from the town or going back to it – a most important matter to Orrin Brower.  He knew that in either case a posse of citizens with a pack of bloodhounds would soon be on his track and his chance of escape was very slender; but he did not wish to assist in his own pursuit.  Even an added hour of freedom was worth having.

Suddenly he emerged from the forest into an old road, and there before him saw, indistinctly, the figure of a man, motionless in the gloom.  It was too late to retreat: the fugitive felt that at the first movement back toward the wood he would be, as he afterward explained, “filled with buckshot.”  So the two stood there like trees, Brower nearly suffocated by the activity of his own heart; the other – the emotions of the other are not recorded.

A moment later – it may have been an hour – the moon sailed into a patch of unclouded sky and the hunted man saw that visible embodiment of Law lift an arm and point significantly toward and beyond him.  He understood.  Turning his back to his captor, he walked submissively away in the direction indicated, looking to neither the right nor the left; hardly daring to breathe, his head and back actually aching with a prophecy of buckshot.

Brower was as courageous a criminal as ever lived to be hanged; that was shown by the conditions of awful personal peril in which he had coolly killed his brother-in-law.  It is needless to relate them here; they came out at his trial, and the revelation of his calmness in confronting them came near to saving his neck.  But what would you have? – when a brave man is beaten, he submits.

So they pursued their journey jailward along the old road through the woods.  Only once did Brower venture a turn of the head: just once, when he was in deep shadow and he knew that the other was in moonlight, he looked backward.  His captor was Burton Duff, the jailer, as white as death and bearing upon his brow the livid mark of the iron bar.  Orrin Brower had no further curiosity.

Eventually they entered the town, which was all alight, but deserted; only the women and children remained, and they were off the streets.  Straight toward the jail the criminal held his way.  Straight up to the main entrance he walked, laid his hand upon the knob of the heavy iron door, pushed it open without command, entered and found himself in the presence of a half-dozen armed men.  Then he turned.  Nobody else entered.

On a table in the corridor lay the dead body of Burton Duff.

“Dictionary” — Ambrose Bierce


(From The Devil’s Dictionary, of course).

Teju Cole’s Dictionary of Received Ideas

Yesterday on Twitter, Teju Cole shared a series of definitions—some ironic, some hilarious funny, all perceptive.

The series of definitions immediately reminded me of Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic work The Devil’s Dictionary, but Cole later tweeted that he had Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (The Dictionary of Received Ideas) in mind as a model.

Cole reiterated Flaubert’s influence again when he published the tweets today at The New Yorker under the title “In Place of Thought“—a little sample:

AMERICAN. With the prefix “all,” a blonde.

CHILDREN. The only justification for policy. Always say “our children.” The childless have no interest in improving society.

HILARIOUS. Never simply say “funny.”

HIP HOP. Old-school hip hop, i.e., whatever was popular when you were nineteen, is great. Everything since then is intolerable.

HIPSTER. One who has an irrational hatred of hipsters.

INTERNET. A waste of time. Have a long online argument with anyone who disagrees.

JAZZ. America’s classical music. The last album was released in 1965.

LITERALLY. Swear you’d rather die than use “literally” as an intensifier.

POET. Always preceded by “published.” Function unknown.

Bonus—from Flaubert’s Dictionnaire:

BLACK – Always preceded by “pitch”.

CHILDREN – Affect a lyric tenderness towards  them, when people are about.

INTRODUCTION — Obscene word.

LITERATURE — Idle pastime.

METAPHORS — Always too many in poems. Always too many in anybody’s writing.

OPTIMIST — Synonym for imbecile.

POETRY — Entirely useless; out of date.

THINK (TO) — Painful. Things that compel us to think are generally neglected.