book reviews by Althea

The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories – Ambrose Bierce ****

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The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories
The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories by Ambrose Bierce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

***** The Eyes of the Panther
“See these eyes so green / I can stare for a thousand years
Colder than the moon… you wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through.”
A young woman refuses to marry her suitor, although she professes to love him. Her reason? She believes she is insane, she claims. Of course, there has to be more to her story than that… and this is that story, which starts one dark night in a poor woodsman’s cottage on the wild frontier.

**** The Moonlit Road
Heavily ironic, ‘The Moonlit Road’ is an excellent example of Bierce’s “mordant wit.” Three different perspectives on a brutal death unpeel layers of truth – and reveal a none-too-flattering outlook on humanity.

*** The Boarded Window
Is this one supposed to be a tie-in to ‘Eyes of the Panther,’ or is it just similar in theme? I’m not sure. I felt that it was a less-successful variation of the story, as there’s no explanation or seeming meaning behind why the ‘creepy’ events occur.
An old hunter-trapper, out on the frontier, has lived alone in his modest cabin for years. His one window has remained boarded shut for as long as anyone can remember. This is the story of why he boarded that window for good.

*** The Man and the Snake
Staying over at a friend’s house, a man picks up some bedtime reading – which happens to be an outdated scientific book mentioning the purported mesmeric abilities of snakes. It just so happens that the house belongs to a herpetologist, so the visitor is not that surprised when he finds a snake in his room. But although he skeptically scoffed at the phenomena attributed to serpents, perhaps the power of suggestion is not something he’s immune to. Or perhaps, some true supernatural power is as work…

*** The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch
A hunter caught far from home at sundown decides to camp out in an abandoned and dilapidated house. However, he doesn’t pass a restful night – he’s plagued by vague fears and strange dreams. Only much later does he learn the bloody history of Macarger’s Gulch and discovers how close to the truth his dreams came.

*** The Middle Toe of the Right Foot
What? You don’t think a reputedly haunted house is the ideal location for a duel to the death?
A group of obnoxious and arrogant young men accept a stranger’s challenge – but the contest doesn’t end up quite how any of the parties expected. It does end in death, however.
And the event is, of course, linked to the brutal murders that took place in the house years before.
It’s a good ghost story, but I thought it would’ve been better with a bit more explication – some of the elements just didn’t make a huge amount of sense to me.

**** A Psychological Shipwreck
While on board a ship, a man takes ill and has all manner of hallucinations – hallucinations which turn out to be eerily true – of another ship. Really well-crafted, and quite spooky.

**** A Holy Terror
There are a couple of bloody brilliant things about this story. First, it’s just terribly funny. Bierce just keep edging in these horribly astute little witty observations. It’s great. Second, it’s a historically wonderful depiction of the gold rush era (and its fallout.)
It’s also a horror story, and that part of it isn’t quite as strong. It relies too heavily (and twice) on “The experience was just so awful that they dropped dead.” If you’re going to pull that one, it has to be a truly, truly awful experience… and I didn’t think the ones here managed it. I’ll forgive that though, because reading this was just wholly a pleasure.

**** John Bartine’s Watch
A psychologist notices that his friend seems to have a peculiar obsession with his watch, and decided to do a little ad hoc experiment. But all doesn’t end well… The watch was inherited from a great-grandfather who was never seen again, after being arrested by ‘that damned traitor, Washington, and his ragamuffin rebels!’ – and some evil taint clings to it.

*** Beyond the Wall
Upon visiting an old friend, the narrator finds him much, and distressingly changed. Sick and alone, in an eerie house that seems haunted, he tells a cautionary tale…
The moral here may be, ‘carpe diem,’ but Bierce also gets in a bit about the foolishness of the ‘upper class’ giving themselves airs.

*** A Watcher by the Dead
This is another Bierce story where the simple reality of ‘dead bodies’ is presumed to be a lot more fear-inducing than it is. Here, a group of doctors make a bet that basically, anyone who’s not a doctor or a soldier, who spends the night alone with a corpse will be unable to take it, and will go insane. So, the guy who takes the bet sets himself up to stand vigil… and well, the ‘prank’ goes horribly wrong
I dunno, the story seems to ignore the long-standing and respectful (and non-horrific) of standing vigil over the dead…

**** Moxon’s Master
It’s an early sci-fi robot story! Adding an extra star just for that. A machinist has seemed unduly preoccupied with the philosophy of life, of late. He’s been bringing up topics such as whether machines might be sentient to his friends. Little do they know these questions are not just academic – they have something to do with the invention he’s kept concealed in his workroom.
It all ends in grand Frankenstein/paranoid fashion.

Many thanks to Dover and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own…

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