A Watcher by the Dead

A Watcher By the Dead by Ambrose Bierce

I am currently producing an animatic for “The Death of Halpin Frayser” using Photoshop and Flash Pro. “The Death of Halpin Frayser” will be the first of three Ambrose Bierce short narratives that I will write/direct/produce at the start of next year. The second is “A Watcher By the Dead.” In the story a macabre bet has deadly consequences when a gambler accepts the challenge of spending the night in a locked room with a dead body. Bierce does an excellent job setting the atmosphere and putting the audience in the room, feeling the weight of the darkness and constant awareness of the corpse in the room. In my own adaptation of this story I put a bit more focus on the characters that inhabit the tale (as I am want to do) and another twist on the already twisted ending.  I’ve attached a copy of my adaptation below. Please read both versions and tell me what you think of the two stories.

Enjoy.

“A Watcher by the Dead”

First published in the San Francisco Examiner, December 29, 1889.

Included in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891).

 

 I

In an upper room of an unoccupied dwelling in the part of San Francisco known as North Beach lay the body of a man, under a sheet. The hour was near nine in the evening; the room was dimly lighted by a single candle. Although the weather was warm, the two windows, contrary to the custom which gives the dead plenty of air, were closed and the blinds drawn down. The furniture of the room consisted of but three pieces—an arm-chair, a small reading-stand supporting the candle, and a long kitchen table, supporting the body of the man. All these, as also the corpse, seemed to have been recently brought in, for an observer, had there been one, would have seen that all were free from dust, whereas everything else in the room was pretty thickly coated with it, and there were cobwebs in the angles of the walls.

Under the sheet the outlines of the body could be traced, even the features, these having that unnaturally sharp definition which seems to belong to faces of the dead, but is really characteristic of those only that have been wasted by disease. From the silence of the room one would rightly have inferred that it was not in the front of the house, facing a street. It really faced nothing but a high breast of rock, the rear of the building being set into a hill.

As a neighboring church clock was striking nine with an indolence which seemed to imply such an indifference to the flight of time that one could hardly help wondering why it took the trouble to strike at all, the single door of the room was opened and a man entered, advancing toward the body. As he did so the door closed, apparently of its own volition; there was a grating, as of a key turned with difficulty, and the snap of the lock bolt as it shot into its socket. A sound of retiring footsteps in the passage outside ensued, and the man was to all appearance a prisoner. Advancing to the table, he stood a moment looking down at the body; then with a slight shrug of the shoulders walked over to one of the windows and hoisted the blind. The darkness outside was absolute, the panes were covered with dust, but by wiping this away he could see that the window was fortified with strong iron bars crossing it within a few inches of the glass and imbedded in the masonry on each side. He examined the other window. It was the same. He manifested no great curiosity in the matter, did not even so much as raise the sash. If he was a prisoner he was apparently a tractable one. Having completed his examination of the room, he seated himself in the arm-chair, took a book from his pocket, drew the stand with its candle alongside and began to read.

The man was young—not more than thirty—dark in complexion, smooth-shaven, with brown hair. His face was thin and high-nosed, with a broad forehead and a “firmness” of the chin and jaw which is said by those having it to denote resolution. The eyes were gray and steadfast, not moving except with definitive purpose. They were now for the greater part of the time fixed upon his book, but he occasionally withdrew them and turned them to the body on the table, not, apparently, from any dismal fascination which under such circumstances it might be supposed to exercise upon even a courageous person, nor with a conscious rebellion against the contrary influence which might dominate a timid one. He looked at it as if in his reading he had come upon something recalling him to a sense of his surroundings. Clearly this watcher by the dead was discharging his trust with intelligence and composure, as became him.

After reading for perhaps a half-hour he seemed to come to the end of a chapter and quietly laid away the book. He then rose and taking the reading-stand from the floor carried it into a corner of the room near one of the windows, lifted the candle from it and returned to the empty fireplace before which he had been sitting.

A moment later he walked over to the body on the table, lifted the sheet and turned it back from the head, exposing a mass of dark hair and a thin face-cloth, beneath which the features showed with even sharper definition than before. Shading his eyes by interposing his free hand between them and the candle, he stood looking at his motionless companion with a serious and tranquil regard. Satisfied with his inspection, he pulled the sheet over the face again and returning to the chair, took some matches off the candlestick, put them in the side pocket of his sack-coat and sat down. He then lifted the candle from its socket and looked at it critically, as if calculating how long it would last. It was barely two inches long; in another hour he would be in darkness. He replaced it in the candlestick and blew it out.

                                                II

In a physician’s office in Kearny Street three men sat about a table, drinking punch and smoking. It was late in the evening, almost midnight, indeed, and there had been no lack of punch. The gravest of the three, Dr. Helberson, was the host—it was in his rooms they sat. He was about thirty years of age; the others were even younger; all were physicians.

“The superstitious awe with which the living regard the dead,” said Dr. Helberson, “is hereditary and incurable. One needs no more be ashamed of it than of the fact that he inherits, for example, an incapacity for mathematics, or a tendency to lie.”

The others laughed. “Oughtn’t a man to be ashamed to lie?” asked the youngest of the three, who was in fact a medical student not yet graduated.

“My dear Harper, I said nothing about that. The tendency to lie is one thing; lying is another.”

“But do you think,” said the third man, “that this superstitious feeling, this fear of the dead, reasonless as we know it to be, is universal? I am myself not conscious of it.”

“Oh, but it is ‘in your system’ for all that,” replied Helberson; “it needs only the right conditions—what Shakespeare calls the ‘confederate season’—to manifest itself in some very disagreeable way that will open your eyes. Physicians and soldiers are of course more nearly free from it than others.”

“Physicians and soldiers!—why don’t you add hangmen and headsmen? Let us have in all the assassin classes.”

“No, my dear Mancher; the juries will not let the public executioners acquire sufficient familiarity with death to be altogether unmoved by it.”

Young Harper, who had been helping himself to a fresh cigar at the sideboard, resumed his seat. “What would you consider conditions under which any man of woman born would become insupportably conscious of his share of our common weakness in this regard?” he asked, rather verbosely.

“Well, I should say that if a man were locked up all night with a corpse—alone—in a dark room—of a vacant house—with no bed covers to pull over his head—and lived through it without going altogether mad, he might justly boast himself not of woman born, nor yet, like Macduff, a product of Cæsarean section.”

“I thought you never would finish piling up conditions,” said Harper, “but I know a man who is neither a physician nor a soldier who will accept them all, for any stake you like to name.”

“Who is he?”

“His name is Jarette—a stranger here; comes from my town in New York. I have no money to back him, but he will back himself with loads of it.”

“How do you know that?”

“He would rather bet than eat. As for fear—I dare say he thinks it some cutaneous disorder, or possibly a particular kind of religious heresy.”

“What does he look like?” Helberson was evidently becoming interested.

“Like Mancher, here—might be his twin brother.”

“I accept the challenge,” said Helberson, promptly.

