Ambrose Bierce, “Can Such Things Be?” (1910): Ghosts, Death, and the Unfamiliar in Gilded Age America

Can Such Things Be? is a collection of Ambrose Bierce’s supernatural stories, first collected in 1893, but not in their final form until 1910 as a volume of Bierce’s collected works.  It is divided into roughly two parts.  The first part is 24 short stories and the second part is 18 journalist vignettes (which Bierce presents as objective happenings, not as fiction).  Bierce places the uncanny and the supernatural in the conflict between reason and the unknown of the later 19th century.  On the one hand, there was a strong belief in the victory of reason and progress over the natural and the unknown.    On the other hand, as with all developing capitalist societies the solid and the known (that is those things understood by tradition and community) were torn asunder with a never ending barrage of new ideas, new commodities, and new people (via migrations).  While I suspect most communities have had their local traditions of the uncanny, the mysterious, and the supernatural (much like every town must have a haunted house), in an era of rapid change and growing liquidity those  “known unknowns” (e.g. the haunted house every knows to avoid) become “unknown unknowns,” a much more horrifying prospect.

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These stories are alive with wanderers, migrants, and immigrants.  In the opening story, “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” the title character is someone who voluntarily rejected his wealth and privileges and pursued a life as a vagabond.  When confronted with a supernatural experience he learned a weakness of being a vagabond.  The locals understood exactly the meaning of the name he shouted out before encountering a ghost.  A similar, although less deadly, fate met the narrator of “The Secret of Macarger’s Glutch.”  Here again, the local folklore was unknown to him being a liquid wanderer.  In two of the stories, Chinese immigrants bring in their own supernatural traditions that merge with the American folklore.

As in In the Midst of Life, we find Bierce plagued with the failure of marriage.  Numerous ghosts in these stories emerged from fateful domestic quarrels.  We can wonder if this is another byproduct of the capitalist displacement of expected social arrangements.

Another powerful theme, and one that will be revisited by Lovecraft in great detail, is the dilemma of knowledge.  The rapid expansion of scientific knowledge in the late nineteenth century posed a challenge to religious beliefs.  However, the survival of the uncanny requires us to ponder a reasonable explanation to the unexplainable.  In “A Diagnosis of Death” a young man witnesses what he thinks is the ghost of Dr. Mannering.  As it turns out he saw him later on the street.  This story, when told, horrified his audience who know that Mannering had been dead for a few years.  In Moxom’s Master, we see an early transhumanist argument about the mechanical foundation of life.  This sets up a conflict between an artificial intelligence and its creator.  In the most bizarre example of this (“A Tough Tussle”), a Civil War officer sees a Confederate rise from the death.  Most of the story involves the officer thinking about the naturalistic and historical reasons humans fear corpses.  He is unable to believe his own eyes until it is too late and he is killed by this walking dead man.  Characters throughout the stories grasp for naturalistic and scientific explanations for what they see.  The horror comes in the failure of science to rationalize what they see.

One story pokes fun at the late 19th century American work ethic.  In “A Jug of Sirup”, Silas Deemer, a local shop owner, dies.  His ghost returns and begins selling from the same store, unable to break free from his obligations to his business, which is life he rarely left unattended.  It is not revenge that keeps him on Earth, it is the dreadful work ethic.

As a liquid world continues to melt all that is solid into air, millions turn to the comparative stability of religious superstition, New Ageism, or occult beliefs.  These are not throwbacks to ancient Earth-based traditions, they are desperate striving for stability.  I am not sure how much of this Bierce was conscious of.  He was simply telling ghost stories, set in the changing world of industrializing America.  The uncanny is able to exploit our vulnerabilities as we encounter dramatic change.  In this sense, Bierce’s day was not so dissimilar from our own.

 

 

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