The first narrator, Joel Hetman Jr., begins by lamenting that he is wealthy, full of health, and generally enjoys every advantage, because this causes a great contrast between the appearances of his outer life and his inner existence, which is full of turmoil and loss.
He is the only child of Joel and Julia Hetman, two wealthy country elites. He is in his freshman year at Yale when he receives a telegram from his father informing him of the death of his mother, who has been barbarously murdered. This terrifying discovery was made in the following way. Joel Hetman was returning to his home late at night; he'd gone to Nashville and intended to return the next day, but decided to return a bit sooner. Because he had no leg and did not wish to awaken the servants, he goes around to the back of the house just in time to see the dark figure of a man slinking away into the night. Joel tries to pursue the man but is unsuccessful, so he enters the house. To his horror, he trips on a dark object that turns out to be the dead body of his wife, the marks of strangulation on her body.
Joel Jr. gives up his studies to move back in with his father, who has fallen into a state of deep dejection. He is deeply depressed, though he startles easily at any sudden noise. The narrator, being young, recovers from this terrible loss relatively quickly.
A few months after the event, he and his father walk home from the city. As they approach the house at night, his father jerks away and points to the road, saying "God! God! What is that?" Joel Jr. sees nothing and says so, but his father begins walking backwards, face still riveted in terror at the road. The narrator feels a chill envelope his body, and his eye is drawn to the upper window of the house, where one of the servants has lit a lamp. When he looks back at his father, the man is gone, and he has never been able to find him.
Then begins the second narrator, Caspar Grattan. Though he gives this as his name, he says he was not born with it, but has only lived with it for the past twenty years. Though his memories are fractured, he has the body of an old man.
His memories are broken and fragmented. However, he recalls a time when he was not a mad, impoverished man living in a strange city. He recalls that he once lived with a wife and a child near a city, and that one evening he decided to test his wife's fidelity. He went to the city and told his wife he would be back the following day. However, he came back that night, and when he saw a man sneak away into the darkness from his house, he knew his wife had seen a lover. When he found her cowering in their room, he strangled her in a rage.
He has another memory too - he was on the moonlit road when he saw the ghost of his wife confronting him, floating towards him and looking at him with recognition. He remembers little else, and lives a life of poverty and misery.
Then begins the narrative of Julia Hetman, relayed through the medium Bayrolles. She says she had been sleeping until she was awakened by a sense of terror. She lit a lamp, but this was no help - she realized it would only make her even more visible to whatever lurked in the shadows. She extinguished the lamp and hid under her bedding. She heard low, irregular footsteps in the hall, which seemed malevolent. She reflects on her current existence as a specter, doomed to haunt the scenes of her former life but never able to affect them. Sometimes, though, through great love or hate, she can pierce the veil. Still, though, her world is one of sorrow and despair.
That night, however, she heard the thing on the stairs shuffle away. She rose, but then heard footsteps on the stairs again. She had no time to hide before her husband was there, his hands at her throat.
Her ghost lingers near her husband and son, and she sought some way to let them know that she still loves them. One night when they were on the moonlit road, she moved near them, and she was delighted to see that her husband recognized her. However, her husband was stricken with terror and fled from her, and she was never able to find him. She regrets that she is never able to comfort her son, who will soon die and join her in the afterlife.
The story is told from the perspectives of different narrators, each a member of a central family - Joel Hetman Jr., Caspar Grattan (who is actually Joel Hetman), and Julia Hetman. This gives three different perspectives on the story, so that in the end the reader is not entirely sure of the truth of the narrative. It also gives the story an eerie, disjointed feeling.
Each of the narrators is deceived about the motivations of the others - or perhaps they deceive themselves. In Joel Jr.'s narrative, he relates that his father found his mother's dead body and was struck with horror by an unseen force on the moonlit road before vanishing. Joel Sr. states that he saw a dark shape running away from the house, and that he killed his wife in a rage at the thought of her infidelity. Julia states that she heard ominous footsteps on the stairs before someone strangled her to death, but she clearly does not think her husband did this because she shows no rage.
This tale, especially Julia's section as relayed by a medium, is another example of the supernatural in Bierce's fiction. He presents a strikingly vivid picture of the world of ghosts, even explaining the rules of their engagement with the physical world and the limitations of their power, as well as their reasons for remaining on the mortal plane.
Joel Hetman Jr. notes that Joel Sr. was "passionately attached [to his wife] with what I now know to have been a jealous and exacting devotion" (10). It is later revealed that Joel Sr. murdered his wife when he thought she had taken a lover. This passage highlights Joel Sr.'s jealousy, and suggests that it played a role in his wife's death.
One question is never fully answered - who was the dark shape that Joel Sr. witnessed running away from the house, and who (or what) does Julia hear on the steps outside her bedroom? Could this be another malevolent, supernatural force that intended to harm the family? Is it perhaps a servant? Or did Julia really take a lover? This unresolved narrative thread, particularly from a writer as talented as Bierce, suggests secrets within the story.