“Awfully obliged to you for the compliment, I’m sure,” drawled Mancher, who was growing sleepy. “Can’t I get into this?”

“Not against me,” Helberson said. “I don’t want your money.”

“All right,” said Mancher; “I’ll be the corpse.”

The others laughed.

The outcome of this crazy conversation we have seen.

                                                III

In extinguishing his meagre allowance of candle Mr. Jarette’s object was to preserve it against some unforeseen need. He may have thought, too, or half thought, that the darkness would be no worse at one time than another, and if the situation became insupportable it would be better to have a means of relief, or even release. At any rate it was wise to have a little reserve of light, even if only to enable him to look at his watch.

No sooner had he blown out the candle and set it on the floor at his side than he settled himself comfortably in the arm-chair, leaned back and closed his eyes, hoping and expecting to sleep. In this he was disappointed; he had never in his life felt less sleepy, and in a few minutes he gave up the attempt. But what could he do? He could not go groping about in absolute darkness at the risk of bruising himself—at the risk, too, of blundering against the table and rudely disturbing the dead. We all recognize their right to lie at rest, with immunity from all that is harsh and violent. Jarette almost succeeded in making himself believe that considerations of this kind restrained him from risking the collision and fixed him to the chair.

While thinking of this matter he fancied that he heard a faint sound in the direction of the table—what kind of sound he could hardly have explained. He did not turn his head. Why should he—in the darkness? But he listened—why should he not? And listening he grew giddy and grasped the arms of the chair for support. There was a strange ringing in his ears; his head seemed bursting; his chest was oppressed by the constriction of his clothing. He wondered why it was so, and whether these were symptoms of fear. Then, with a long and strong expiration, his chest appeared to collapse, and with the great gasp with which he refilled his exhausted lungs the vertigo left him and he knew that so intently had he listened that he had held his breath almost to suffocation. The revelation was vexatious; he arose, pushed away the chair with his foot and strode to the centre of the room. But one does not stride far in darkness; he began to grope, and finding the wall followed it to an angle, turned, followed it past the two windows and there in another corner came into violent contact with the reading-stand, overturning it. It made a clatter that startled him. He was annoyed. “How the devil could I have forgotten where it was?” he muttered, and groped his way along the third wall to the fireplace. “I must put things to rights,” said he, feeling the floor for the candle.

Having recovered that, he lighted it and instantly turned his eyes to the table, where, naturally, nothing had undergone any change. The reading-stand lay unobserved upon the floor: he had forgotten to “put it to rights.” He looked all about the room, dispersing the deeper shadows by movements of the candle in his hand, and crossing over to the door tested it by turning and pulling the knob with all his strength. It did not yield and this seemed to afford him a certain satisfaction; indeed, he secured it more firmly by a bolt which he had not before observed. Returning to his chair, he looked at his watch; it was half-past nine. With a start of surprise he held the watch at his ear. It had not stopped. The candle was now visibly shorter. He again extinguished it, placing it on the floor at his side as before.

Mr. Jarette was not at his ease; he was distinctly dissatisfied with his surroundings, and with himself for being so. “What have I to fear?” he thought. “This is ridiculous and disgraceful; I will not be so great a fool.” But courage does not come of saying, “I will be courageous,” nor of recognizing its appropriateness to the occasion. The more Jarette condemned himself, the more reason he gave himself for condemnation; the greater the number of variations which he played upon the simple theme of the harmlessness of the dead, the more insupportable grew the discord of his emotions. “What!” he cried aloud in the anguish of his spirit, “what! shall I, who have not a shade of superstition in my nature—I, who have no belief in immortality—I, who know (and never more clearly than now) that the after-life is the dream of a desire—shall I lose at once my bet, my honor and my self-respect, perhaps my reason, because certain savage ancestors dwelling in caves and burrows conceived the monstrous notion that the dead walk by night?—that—” Distinctly, unmistakably, Mr. Jarette heard behind him a light, soft sound of footfalls, deliberate, regular, successively nearer!

                                                IV

Just before daybreak the next morning Dr. Helberson and his young friend Harper were driving slowly through the streets of North Beach in the doctor’s coupé.

“Have you still the confidence of youth in the courage or stolidity of your friend?” said the elder man. “Do you believe that I have lost this wager?”

“I know you have,” replied the other, with enfeebling emphasis.

“Well, upon my soul, I hope so.”

It was spoken earnestly, almost solemnly. There was a silence for a few moments.

“Harper,” the doctor resumed, looking very serious in the shifting half-lights that entered the carriage as they passed the street lamps, “I don’t feel altogether comfortable about this business. If your friend had not irritated me by the contemptuous manner in which he treated my doubt of his endurance —a purely physical quality—and by the cool incivility of his suggestion that the corpse be that of a physician, I should not have gone on with it. If anything should happen we are ruined, as I fear we deserve to be.”

“What can happen? Even if the matter should be taking a serious turn, of which I am not at all afraid, Mancher has only to ‘resurrect’ himself and explain matters. With a genuine ‘subject’ from the dissecting-room, or one of your late patients, it might be different.”

Dr. Mancher, then, had been as good as his promise; he was the “corpse.”

Dr. Helberson was silent for a long time, as the carriage, at a snail’s pace, crept along the same street it had traveled two or three times already. Presently he spoke: “Well, let us hope that Mancher, if he has had to rise from the dead, has been discreet about it. A mistake in that might make matters worse instead of better.”

“Yes,” said Harper, “Jarette would kill him. But, Doctor”—looking at his watch as the carriage passed a gas lamp—”it is nearly four o’clock at last.”

A moment later the two had quitted the vehicle and were walking briskly toward the long-unoccupied house belonging to the doctor in which they had immured Mr. Jarette in accordance with the terms of the mad wager. As they neared it they met a man running. “Can you tell me,” he cried, suddenly checking his speed, “where I can find a doctor?”

“What’s the matter?” Helberson asked, non-committal.

“Go and see for yourself,” said the man, resuming his running.

They hastened on. Arrived at the house, they saw several persons entering in haste and excitement. In some of the dwellings near by and across the way the chamber windows were thrown up, showing a protrusion of heads. All heads were asking questions, none heeding the questions of the others. A few of the windows with closed blinds were illuminated; the inmates of those rooms were dressing to come down. Exactly opposite the door of the house that they sought a street lamp threw a yellow, insufficient light upon the scene, seeming to say that it could disclose a good deal more if it wished. Harper paused at the door and laid a hand upon his companion’s arm. “It is all up with us, Doctor,” he said in extreme agitation, which contrasted strangely with his free-and-easy words; “the game has gone against us all. Let’s not go in there; I’m for lying low.”

“I’m a physician,” said Dr. Helberson, calmly; “there may be need of one.”

