The Damned Thing (1893) is a short science-fiction, horror tale, by Ambrose Bierce. It is an incredibly important tale for fans of H.P. Lovecraft, and of the weird fiction cannon. Bierce is able to conjure just a few words to captivate the reader, and isolate certain moments that are about to occur. He transcends the reader into unfolding events.
One can almost feel the flicking of a light-switch upon each of the nine men gathered in the room. One of which happens to be a corpse, adding further to the mystery and suspense. We, the reader, are thrown into the aftermath of what has happened and why it has happened? This gives the tale an existential essence, leading to the absurd.
At times, I drew close connections to John Carpenter’s, The Thing, or the short story, Who Goes There, in its effect on isolation and cabin fever. The tale also sometimes feels like the first Predator movie, in the idea that this invisible force is involved, and we as humans cannot seem to filter it through the casual eye. Allowing the characters in the story to barely interpret anything, aiding the suspense.
Further into the tale we soon learn what is truly happening. There is an inquest inside the candlelit room, and one of the nine men recounts what has happened to the corpse, drawing us further inwards. We later learn that the book the man is reading is in fact a dead man’s diary, and the man reading is a coroner.
The main ingredient of the tale is a character called, William Harker. William is a reporter who arrives late at the inquest. Bierce uses locals and farmers to dumb it down to make the events seem somehow, otherworldly. The tale works on many levels because we, as the reader, bring our own perceptions to the table. This way, Bierce allows us to make conclusions, which for its time, was an incredible technique.
In revisiting this tale, I immediately drew connections to low budget filmmaking, and the importance of suggestion rather than showing everything. Although John Carpenter’s, The Thing, completely washed the idea away, that less is more and more is less if budget is of no concern.
For the low budget indie film maker, and even the beginner writer, The Damned Thing is extremely important in its use of technique and style. A beginner fiction writer and screenwriter will find it tests the ability to show or not to show, and it also allows the reader or watcher to draw on his/her own experiences of the fear and the unknown.
Although the techniques used by Ambrose Bierce have been tried tested, it could be seen as considerably dated in today’s standards. We live in times where sensory overload is amuck, and the nerves blunted to a pulp. We would do well in revisiting this wonderful tale and stepping back, exploring these invisible forces that can be distilled into our own fears and terrors and paranoia.