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  • Martyn Rhys Vaughan

INVISIBLE ENEMIES II - THE DAMNED THING




Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842-c.1914) was an American journalist and war hero.

At the outbreak of the war Between The States he volunteered to join the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry and served in the very first battle of the war. At the battle of Rich Mountain he risked his life to rescue a severely wounded comrade. His experience of the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 profoundly affected him but did not end his interest in armed conflict.

After a period in England, he returned to the USA and became a journalist in San Francisco. During his time as a reporter, he foiled a plan by the Pacific Railroad Company to get Congress to pass a bill excusing railway companies from having to pay back loans, despite being confronted by the head of that company on the Congressional steps.

He entered Mexico in 1913 to report on the Mexican Revolution but disappeared shortly afterwards, fate unknown.

He wrote many short stories and was admired by such luminaries as H P Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote in a variety of genres including the supernatural and early forms of SF.

His short story “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) tells, in an early stream-of consciousness style, the story of Peyton Farquhar who is tricked by Union soldiers into attempting to blow up a strategic bridge. He is sentenced to be hanged but seems, miraculously, to escape. He wanders through a strange forest, hearing voices speaking in unknown languages and sees unknown constellations in the sky. Eventually, he finds his home and is about to enter it when he hears a loud crack and the story ends. We are left to believe that his experiences were at the moment of death. It has been filmed many times, including as an episode in “The Twilight Zone.”

In “The Damned Thing” (1893) we return to the subject of invisible foes of humanity. The story is related at the inquest of Hugh Morgan by an eye witness to the death, one William Harker. Harker, who is accused by the coroner of insanity, relates how Harker believed he was being stalked by an invisible entity which wished to harm him. He had survived several attacks but wanted Harker to accompany him on an expedition to flush the creature out. However, Harker is separated from him and returns to find him on the ground making convulsive movements. Harker assumes he is having a seizure of some kind. However, the coroner decides he was killed by a mountain lion.

After the inquest, Morgan’s diary is discovered which relates his encounters with the thing. At the end of the diary, Morgan relates how he had seen distant objects blotted out by some unseen creature coming between him and the object. It concludes with observations on the inadequacy of the human senses, noting that there are sounds we cannot hear. Morgan then says, “As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as ‘Actinic rays.’ They represent colors—integral colors in the composition of light—which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real chromatic scale. I am not mad; there are colors we cannot see.

“And, God help me, the Damned Thing is of such a color!”

What marks this story out as SF and not supernatural, is the writer’s understanding of the limitations of the human senses.






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