They mounted the doorsteps and were about to enter. The door was open; the street lamp opposite lighted the passage into which it opened. It was full of men. Some had ascended the stairs at the farther end, and, denied admittance above, waited for better fortune. All were talking, none listening. Suddenly, on the upper landing there was a great commotion; a man had sprung out of a door and was breaking away from those endeavoring to detain him. Down through the mass of affrighted idlers he came, pushing them aside, flattening them against the wall on one side, or compelling them to cling to the rail on the other, clutching them by the throat, striking them savagely, thrusting them back down the stairs and walking over the fallen. His clothing was in disorder, he was without a hat. His eyes, wild and restless, had in them something more terrifying than his apparently superhuman strength. His face, smooth-shaven, was bloodless, his hair frost-white.

As the crowd at the foot of the stairs, having more freedom, fell away to let him pass Harper sprang forward. “Jarette! Jarette!” he cried.

Dr. Helberson seized Harper by the collar and dragged him back. The man looked into their faces without seeming to see them and sprang through the door, down the steps, into the street, and away. A stout policeman, who had had inferior success in conquering his way down the stairway, followed a moment later and started in pursuit, all the heads in the windows—those of women and children now—screaming in guidance.

The stairway being now partly cleared, most of the crowd having rushed down to the street to observe the flight and pursuit, Dr. Helberson mounted to the landing, followed by Harper. At a door in the upper passage an officer denied them admittance. “We are physicians,” said the doctor, and they passed in. The room was full of men, dimly seen, crowded about a table. The newcomers edged their way forward and looked over the shoulders of those in the front rank. Upon the table, the lower limbs covered with a sheet, lay the body of a man, brilliantly illuminated by the beam of a bull’s-eye lantern held by a policeman standing at the feet. The others, excepting those near the head—the officer himself—all were in darkness. The face of the body showed yellow, repulsive, horrible! The eyes were partly open and upturned and the jaw fallen; traces of froth defiled the lips, the chin, the cheeks. A tall man, evidently a doctor, bent over the body with his hand thrust under the shirt front. He withdrew it and placed two fingers in the open mouth. “This man has been about six hours dead,” said he. “It is a case for the coroner.”

He drew a card from his pocket, handed it to the officer and made his way toward the door.

“Clear the room—out, all!” said the officer, sharply, and the body disappeared as if it had been snatched away, as shifting the lantern he flashed its beam of light here and there against the faces of the crowd. The effect was amazing! The men, blinded, confused, almost terrified, made a tumultuous rush for the door, pushing, crowding, and tumbling over one another as they fled, like the hosts of Night before the shafts of Apollo. Upon the struggling, trampling mass the officer poured his light without pity and without cessation. Caught in the current, Helberson and Harper were swept out of the room and cascaded down the stairs into the street.

“Good God, Doctor! did I not tell you that Jarette would kill him?” said Harper, as soon as they were clear of the crowd.

“I believe you did,” replied the other, without apparent emotion.

They walked on in silence, block after block. Against the graying east the dwellings of the hill tribes showed in silhouette. The familiar milk wagon was already astir in the streets; the baker’s man would soon come upon the scene; the newspaper carrier was abroad in the land.

“It strikes me, youngster,” said Helberson, “that you and I have been having too much of the morning air lately. It is unwholesome; we need a change. What do you say to a tour in Europe?”

“When?”

“I’m not particular. I should suppose that four o’clock this afternoon would be early enough.”

“I’ll meet you at the boat,” said Harper
.

                                                V

Seven years afterward these two men sat upon a bench in Madison Square, New York, in familiar conversation. Another man, who had been observing them for some time, himself unobserved, approached and, courteously lifting his hat from locks as white as frost, said: “I beg your pardon, gentlemen, but when you have killed a man by coming to life, it is best to change clothes with him, and at the first opportunity make a break for liberty.”

Helberson and Harper exchanged significant glances. They were obviously amused. The former then looked the stranger kindly in the eye and replied:

“That has always been my plan. I entirely agree with you as to its advant—”

He stopped suddenly, rose and went white. He stared at the man, open-mouthed; he trembled visibly.

“Ah!” said the stranger, “I see that you are indisposed, Doctor. If you cannot treat yourself Dr. Harper can do something for you, I am sure.”

“Who the devil are you?” said Harper, bluntly.

The stranger came nearer and, bending toward them, said in a whisper: “I call myself Jarette sometimes, but I don’t mind telling you, for old friendship, that I am Dr. William Mancher.”

The revelation brought Harper to his feet. “Mancher!” he cried; and Helberson added: “It is true, by God!”

“Yes,” said the stranger, smiling vaguely, “it is true enough, no doubt.”

He hesitated and seemed to be trying to recall something, then began humming a popular air. He had apparently forgotten their presence.

“Look here, Mancher,” said the elder of the two, “tell us just what occurred that night—to Jarette, you know.”

“Oh, yes, about Jarette,” said the other. “It’s odd I should have neglected to tell you—I tell it so often. You see I knew, by over-hearing him talking to himself, that he was pretty badly frightened. So I couldn’t resist the temptation to come to life and have a bit of fun out of him—I couldn’t really. That was all right, though certainly I did not think he would take it so seriously; I did not, truly. And afterward—well, it was a tough job changing places with him, and then—damn you! you didn’t let me out!”

Nothing could exceed the ferocity with which these last words were delivered. Both men stepped back in alarm.

“We?—why—why,” Helberson stammered, losing his self-possession utterly, “we had nothing to do with it.”

“Didn’t I say you were Drs. Hell-born and Sharper?” inquired the man, laughing.

“My name is Helberson, yes; and this gentleman is Mr. Harper,” replied the former, reassured by the laugh. “But we are not physicians now; we are—well, hang it, old man, we are gamblers.”

And that was the truth.

“A very good profession—very good, indeed; and, by the way, I hope Sharper here paid over Jarette’s money like an honest stakeholder. A very good and honorable profession,” he repeated, thoughtfully, moving carelessly away; “but I stick to the old one. I am High Supreme Medical Officer of the Bloomingdale Asylum; it is my duty to cure the superintendent.”

A Watcher by the Dead

story by Ambrose Bierce

adaptation by Kermet Merl Key

SUPER: “A WATCHER BY THE DEAD.”

FADE IN:

INT. CABIN – NIGHT

On a table under a sheet lies the body of a man.

The outlines of the body can be traced, even the features.

THE CABIN IS DIMLY LIT BY A SINGLE CANDLE.

The windows are closed and blinds drawn down.  There are cobwebs in the angles of the walls.

The furniture consists of but three pieces – an armchair, a small reading stand supporting the candle, and the table. All are free from dust, whereas everything else in the room is pretty thickly coated with it.  A neighboring church clock STRIKES nine.

The single door opens and JARETTE, enters and advances toward the body. As he does the door closes. There is the GRATING of a key turned with difficulty, and the SNAP of the lock bolt as it shot into its socket. A SOUND of retiring footsteps in the passage outside ensue.

Jarette stands a moment looking down at the body; then with a slight shrug of the shoulders walks over to one of the windows and hoists the blind.

JARETTE’S POV

He wipes the dust away and sees that the window is fortified with strong iron bars imbedded in the masonry on each side.

BACK TO SCENE

He examines the other window without raising the sash.

He sits in the arm-chair, takes a pistol from his coat and sets it on the nightstand, then takes a book from his pocket, draws the stand with its candle alongside and reads.

