A dark-haired man enters a locked room in San Francisco, and a corpse sits next to him on a table. He sits down and reads a book by candlelight, occasionally sneaking glimpses at the body. The room is locked and all of the windows boarded so that no light can enter. The man checks the candle and estimates that he has about another hour of light. He puts some matches in his pocket and then blows out the candle.
At a physician's office, three men sit around a table drinking and smoking. Dr. Helberson, the oldest and most distinguished, states that fear of the dead is hereditary and curable, a claim that his companions, Harper and Mancher, debate. They claim that if a man could spend the whole night in a dark room with a corpse, he would demonstrate great bravery. Harper says he knows such a man who could complete this task - the gambler Jarette, who looks oddly like Dr. Mancher. The three men decide to take this bet.
Back to the room in which Jarette is sitting with the corpse, he has decided to save a reserve of the candle in case of need, and now sits in complete darkness. He does not feel sleepy and is not sure what to do with himself, when he thinks he hears a noise from the table. He listens so intently that he finally realizes he was holding his breath almost to the point of suffocation.
He lights the candle just to check, and also confirms that the door is locked. He extinguishes the candle, reasoning that he has nothing to fear, and determines that he, who has no sense of superstition, will not be reduced to hysteria at spending the night with a corpse. Suddenly, he hears footsteps behind him in the darkness.
Helberson and Harper are driving through the streets on their way to the locked room where Jarette and Mancher are located. They are starting to feel uncomfortable with their plan to have Mancher pose as a corpse and scare Jarette. Even Helberson says that if Jarette had not been so rude to him, he would not have gone along with the plan.
They approach the unoccupied house where the two other men are staying, and notice a massive crowd and a police presence, unusual since it is 4 in the morning. A man with white hair runs past them, and Harper recognizes the man as Jarette before he disappears into the night. They enter the room and see the corpse of Mancher, looking repulsive and terrifying. It seems that Jarette had killed him out of fear and rage when he heard him rise from the dead.
Harper and Helberson are shaken, and Helberson casually suggests that they visit Europe for a while. The two depart that afternoon.
Seven years later, the two men are sitting on a bench in New York City. A man with white hair approaches them, and explains that when one kills a gentleman by coming to life, it is best to change clothes with him and make a break for liberty. The stranger explains that he is Mancher, though he sometimes calls himself Jarette. Mancher explains that he noticed how nervous Jarette was becoming and couldn't resist frightening him by coming to life. Helberson and Harper explain that they are no longer physicians, but rather mere gamblers. Mancher says that that is a good profession, but he will stick to the old one, and calls himself High Supreme Medical Officer of the Bloomingdale Asylum before wandering away.
Scholar Judy Comes in Madness and the Loss of Identity in 19th Century Fiction, writes that "Ultimately, the work challenges our preconceptions of who we are and about what it takes to make us question our place in the scheme of things." Indeed, the great question at the end is whether it is Mancher or Jarette who survived that fateful night.
Bierce establishes a sense of unreality by dropping the reader into the middle of the story. The man the reader will eventually know as Jarette is sitting in a room with a corpse, but we do not know how or why he has found himself here. The reader begins the story with the same sense of unreality that Jarette/Mancher feels by the end.
Jarette and Mancher look very similar - enough that they might be twins, according to Harper. This becomes significant during the moment in New York when a man claiming to be Mancher approaches the men. Helberson had assumed that Jarette had killed Mancher out of terror, but the man who appears to them in New York explains that he killed a man by coming to life, presumably referring to his causing Jarette's death by fear. Is the man who appears before Halberson and Harper at the end of the story Jarette or Mancher? He insists that he is Mancher, but he is also clearly insane, as evidenced by his calling himself the High Supreme Medical Officer of the Bloomingdale Asylum. Did Jarette kill Mancher out of fear and then flee before going mad? Or did Mancher go insane out of guilt at having killed Jarette, taking on his identity and traveling the world?
According to Judy Comes, the seven years that pass between the departure of Helberson and Harper and their reunion with Jarette/Mancher may symbolically indicate a sense of completion, referencing the Biblical seven days of creation. Indeed, a transformation has come to pass for these two men: they are doctors who have now become gamblers, just as Mancher used to be a doctor but has now become a madman or a corpse.
On page 80, Bierce describes the reaction of the men who have come to investigate the strange events in the abandoned hour: "The men, blinded, confused, almost terrified, made a tumultuous rush for the door, pushing, crowding, and tumbling over one another as they fled, like the hosts of Night before the shafts of Apollo." Apollo was the Greek god of the sun, so these men are fleeing like shadows before the sun. Apollo was also the god of physicians in ancient Greece, and by invoking him, Bierce subtly highlights the authority of the doctor.