Monday, June 3, 2013

The Damned Thing versus The Lurking Fear

Fans of horror fiction from the late 19th to early 20th century have probably encountered Ambrose Bierce’s classic tale The Damned Thing.  The story can be found in numerous anthologies.  It is also included in a collection of his work entitled Can Such Things Be? (Citadel Press, 1974).  In general anthologies of horror fiction it is often accompanied by stories like The Ash Tree, by M.R. James, The Yellow Sign, by Robert W. Chambers, The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood, and inevitably by some work of H.P. Lovecraft.

In his foundational essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft comments on Bierce’s work, which he admires for its “rare strain of sardonic comedy and graveyard humour” and the “genuineness and artistry of his dark intimations.”  However, he is also critical of his stories, which he describes as “obviously mechanical, and marred by a jaunty and commonplacely artificial style derived from journalistic models…”  Lovecraft feels that Bierce “seldom realizes the atmospheric possibilities of his themes as vividly as Poe; and much of his work contains a certain touch of naiveté, prosaic angularity or early-American provincialism…”

But it seems that, stylistically at least, Lovecraft is looking backwards, towards Poe, while Bierce in some respects is looking forward to a more realistic and less literary style.  Of the two authors, Bierce seems more modern in the presentation of his stories, though ironically his work is the older of the two.  His story, The Damned Thing, has some interesting similarities and differences, when compared to Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear.

Both stories are divided into four sections, which interlock to deliver the overall effect and power of the tale.  The Damned Thing, which by far is the shorter of the two stories, is divided as follows:

I.          One Does Not Always Eat What Is On The Table
II.         What May Happen In A Field Of Wild Oats
III.        A Man Though Naked May Be In Rags
IV.       An Explanation From The Tomb

The story begins at an inquest, where a coroner is trying to determine what has happened to the late Hugh Morgan, (what—or rather who, is on the table).  A friend of the deceased, a young reporter, describes what the two observed out in a field while they were hunting quail.  The hunters come upon a malevolent but invisible creature, whose ominous approach they could detect in the disturbance of the grass.  Bierce has his character of the young reporter reflect:  “We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity.”  (On this point, Lovecraft and Bierce would certainly agree.) 

Morgan is viciously mauled and killed by the creature.  Later, his diary reveals an explanation of the nature of The Damned Thing.  From the grave, as it were, Morgan says, “The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real ‘chromatic scale.’  I am not mad; there are colors that we cannot see.  And, God help me! The Damned Thing is of such a color!”

The Lurking Fear is also divided into four sections, as follows:

I.          The Shadow on the Chimney
II.         A Passer in the Storm
III.       What the Red Glare Meant
IV.       The Horror in the Eyes

The Lurking Fear was discussed in two earlier posts.  Briefly:  An investigator of supernatural horrors arrives with his assistants at the infamous Martense mansion, somewhere in the Catskills.  He has heard of a terrible conflagration in nearby Leffert’s Corner, where, following a powerful storm and hill side cave in, dozens of the local inhabitants are killed.  They appear in some cases to have been eaten.  His two associates vanish mysteriously and a helpful reporter is later gruesomely killed during a foray to the scene of the disaster. 

In his obsessive desire to know the truth about the ‘lurking fear’, the narrator offers a variety of theories about the nature of the creature.  Its horrible depredations of the local population, including even the wildlife, seem to be centered in the neighborhood of the Martense mansion.  His extensive research includes digging up the grave of a doomed descendent of the Martense clan.  In the process he uncovers an underground tunnel which leads up the mountain and into a portion of the terrible old house.  From there he comes to the awful realization that there is more than one tunnel and more than one creature. 

He arranges the demolition of the Martense mansion, knowing that the ‘lurking fear’ has not been completely vanquished.  “The thing will haunt me,” he says near the end, “for who can say the extermination is complete, and that analogous phenomena do not exist all over the world?  Who can, with my knowledge, think of the earth’s unknown caverns without a nightmare dread of future possibilities?”  

We can compare the creatures depicted in these two stories using the convenient  “creature comparison chart” below.

The Damned Thing
The Lurking Fear
Out West
Out East
Invisible, but acts like a grizzly bear or mountain lion.  Makes a sound like dogs fighting.
Though invisible, behaviorally the creature resembles a large, predatory vertebrate.
Variously described as hairy, rat like, and ape like.  Probably humanoid.  Has claws and eyes that may be different colors—blue and brown—like a Martense.  Makes little noise except for occasional squeals.
Favorite Food
Humans, farm animals, wildlife, each other.
Somewhat slow and lumbering.  Can be detected if one is observant of nearby vegetation.
Very fast.
Fields and woods, wilderness.
Underground tunnels, caverns and decayed mansions.
Comfortable outdoors, day or night.
Hates storms, prefers nightfall and dark places.
Threat to Humanity
Physical violence and danger from an unknown, invisible creature.
Predation, interbreeding and inherited evil.  (See Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model, for a further development of this theme.)
Authors’ Preoccupation
There are physical dangers in the natural world that we are unable to perceive with our limited senses.
There are physical, psychological and spiritual dangers in the world that we are unaware of and which may be as intimately close to us as our own homes and families.

Of the two stories, it seems that Lovecraft’s is the more satisfying of the two.  Bierce appears largely motivated to convey an idea—the implications of a creature whose color is not within the visible spectrum.  There is no struggle against The Damned Thing; it merely wanders off into the woods near the end.  Bierce’s characters are subservient to this abstraction that he is playing with, this ‘what if.’  There is journalistic coldness in his telling of the tale.  But in Lovecraft we see the very human fearfulness of an individual who has come to acquire a new and disturbing knowledge of the world, and the impact this has on his life. 


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