He occasionally eyes the body.

DISSOLVE TO:

Jarette lays the book aside, rubs his eyes and rises.  He puts the pistol back in his coat, and takes the reading-stand from the floor.

He carries it into a corner of the room near one of the windows, lifts the candle from it and returns to the empty fireplace.

He walks over to the body, lifts the sheet and turns it back from the head.

JARETTE’S POV

He sees a mass of dark hair and a thin face-cloth, beneath which the features show with even sharper definition than before.

BACK TO SCENE

He shades his eyes by interposing his free hand between them and the candle. Satisfied with his inspection, he pulls the sheet over the face again and returns to the chair, takes some matches off the candlestick, puts them in his side pocket and sits down.

He lifts the candle from its socket and looks at it critically, calculating how long it would last.

He replaces it in the candlestick and blows it out.

He settles himself comfortably in the arm-chair, leans back and closes his eyes. He stirs.

He hears a faint SOUND in the direction of the table.

He strains to listen, breath held, for a long moment. He has a moment of vertigo and exhales long and strong then gasps to refill his lungs.

He rises, pushes away the chair with his foot and strides to the center of the room.

He gropes, and finds the wall, follows it to an angle, turns, follows it past the two windows and there in another corner overturns the reading-stand.  The clatter startles him.

JARETTE

Shit!  Where is it?

(gropes)

I’ve got to put it back.

He takes the candlestick off the fireplace, lights it, and instantly turns his eyes to the table where the body remains.

He looks all about the room…

…dispersing the deeper shadows by movements of the candle and crosses over to the door.

He tests it, turning and pulling the knob with all his strength. Seeming satisfied, he returns to his chair, and looks at his watch.

INSERT WATCH

It is half-past nine.

BACK TO SCENE

With a start of surprise he holds the watch to his ear.

He looks at the candle, now visibly shorter and pockets the watch.  He again extinguishes the candle, placing it on the floor at his side as before.

JARETTE (CONT’D)

This is ridiculous. I am not a coward.

He gnaws at his thumbnail.

JARETTE (CONT’D)

What!  What!  I’m not superstitious.  I don’t believe in heaven or hell.  I’ll lose the bet, my honor and my self-respect, perhaps my reason, because people dwelling in caves once believed that the dead walk by night?

Jarette hears behind him the soft SOUND of footfalls!

He takes the pistol from his coat. Spins. Waves the gun at the darkness. He drops to his knees in search of the candle. The matches.

A dark figure shuffles toward him.

His hand lands upon a match. He strikes it against the floor.

He holds the lit match next to the barrel of the pistol and aims.

The illuminated figure looks very much like Jarette! It opens its mouth! Jarette fires.

Jarette drops the match and is in darkness as he hears the SOUND of a key grating into the lock. The door opens behind him.  Blinding light…

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. TAVERN (FLASHBACK) – NIGHT

Three men sit at a table drinking and smoking.  The bar is nearly empty.  A waitress stacks chairs behind them.

DR. HELBERSON, the eldest, leans back.

DR. HELBERSON

The superstitious awe with which the living regard the dead is hereditary and incurable.  One needs no more be ashamed of it than the fact that he inherits an incapacity for mathematics, or a tendency to lie.

The other two laugh.

HARPER, the youngest, leans forward.

HARPER

A man should be ashamed to lie?

DR. HELBERSON

The tendency to lie is one thing; lying is another.

MANCHER, (face unseen), takes a drink.

MANCHER

But do you think that this superstitious feeling, this fear of the dead, is universal?

DR. HELBERSON

It’s in your system; all that it needs is the right condition, what Shakespeare calls the ‘confederate season,’ to manifest itself in some very disagreeable way that will open your eyes. Physicians and soldiers are of course more nearly free from it than others.

MANCHER

Physicians and soldiers! Why not executioners?  Throw in all the killers.

HARPER

What conditions would you consider which any man of woman born would become insupportably conscious of his share of this common weakness?

DR. HELBERSON

If a man were locked up all night with a corpse alone in a dark room, of a vacant house, with no bed covers to pull over his head, and lived through it without going altogether mad, he might justly boast himself not of woman born, nor yet, like Macduff, a product of Caesarean section.

HARPER

I thought you never would finish piling up conditions.

(laughter)

But I know a man who is neither a physician nor a soldier who will accept them all, for any stake you like to name. His name is Jarette.  He’s from New York. I have no money to back him, but he will back himself with loads of it.

MANCHER

How do you know that?

HARPER

He would rather bet than eat.  He thinks fear is a disease, or a religious heresy.

DR. HELBERSON

I accept the challenge.

HARPER:

He even looks like Mancher, here  could be his twin.

MANCHER, leans into the light and is revealed to be the body on the table.  He could be Jarette’s twin.

MANCHER

Handsome fella.  Can I get into this?

DR. HELBERSON

Not against me, the bet’s with Jarette.

MANCHER

(grinning)

All right then, I’ll be the corpse.

The others laugh.

FADE OUT:

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The Death of Halpin Frayser

I realize that I have been rather late with my blog post this week. We’re coming up on midterms in school and I’ve got so many irons in the fire now it’s getting hard to remember which need to be turned. But one of my assignments in Directed Study (Career Management) was to list out my goals. My last blog was about where I am and where I want to be (and I’m still jamming out to Clutch – “Mice and Gods”), but while I was going over exactly what I wanted to do with FrogFish.com, it  has changed a bit.

With that I will say that Laura and I want to create web-based multimedia entertainment that emphasizes strong narrative fiction. FrogFish.com is independent multimedia entertainment that lacks the fear of failure but has the courage to share and succeed. Through open and honest collaboration between artists and audiences we will learn from and entertain one another with scary stories and humor, but most of all just plain good stories!

So without further adieu I would like to present “The Death of Halpin Frayser” in both its original version by Ambrose Bierce and the adaptation written for video by me, Kermet Merl Key. Be sure to let me know what you think of both versions in the comments below and let me know what type of stories you want to us to create OR that YOU want to create.

THE DEATH OF HALPIN FRAYSER

BY AMBROSE BIERCE

(available through the Ambrose Bierce Project)

I

For by death is wrought greater change than hath been shown.  Whereas in general the spirit that removed cometh back upon occasion, and is sometimes seen of those in flesh (appearing in the form of the body it bore) yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked.  And it is attested of those encountering who have lived to speak thereon that a lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate.  Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether. – Hali.

One dark night in midsummer a man waking from a dreamless sleep in a forest lifted his head from the earth, and staring a few moments into the blackness, said: “Catherine Larue.”  He said nothing more; no reason was known to him why he should have said so much.


The man was Halpin Frayser.  He lived in St. Helena, but where he lives now is uncertain, for he is dead.  One who practices sleeping in the woods with nothing under him but the dry leaves and the damp earth, and nothing over him but the branches from which the leaves have fallen and the sky from which the earth has fallen, cannot hope for great longevity, and Frayser had already attained the age of thirty-two.  There are persons in this world, millions of persons, and far and away the best persons, who regard that as a very advanced age.  They are the children.  To those who view the voyage of life from the port of departure the bark that has accomplished any considerable distance appears already in close approach to the farther shore.  However, it is not certain that Halpin Frayser came to his death by exposure.

