Everyone knows that the Manton House is haunted; only a crazy person would doubt it. The proof comes from the fact that the building has been abandoned for many years and is slowly falling into decay. Grass and weeds grow around it, and its windows are broken. It was in this house that Mr. Manton killed his wife and two children a decade ago, before disappearing from the area entirely. One summer evening, a carriage carrying four men stops at this building. One of the men refuses to disembark, and accuses the others of playing a trick on him. He only joins the others when they accuse him of being afraid of spooks. They enter the house, which is filled with dust and spiderwebs.
The man who hesitated to leave the carriage is a large man with a forbidding face who calls himself Richard Grossmith. The other three are younger and obviously harbor no affection for this man. They remove their outer clothing, and present Grossmith and Rosser, a younger man, with two long knives. The two men station themselves in different corners, and one of the seconds blows out the candle and reminds them not to move until they hear the closing of the outer door.
A few minutes later, a farmer’s boy sees a light wagon being driven by three figures; the third figure has its hands upon the bowed shoulders of the others. The boy is certain that this strange figure must have joined the carriage near the haunted Manton house, and the people of the town believe him immediately.
The reader then learns the events that led to this “duel in the dark.” One afternoon, three young men – King, Rosser, and Sancher – are lounging on the porch of the village hotel and chatting, while a Robert Grossmith sits a short ways away. King says that he hates any kind of deformity in a woman, and in fact rejected one woman because she was missing the middle toe of her right foot. Sancher comments that this woman died because of this as she married Manton; King comments jokingly that Manton probably killed her because of her missing toe. Rosser comments that Grossmith is obviously listening to their conversation, and the three young men confront him, saying that the presence of gentlemen is evidently an unfamiliar situation for him. In a rage, Grossmith challenges the younger men to a duel, which by the custom of the time will be a duel with knives in a dark room.
The next day, the Manton mansion seems almost lovely in the sunshine and Sheriff Adams and his deputy Mr. King approach it. With them is Brewer, the brother of the late Mrs. Manton; because of his sister’s death and brother-in-law’s disappearance, he is the legal owner of the property. King has told no one else about his participation in the duel, and he is only here because Mr. Brewer has just received an action that he is the owner of the property.
The men are surprised to see a heap of men’s outerwear in the corner, and horrified to find the corpse of a man upon one knee in the corner. His hands are before his face with his palms outward, and on his face is an expression of terror.
King comments that this man is Manton; he used to have a long beard, but it is still him. He does not tell the full truth – that he and his friends recognized the man as Manton on the porch of the hotel, and goaded him into participating in a duel in this haunted house. But King does not say anything about this.
In the dust on the floor of the room, they notice three sets of footsteps. Two of them look like those of small children, and the third like a woman’s. They disappear suddenly, not leading anywhere. Brewer points to one, which is missing the middle toe of the right foot, and says it must be that of Gertrude, his sister, who was killed by Manton.
The common opinion that the Manton house is haunted - to the point that no one sane doubts this fact - is an example of literary irony. Generally, those who believe a place to be haunted are considered insane, but in this instance, the evidence that the Manton house is haunted is so overwhelming that only those who are insane would deny this truth.
It is not entirely clear if Rosser, Sancher, and King know that leading Grossmith/Manton to the house where he committed the fateful murder will lead to his death at the hands of his wife's angry ghost. The three men do recognize him as the famous murderer, and they do choose to lead him back to the scene of his crime. But did they know what would happen? This is unclear from the story.
Bierce vividly describes the ugly appearance of Grossmith. "Deeply sunken beneath these glowed in the obscure light a pair of eyes of uncertain color, but obviously enough too small. There was something forbidding in their expression, which was not bettered by the cruel mouth and wide jaw. The nose was well enough, as noses go; one does not expect much of noses" (37). Grossmith's appearance highlights his unlikeability. His eyes are sunken and small, his mouth is cruel, and his jaw is too wide; he is clearly rather ugly. Moreover, the concentration of words with negative connotations in this description ("sunken," "forbidding," "cruel") not only makes Grossmith stand out among the characters in the story, but also indicate that he is a dangerous person.
Later horror writer HP Lovecraft highlights this story as an outstanding example of weird fiction in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature." He points out that the story is "clumsily developed," but praises its "powerful climax."
Like many of the short stories from this collection, "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot" plays on themes from a previous story (in this case, "The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch"). In the previous tale, a husband also murdered his wife for unclear reasons. However, in this story, the murderer is eventually killed for his evil deed by his victim, which echoes themes from "The Moonlit Road."