Supernatural events predominate in these stories. Sometimes these include ghosts (“The Moonlit Road”) or shape-changers (“Eyes of the Panther”), at other times slips between different moments in time. Sometimes, events occur that are so unlikely that they may as well be supernatural (“A Holy Terror”). The supernatural is one tool that Bierce uses to create an eerie and weird atmosphere. Intriguingly, two stories in the collection (“The Man and the Snake” and "The Watcher by the Dead") turn the idea of the supernatural on its head, showing that an event that seemed supernatural at first is in fact caused by entirely mundane events.
Violence Against Women
Nearly every story in this collection features the violent death of a woman (“The Moonlit Road,” “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch,” “A Psychological Shipwreck”). Men die as well, but not so commonly or dramatically as women. Murder of women by a jealous spouse is common in the stories. Given Bierce’s audience in nineteenth-century America, the murder of women (believed at the time to be pure and gentle beings) is perhaps meant to induce a sense of horror in the reader.
Many of Bierce's characters are alone in the American wilderness (“The Boarded Window,” “A Holy Terror”), far from any civilization or assistance. Frequently, their geographical isolation coincides with a psychological separation from others; characters keep secrets and only confide them at extreme moments (“John Bartine’s Watch,” "Beyond the Wall"). This theme of isolation speaks to an aspect of the American experience, in which life on the frontier far away from other people was common. It also provides a setting in which weird events may happen out of sight of others, and where evil forces can take hold.
Unsurprisingly for a collection of horror and ghost stories, death is a recurrent theme. Death is not a final event, as we see in stories where the dead affect the living (“The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch,” “Beyond the Wall”). Often, death occurs without any apparent physical cause, as a result of great emotion (“A Holy Terror,” “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot”).
Ghosts of all kinds predominate in these stories. “The Moonlit Road” contains a vivid description of the experiences and capacities of ghosts, and in many other stories the disembodied spirits of the dead continue to influence the living. Ghosts in Bierce’s stories seem to be created when an individual dies in agony and is unavenged or leaves behind unfinished tasks (“The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch,” “Beyond the Wall”)
Nearly all of the stories in this collection have a shocking or twist ending, a moment to which the story builds. This may be a revelation that the corpse on the table was in fact alive enough to attack a panther, or that the footprints of a dead woman were found by the man who murdered her. Frequently, these endings are described in terms of effects, and the reader must interpret and infer the actual event.
Another theme that emerges is the instability of time, particularly as exemplified by time hubs, which scholar Paul Juhasz describes as "a specific narrative moment where multiple timelines intersect." Time is not linear and different points in time and place can be brought together, particularly by painful or shocking events. For example, the death of a distant ancestor in "John Bartine's Watch" causes his great-grandson's death as well, and in "The Secret of Macarger's Gulch," the violent murder of a woman by her husband is repeated endlessly.
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The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories study guide contains literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis of the short stories by Ambrose Bierce.
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