He had been all day in the hills west of the Napa Valley, looking for doves and such small game as was in season.  Late in the afternoon it had come on to be cloudy, and he had lost his bearings; and although he had only to go always downhill – everywhere the way to safety when one is lost – the absence of trails had so impeded him that he was overtaken by night while still in the forest.  Unable in the darkness to penetrate the thickets of manzanita and other undergrowth, utterly bewildered and overcome with fatigue, he had lain down near the root of a large madroño and fallen into a dreamless sleep.  It was hours later, in the very middle of the night, that one of God’s mysterious messengers, gliding ahead of the incalculable host of his companions sweeping westward with the dawn line, pronounced the awakening word in the ear of the sleeper, who sat upright and spoke, he knew not why, a name, he knew not whose.

Halpin Frayser was not much of a philosopher, nor a scientist.  The circumstance that, waking from a deep sleep at night in the midst of a forest, he had spoken aloud a name that he had not in memory and hardly had in mind did not arouse an enlightened curiosity to investigate the phenomenon.  He thought it odd, and with a little perfunctory shiver, as if in deference to a seasonal presumption that the night was chill, he lay down again and went to sleep.  But his sleep was no longer dreamless.

He thought he was walking along a dusty road that showed white in the gathering darkness of a summer night.  Whence and whither it led, and why he traveled it, he did not know, though all seemed simple and natural, as is the way in dreams; for in the Land Beyond the Bed surprises cease from troubling and the judgment is at rest.  Soon he came to a parting of the ways; leading from the highway was a road less traveled, having the appearance, indeed, of having been long abandoned, because, he thought, it led to something evil; yet he turned into it without hesitation, impelled by some imperious necessity.

As he pressed forward he became conscious that his way was haunted by invisible existences whom he could not definitely figure to his mind.  From among the trees on either side he caught broken and incoherent whispers in a strange tongue which yet he partly understood.  They seemed to him fragmentary utterances of a monstrous conspiracy against his body and soul.

It was now long after nightfall, yet the interminable forest through which he journeyed was lit with a wan glimmer having no point of diffusion, for in its mysterious lumination nothing cast a shadow.  A shallow pool in the guttered depression of an old wheel rut, as from a recent rain, met his eye with a crimson gleam.  He stooped and plunged his hand into it.  It stained his fingers; it was blood!  Blood, he then observed, was about him everywhere.  The weeds growing rankly by the roadside showed it in blots and splashes on their big, broad leaves.  Patches of dry dust between the wheelways were pitted and spattered as with a red rain.  Defiling the trunks of the trees were broad maculations of crimson, and blood dripped like dew from their foliage.

All this he observed with a terror which seemed not incompatible with the fulfillment of a natural expectation.  It seemed to him that it was all in expiation of some crime which, though conscious of his guilt, he could not rightly remember.  To the menaces and mysteries of his surroundings the consciousness was an added horror.  Vainly he sought by tracing life backward in memory, to reproduce the moment of his sin; scenes and incidents came crowding tumultuously into his mind, one picture effacing another, or commingling with it in confusion and obscurity, but nowhere could he catch a glimpse of what he sought.  The failure augmented his terror; he felt as one who has murdered in the dark, not knowing whom nor why.  So frightful was the situation – the mysterious light burned with so silent and awful a menace; the noxious plants, the trees that by common consent are invested with a melancholy or baleful character, so openly in his sight conspired against his peace; from overhead and all about came so audible and startling whispers and the sighs of creatures so obviously not of earth – that he could endure it no longer, and with a great effort to break some malign spell that bound his faculties to silence and inaction, he shouted with the full strength of his lungs!  His voice broken, it seemed, into an infinite multitude of unfamiliar sounds, went babbling and stammering away into the distant reaches of the forest, died into silence, and all was as before.  But he had made a beginning at resistance and was encouraged.  He said:

“I will not submit unheard.  There may be powers that are not malignant traveling this accursed road.  I shall leave them a record and an appeal.  I shall relate my wrongs, the persecutions that I endure – I, a helpless mortal, a penitent, an unoffending poet!”  Halpin Frayser was a poet only as he was a penitent: in his dream.

Taking from his clothing a small red-leather pocketbook, one-half of which was leaved for memoranda, he discovered that he was without a pencil.  He broke a twig from a bush, dipped it into a pool of blood and wrote rapidly.  He had hardly touched the paper with the point of his twig when a low, wild peal of laughter broke out at a measureless distance away, and growing ever louder, seemed approaching ever nearer; a soulless, heartless, and unjoyous laugh, like that of the loon, solitary by the lakeside at midnight; a laugh which culminated in an unearthly shout close at hand, then died away by slow gradations, as if the accursed being that uttered it had withdrawn over the verge of the world whence it had come.  But the man felt that this was not so – that it was near by and had not moved.

A strange sensation began slowly to take possession of his body and his mind.  He could not have said which, if any, of his senses was affected; he felt it rather as a consciousness – a mysterious mental assurance of some overpowering presence – some supernatural malevolence different in kind from the invisible existences that swarmed about him, and superior to them in power.  He knew that it had uttered that hideous laugh.  And now it seemed to be approaching him; from what direction he did not know – dared not conjecture.  All his former fears were forgotten or merged in the gigantic terror that now held him in thrall.  Apart from that, he had but one thought: to complete his written appeal to the benign powers who, traversing the haunted wood, might some time rescue him if he should be denied the blessing of annihilation.  He wrote with terrible rapidity, the twig in his fingers rilling blood without renewal; but in the middle of a sentence his hands denied their service to his will, his arms fell to his sides, the book to the earth; and powerless to move or cry out, he found himself staring into the sharply drawn face and blank, dead eyes of his own mother, standing white and silent in the garments of the grave!

II

In his youth Halpin Frayser had lived with his parents in Nashville, Tennessee.  The Fraysers were well-to-do, having a good position in such society as had survived the wreck wrought by civil war.  Their children had the social and educational opportunities of their time and place, and had responded to good associations and instruction with agreeable manners and cultivated minds.  Halpin being the youngest and not over robust was perhaps a trifle “spoiled.”  He had the double disadvantage of a mother’s assiduity and a father’s neglect.  Frayser père was what no Southern man of means is not – a politician.  His country, or rather his section and State, made demands upon his time and attention so exacting that to those of his family he was compelled to turn an ear partly deafened by the thunder of the political captains and the shouting, his own included.

