Friday, June 18, 2010

The Moonlit Road

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

In a recent issue of the journal Dead Reckonings, literary critic S. T. Joshi mentioned “The Moonlit Road,” proclaiming the story “poignant and terrifying” and “far too little known.” At first, Bierce’s tale reads like a simple whodunit: its three conflicting narratives seem to fit together and “what happened” might seem straightforward, but a closer reading causes hesitation: Where is “Caspar Grattan” living and what happens to him in the end? Who is “767”? Can we trust the “medium Bayrolles”? As Martin Griffin writes in a perceptive essay, the story’s “doubts and implications are not resolved but rather . . . bequeathed to the reader, to see if he or she can make any sense of them.”

Certain aspects of the story echo Bierce’s own life—particularly the themes of suspicion and infidelity. His wife died in 1905, only months before their divorce had been finalized, and he wrote the story the following year (it was published in the January 1907 issue of Cosmopolitan). The couple had permanently separated two decades earlier when he found letters to her from a Danish man with whom she had become friendly. According to their daughter Helen, the long-distance friendship was never romantic but rather “a decorous and discreet fascination.” But Bierce walked out and never saw her again: “I don’t take part in competitions—not even in love.” Soon after their separation, a far more tragic love triangle occurred. Their seventeen-year-old son Day shot and killed his best friend, and then himself, after the latter had eloped with Day’s girlfriend.

A final note: Although it may be “far too little known,” “The Moonlit Road” became stepfather to one of the twentieth century’s greatest movies. Martin Griffin reminds us that Bierce’s tale was the inspiration for “Yabu no naka” (“In the Grove”), a story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which provided the plot and characters for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashomon. (Only the movie’s title and the setting are taken from another story by Akutagawa.)


I am the most unfortunate of men. Rich, respected, fairly well educated and of sound health—with many other advantages usually valued by those having them and coveted by those who have them not—I sometimes think that I should be less unhappy if they had been denied me, for then the contrast between my outer and my inner life would not be continually demanding a painful attention. In the stress of privation and the need of effort I might sometimes forget the somber secret ever baffling the conjecture that it compels. . . .If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!