In which a family reunion occurs…sort of.
First published in 1893
Available online at Project Gutenberg
Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise.
— Ambrose Bierce, “The Damned Thing“
It’s sad to say, but black comedy is dead.
Over the last 30 years or so, the genre was done in by an insufferable horde of hipsters. Through overexposure, they reduced black comedy to something common and bland. It now has even less artistic merit than a Keane painting or faux-bossa nova hold music.
In fact, I’d rather be on hold, listening to an earnest woman with perfect diction tell me that my call is important to the company and that all operators are currently busy helping other customers, than I would spend one more picosecond of my precious existence on any work described (usually by its creators) as “darkly humorous,” “acidly funny,” or “comically subversive.” As Nero Wolfe put it: “Pfui!”
There was a time when black comedy actually was shocking, when it provided the metaphorical equivalent of placing your tongue squarely on the business end of a fresh 9-volt battery.*
This was the case in the mid-to-late 19th century. It was an era dominated, at least in the U.S., by unrepentantly shallow positive thinking. This could be found everywhere, lurking within culture both low (cf. Horatio Alger) and high (cf. every Transcendentalist that you have ever heard of).
Millions of people fully believed that the inescapable problems of life could be cured by maintaining the proper outlook. The essential difficulties of being human could be solved — it was all in your head, see?**
Enter Ambrose Bierce.
When Bierce’s writing career got underway in earnest, he was already a veteran of the Civil War, a man who’d survived a number of battles and received a serious head wound. He’d had an extreme-close-up view of the bloodiest conflict ever to take place in the New World. That experience formed the core of his worldview, and his writing. It’s where “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“, “One of the Missing,” “Parker Adderson, Philosopher,” and “Chickamauga,”** to name only a few, come from.
Unlike the Transcendentalists, Bierce had seen too much to place any stock in the inherent goodness of human beings. He retained his puckish sense of humor, however. And so he became what today’s hipsters can only vaguely hope of achieving: a black comedy genius.
Bierce’s dark sense of humor is on display in almost all of his works, even his supernatural fiction, of which he wrote plenty. This is evident from the tone of his opening to “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot:”
“It is well known that the old Manton house is haunted. In all the rural district near about, and even in the town of Marshall, a mile away, not one person of unbiased mind entertains a doubt of it; incredulity is confined to those opinionated persons who will be called ‘cranks’ as soon as the useful word shall have penetrated the intellectual demesne of the Marshall Advance. The evidence that the house is haunted is of two kinds; the testimony of disinterested witnesses who have had ocular proof, and that of the house itself. The former may be disregarded and ruled out on any of the various grounds of objection which may be urged against it by the ingenious; but facts within the observation of all are material and controlling.
“In the first place the Manton house has been unoccupied by mortals for more than ten years, and with its outbuildings is slowly falling into decay—a circumstance which in itself the judicious will hardly venture to ignore. It stands a little way off the loneliest reach of the Marshall and Harriston road, in an opening which was once a farm and is still disfigured with strips of rotting fence and half covered with brambles overrunning a stony and sterile soil long unacquainted with the plow. The house itself is in tolerably good condition, though badly weather-stained and in dire need of attention from the glazier, the smaller male population of the region having attested in the manner of its kind its disapproval of dwelling without dwellers. It is two stories in height, nearly square, its front pierced by a single doorway flanked on each side by a window boarded up to the very top. Corresponding windows above, not protected, serve to admit light and rain to the rooms of the upper floor. Grass and weeds grow pretty rankly all about, and a few shade trees, somewhat the worse for wind, and leaning all in one direction, seem to be making a concerted effort to run away. In short, as the Marshall town humorist explained in the columns of the Advance, ‘the proposition that the Manton house is badly haunted is the only logical conclusion from the premises.'”
Well…that all sounds reasonable to me.
While this excerpt is a fine sample of Bierce’s sly, acerbic prose, it doesn’t prepare you for what’s to follow. Like many of his other stories, “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” shifts frequently in tone and chronology. You might assume from the opening that you’re in for a Twain-like piece of snarky Americana, but you’d be wrong (or, at least, not entirely right).
Not long after introducing his spooky locale, Bierce describes a visit to the house by four men. Three of these know each other well, but the fourth is a stranger to them, and a hostile one, at that. What they’re doing at the Manton place soon becomes evident, but their underlying reasons require a flashback and a flashforward in order to become clear.
The end result is nonlinear and not a little postmodern. It seems that Bierce was taking the Quentin Tarantino approach to plotting over seventy years before there was a Quentin Tarantino.
In any case, “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” is not a very long story; it’s only 12 pages or so. Nonetheless, during its course, it changes from a satire to a crime narrative to, finally, a ghost story — or, I should say, a revenant story. The end result is all the more effective for these abrupt changes; the disorientation they cause ultimately aids the disquieting effect.
I would suggest not taking my word for this, though; read the story yourself. If you like “Middle Toe,” I think you’ll also enjoy Bierce’s other supernatural (and non-supernatural) pieces, many of which are available online. It does help if you have a certain sense of humor, as well as a rather black outlook. If you’re already in possession of both, then I think you’ll find Mr. Bierce’s company to be most congenial.
*I do this frequently. No, you may not ask why.
**Come to think of it, that does sound familiar.
***Incidentally, “Chickamauga,” although brilliant, is one of the most horrifying stories in English-language literature. If you are easily upset, do not read it. I am serious.