Young Halpin was of a dreamy, indolent and rather romantic turn, somewhat more addicted to literature than law, the profession to which he was bred.  Among those of his relations who professed the modern faith of heredity it was well understood that in him the character of the late Myron Bayne, a maternal great-grandfather, had revisited the glimpses of the moon – by which orb Bayne had in his lifetime been sufficiently affected to be a poet of no small Colonial distinction.  If not specially observed, it was observable that while a Frayser who was not the proud possessor of a sumptuous copy of the ancestral “poetical works” (printed at the family expense, and long ago withdrawn from an inhospitable market) was a rare Frayser indeed, there was an illogical indisposition to honor the great deceased in the person of his spiritual successor.  Halpin was pretty generally deprecated as an intellectual black sheep who was likely at any moment to disgrace the flock by bleating in meter.  The Tennessee Fraysers were a practical folk – not practical in the popular sense of devotion to sordid pursuits, but having a robust contempt for any qualities unfitting a man for the wholesome vocation of politics.

In justice to young Halpin it should be said that while in him were pretty faithfully reproduced most of the mental and moral characteristics ascribed by history and family tradition to the famous Colonial bard, his succession to the gift and faculty divine was purely inferential.  Not only had he never been known to court the muse, but in truth he could not have written correctly a line of verse to save himself from the Killer of the Wise.  Still, there was no knowing when the dormant faculty might wake and smite the lyre.

In the meantime the young man was rather a loose fish, anyhow.  Between him and his mother was the most perfect sympathy, for secretly the lady was herself a devout disciple of the late and great Myron Bayne, though with the tact so generally and justly admired in her sex (despite the hardy calumniators who insist that it is essentially the same thing as cunning) she had always taken care to conceal her weakness from all eyes but those of him who shared it.  Their common guilt in respect of that was an added tie between them.  If in Halpin’s youth his mother had “spoiled” him, he had assuredly done his part toward being spoiled.  As he grew to such manhood as is attainable by a Southerner who does not care which way elections go the attachment between him and his beautiful mother – whom from early childhood he had called Katy – became yearly stronger and more tender.  In these two romantic natures was manifest in a signal way that neglected phenomenon, the dominance of the sexual element in all the relations of life, strengthening, softening, and beautifying even those of consanguinity.  The two were nearly inseparable, and by strangers observing their manner were not infrequently mistaken for lovers.

Entering his mother’s boudoir one day Halpin Frayser kissed her upon the forehead, toyed for a moment with a lock of her dark hair which had escaped from its confining pins, and said, with an obvious effort at calmness:

“Would you greatly mind, Katy, if I were called away to California for a few weeks?”

It was hardly needful for Katy to answer with her lips a question to which her telltale cheeks had made instant reply.  Evidently she would greatly mind; and the tears, too, sprang into her large brown eyes as corroborative testimony.

“Ah, my son,” she said, looking up into his face with infinite tenderness, “I should have known that this was coming.  Did I not lie awake a half of the night weeping because, during the other half, Grandfather Bayne had come to me in a dream, and standing by his portrait – young, too, and handsome as that – pointed to yours on the same wall?  And when I looked it seemed that I could not see the features; you had been painted with a face cloth, such as we put upon the dead.  Your father has laughed at me, but you and I, dear, know that such things are not for nothing.  And I saw below the edge of the cloth the marks of hands on your throat – forgive me, but we have not been used to keep such things from each other.  Perhaps you have another interpretation.  Perhaps it does not mean that you will go to California.  Or maybe you will take me with you?”

It must be confessed that this ingenious interpretation of the dream in the light of newly discovered evidence did not wholly commend itself to the son’s more logical mind; he had, for the moment at least, a conviction that it foreshadowed a more simple and immediate, if less tragic, disaster than a visit to the Pacific Coast.  It was Halpin Frayser’s impression that he was to be garroted on his native heath.

“Are there not medicinal springs in California?” Mrs. Frayser resumed before he had time to give her the true reading of the dream – “places where one recovers from rheumatism and neuralgia?  Look – my fingers feel so stiff; and I am almost sure they have been giving me great pain while I slept.”

She held out her hands for his inspection.  What diagnosis of her case the young man may have thought it best to conceal with a smile the historian is unable to state, but for himself he feels bound to say that fingers looking less stiff, and showing fewer evidences of even insensible pain, have seldom been submitted for medical inspection by even the fairest patient desiring a prescription of unfamiliar scenes.

The outcome of it was that of these two odd persons having equally odd notions of duty, the one went to California, as the interest of his client required, and the other remained at home in compliance with a wish that her husband was scarcely conscious of entertaining.

While in San Francisco Halpin Frayser was walking one dark night along the water front of the city, when, with a suddenness that surprised and disconcerted him, he became a sailor.  He was in fact “shanghaied” aboard a gallant, gallant ship, and sailed for a far countree.  Nor did his misfortunes end with the voyage; for the ship was cast ashore on an island of the South Pacific, and it was six years afterward when the survivors were taken off by a venturesome trading schooner and brought back to San Francisco.

Though poor in purse, Frayser was no less proud in spirit than he had been in the years that seemed ages and ages ago.  He would accept no assistance from strangers, and it was while living with a fellow survivor near the town of St. Helena, awaiting news and remittances from home, that he had gone gunning and dreaming.

III

The apparition confronting the dreamer in the haunted wood – the thing so like, yet so unlike his mother – was horrible!  It stirred no love nor longing in his heart; it came unattended with pleasant memories of a golden past – inspired no sentiment of any kind; all the finer emotions were swallowed up in fear.  He tried to turn and run from before it, but his legs were as lead; he was unable to lift his feet from the ground.  His arms hung helpless at his sides; of his eyes only he retained control, and these he dared not remove from the lusterless orbs of the apparition, which he knew was not a soul without a body, but that most dreadful of all existences infesting that haunted wood – a body without a soul!  In its blank stare was neither love, nor pity, nor intelligence – nothing to which to address an appeal for mercy.  “An appeal will not lie,” he thought, with an absurd reversion to professional slang, making the situation more horrible, as the fire of a cigar might light up a tomb.

For a time, which seemed so long that the world grew gray with age and sin, and the haunted forest, having fulfilled its purpose in this monstrous culmination of its terrors, vanished out of his consciousness with all its sights and sounds, the apparition stood within a pace, regarding him with the mindless malevolence of a wild brute; then thrust its hands forward and sprang upon him with appalling ferocity!  The act released his physical energies without unfettering his will; his mind was still spellbound, but his powerful body and agile limbs, endowed with a blind, insensate life of their own, resisted stoutly and well.  For an instant he seemed to see this unnatural contest between a dead intelligence and a breathing mechanism only as a spectator – such fancies are in dreams; then he regained his identity almost as if by a leap forward into his body, and the straining automaton had a directing will as alert and fierce as that of its hideous antagonist.

But what mortal can cope with a creature of his dream?  The imagination creating the enemy is already vanquished; the combat’s result is the combat’s cause.  Despite his struggles – despite his strength and activity, which seemed wasted in a void, he felt the cold fingers close upon his throat.  Borne backward to the earth, he saw above him the dead and drawn face within a hand’s breadth of his own, and then all was black.  A sound as of the beating of distant drums – a murmur of swarming voices, a sharp, far cry signing all to silence, and Halpin Frayser dreamed that he was dead.

IV

A warm, clear night had been followed by a morning of drenching fog.  At about the middle of the afternoon of the preceding day a little whiff of light vapor – a mere thickening of the atmosphere, the ghost of a cloud – had been observed clinging to the western side of Mount St. Helena, away up along the barren altitudes near the summit.  It was so thin, so diaphanous, so like a fancy made visible, that one would have said: “Look quickly! in a moment it will be gone.”

In a moment it was visibly larger and denser.  While with one edge it clung to the mountain, with the other it reached farther and farther out into the air above the lower slopes.  At the same time it extended itself to north and south, joining small patches of mist that appeared to come out of the mountainside on exactly the same level, with an intelligent design to be absorbed.  And so it grew and grew until the summit was shut out of view from the valley, and over the valley itself was an ever-extending canopy, opaque and gray.  At Calistoga, which lies near the head of the valley and the foot of the mountain, there were a starless night and a sunless morning.  The fog, sinking into the valley, had reached southward, swallowing up ranch after ranch, until it had blotted out the town of St. Helena, nine miles away.  The dust in the road was laid; trees were adrip with moisture; birds sat silent in their coverts; the morning light was wan and ghastly, with neither color nor fire.

Two men left the town of St. Helena at the first glimmer of dawn, and walked along the road northward up the valley toward Calistoga.  They carried guns on their shoulders, yet no one having knowledge of such matters could have mistaken them for hunters of bird or beast.  They were a deputy sheriff from Napa and a detective from San Francisco – Holker and Jaralson, respectively.  Their business was man-hunting.

“How far is it?” inquired Holker, as they strode along, their feet stirring white the dust beneath the damp surface of the road.

“The White Church?  Only a half mile farther,” the other answered.  “By the way,” he added, “it is neither white nor a church; it is an abandoned schoolhouse, gray with age and neglect.  Religious services were once held in it – when it was white, and there is a graveyard that would delight a poet.  Can you guess why I sent for you, and told you to come heeled?”

“Oh, I never have bothered you about things of that kind.  I’ve always found you communicative when the time came.  But if I may hazard a guess, you want me to help you arrest one of the corpses in the graveyard.”

“You remember Branscom?” said Jaralson, treating his companion’s wit with the inattention that it deserved.

“The chap who cut his wife’s throat?  I ought; I wasted a week’s work on him and had my expenses for my trouble.  There is a reward of five hundred dollars, but none of us ever got a sight of him.  You don’t mean to say – ”

“Yes, I do.  He has been under the noses of you fellows all the time.  He comes by night to the old graveyard at the White Church.”

“The devil!  That’s where they buried his wife.”

“Well, you fellows might have had sense enough to suspect that he would return to her grave some time.”

“The very last place that anyone would have expected him to return to.”

“But you had exhausted all the other places.  Learning your failure at them, I ‘laid for him’ there.”

“And you found him?”

“Damn it! he found me.  The rascal got the drop on me – regularly held me up and made me travel.  It’s God’s mercy that he didn’t go through me.  Oh, he’s a good one, and I fancy the half of that reward is enough for me if you’re needy.”

Holker laughed good humoredly, and explained that his creditors were never more importunate.

“I wanted merely to show you the ground, and arrange a plan with you,” the detective explained.  “I thought it as well for us to be heeled, even in daylight.”

“The man must be insane,” said the deputy sheriff.  “The reward is for his capture and conviction.  If he’s mad he won’t be convicted.”

Mr. Holker was so profoundly affected by that possible failure of justice that he involuntarily stopped in the middle of the road, then resumed his walk with abated zeal.

“Well, he looks it,” assented Jaralson.  “I’m bound to admit that a more unshaven, unshorn, unkempt, and uneverything wretch I never saw outside the ancient and honorable order of tramps.  But I’ve gone in for him, and can’t make up my mind to let go.  There’s glory in it for us, anyhow.  Not another soul knows that he is this side of the Mountains of the Moon.”

“All right,” Holker said; “we will go and view the ground,” and he added, in the words of a once favorite inscription for tombstones: “‘where you must shortly lie’ – I mean, if old Branscom ever gets tired of you and your impertinent intrusion.  By the way, I heard the other day that ‘Branscom’ was not his real name.”

“What is?”

“I can’t recall it.  I had lost all interest in the wretch, and it did not fix itself in my memory – something like Pardee.  The woman whose throat he had the bad taste to cut was a widow when he met her.  She had come to California to look up some relatives – there are persons who will do that sometimes.  But you know all that.”

“Naturally.”

“But not knowing the right name, by what happy inspiration did you find the right grave?  The man who told me what the name was said it had been cut on the headboard.”

“I don’t know the right grave.”  Jaralson was apparently a trifle reluctant to admit his ignorance of so important a point of his plan.  “I have been watching about the place generally.  A part of our work this morning will be to identify that grave.  Here is the White Church.”

For a long distance the road had been bordered by fields on both sides, but now on the left there was a forest of oaks, madroños, and gigantic spruces whose lower parts only could be seen, dim and ghostly in the fog.  The undergrowth was, in places, thick, but nowhere impenetrable.  For some moments Holker saw nothing of the building, but as they turned into the woods it revealed itself in faint gray outline through the fog, looking huge and far away.  A few steps more, and it was within an arm’s length, distinct, dark with moisture, and insignificant in size.  It had the usual country-schoolhouse form – belonged to the packing-box order of architecture; had an underpinning of stones, a moss-grown roof, and blank window spaces, whence both glass and sash had long departed.  It was ruined, but not a ruin – a typical Californian substitute for what are known to guide-bookers abroad as “monuments of the past.”  With scarcely a glance at this uninteresting structure Jaralson moved on into the dripping undergrowth beyond.

“I will show you where he held me up,” he said.  “This is the graveyard.”

Here and there among the bushes were small inclosures containing graves, sometimes no more than one.  They were recognized as graves by the discolored stones or rotting boards at head and foot, leaning at all angles, some prostrate; by the ruined picket fences surrounding them; or, infrequently, by the mound itself showing its gravel through the fallen leaves.  In many instances nothing marked the spot where lay the vestiges of some poor mortal – who, leaving “a large circle of sorrowing friends,” had been left by them in turn – except a depression in the earth, more lasting than that in the spirits of the mourners.  The paths, if any paths had been, were long obliterated; trees of a considerable size had been permitted to grow up from the graves and thrust aside with root or branch the inclosing fences.  Over all was that air of abandonment and decay which seems nowhere so fit and significant as in a village of the forgotten dead.

As the two men, Jaralson leading, pushed their way through the growth of young trees, that enterprising man suddenly stopped and brought up his shotgun to the height of his breast, uttered a low note of warning, and stood motionless, his eyes fixed upon something ahead.  As well as he could, obstructed by brush, his companion, though seeing nothing, imitated the posture and so stood, prepared for what might ensue.  A moment later Jaralson moved cautiously forward, the other following.

Under the branches of an enormous spruce lay the dead body of a man.  Standing silent above it they noted such particulars as first strike the attention – the face, the attitude, the clothing; whatever most promptly and plainly answers the unspoken question of a sympathetic curiosity.

The body lay upon its back, the legs wide apart.  One arm was thrust upward, the other outward; but the latter was bent acutely, and the hand was near the throat.  Both hands were tightly clenched.  The whole attitude was that of desperate but ineffectual resistance to – what?

Near by lay a shotgun and a game bag through the meshes of which was seen the plumage of shot birds.  All about were evidences of a furious struggle; small sprouts of poison-oak were bent and denuded of leaf and bark; dead and rotting leaves had been pushed into heaps and ridges on both sides of the legs by the action of other feet than theirs; alongside the hips were unmistakable impressions of human knees.

The nature of the struggle was made clear by a glance at the dead man’s throat and face.  While breast and hands were white, those were purple – almost black.  The shoulders lay upon a low mound, and the head was turned back at an angle otherwise impossible, the expanded eyes staring blankly backward in a direction opposite to that of the feet.  From the froth filling the open mouth the tongue protruded, black and swollen.  The throat showed horrible contusions; not mere finger-marks, but bruises and lacerations wrought by two strong hands that must have buried themselves in the yielding flesh, maintaining their terrible grasp until long after death.  Breast, throat, face, were wet; the clothing was saturated; drops of water, condensed from the fog, studded the hair and mustache.

All this the two men observed without speaking – almost at a glance.  Then Holker said:

“Poor devil! he had a rough deal.”

Jaralson was making a vigilant circumspection of the forest, his shotgun held in both hands and at full cock, his finger upon the trigger.

“The work of a maniac,” he said, without withdrawing his eyes from the inclosing wood.  “It was done by Branscom – Pardee.”

Something half hidden by the disturbed leaves on the earth caught Holker’s attention.  It was a red-leather pocketbook.  He picked it up and opened it.  It contained leaves of white paper for memoranda, and upon the first leaf was the name “Halpin Frayser.”  Written in red on several succeeding leaves – scrawled as if in haste and barely legible – were the following lines, which Holker read aloud, while his companion continued scanning the dim gray confines of their narrow world and hearing matter of apprehension in the drip of water from every burdened branch:

“Enthralled by some mysterious spell, I stood
In the lit gloom of an enchanted wood.
The cypress there and myrtle twined their boughs,
Significant, in baleful brotherhood.

“The brooding willow whispered to the yew;
Beneath, the deadly nightshade and the rue,
With immortelles self-woven into strange
Funereal shapes, and horrid nettles grew.

“No song of bird nor any drone of bees,
Nor light leaf lifted by the wholesome breeze:
The air was stagnant all, and Silence was
A living thing that breathed among the trees.

“Conspiring spirits whispered in the gloom,
Half-heard, the stilly secrets of the tomb.
With blood the trees were all adrip; the leaves
Shone in the witch-light with a ruddy bloom.

“I cried aloud! – the spell, unbroken still,
Rested upon my spirit and my will.
Unsouled, unhearted, hopeless and forlorn,
I strove with monstrous presages of ill!

“At last the viewless – ”

Holker ceased reading; there was no more to read.  The manuscript broke off in the middle of a line.

“That sounds like Bayne,” said Jaralson, who was something of a scholar in his way.  He had abated his vigilance and stood looking down at the body.

“Who’s Bayne?” Holker asked rather incuriously.

“Myron Bayne, a chap who flourished in the early years of the nation – more than a century ago.  Wrote mighty dismal stuff; I have his collected works.  That poem is not among them, but it must have been omitted by mistake.”

“It is cold,” said Holker; “let us leave here; we must have up the coroner from Napa.”

Jaralson said nothing, but made a movement in compliance.  Passing the end of the slight elevation of earth upon which the dead man’s head and shoulders lay, his foot struck some hard substance under the rotting forest leaves, and he took the trouble to kick it into view.  It was a fallen headboard, and painted on it were the hardly decipherable words, “Catharine Larue.”

“Larue, Larue!” exclaimed Holker, with sudden animation.  “Why, that is the real name of Branscom – not Pardee.  And – bless my soul! how it all comes to me – the murdered woman’s name had been Frayser!”

“There is some rascally mystery here,” said Detective Jaralson.  “I hate anything of that kind.”

There came to them out of the fog – seemingly from a great distance – the sound of a laugh, a low, deliberate, soulless laugh, which had no more of joy than that of a hyena night-prowling in the desert; a laugh that rose by slow gradation, louder and louder, clearer, more distinct and terrible, until it seemed barely outside the narrow circle of their vision; a laugh so unnatural, so unhuman, so devilish, that it filled those hardy man-hunters with a sense of dread unspeakable!  They did not move their weapons nor think of them; the menace of that horrible sound was not of the kind to be met with arms.  As it had grown out of silence, so now it died away; from a culminating shout which had seemed almost in their ears, it drew itself away into the distance, until its failing notes, joyless and mechanical to the last, sank to silence at a measureless remove.

THE DEATH OF HALPIN FRAYSER

ADAPTED BY KERMET MERL KEY

(all rights reserved)

SUPER: “THE DEATH OF HALPIN FRAYSER”

FADE IN:

EXT. WOODS – DAY

HALPIN FRAYSER wanders alone in the woods with his journal of poetry, a small red pocketbook.  He pauses to scribble here and there.

The day fades as he stumbles through the brush.

DISSOLVE TO:

CLEARING – NIGHT

He discovers a clearing of softer earth and an overgrown stump to lie against.  He rests then goes to sleep.

EXT. WOODS (HALPIN’S DREAM) – NIGHT

Halpin walks along a dusty moonlit road.

He comes to a fork and an overgrown trail. He takes the overgrown trail without hesitation.

HAUNTED ROAD

Halpin HEARS incoherent WHISPERS on every side and seems to understand, in part, that they mean to harm him.  He pauses.

ECU on A LEAF SATURATED IN BLOOD. Rack-focus to Halpin.

He looks down at his feet.

HALPIN’S POV

He has stepped in a shallow pool of an old wheel rut.

He stoops and plunges his fingers into the pool.

HIS FINGERS ARE STAINED WITH BLOOD.

He rises and realizes that BLOOD is everywhere.

SERIES OF SHOTS

Weeds growing rankly by the roadside show it in blots and splashes on their big, broad leaves.

Patches of dry dust between the wheel ways are pitted and spattered as with a red rain.

Defiling the trunks of trees are broad maculations of crimson.

Blood drips like dew from the foliage.

BACK TO SCENE

It all seems familiar to Halpin, but he can’t remember how.

OVERHEAD

All about, WHISPERS and SIGHS of creatures so obviously not of earth that he can endure it no longer.

BACK TO SCENE

With great effort he SHOUTS!  His voice breaks into unfamiliar sounds, and goes babbling and stammering away into the distant reaches of the forest to die in silence.

HALPIN

(sotto)

Someone will hear me. There may be  good spirits traveling this accursed road.

(shouts)

I am a helpless mortal, a penitent, an unoffending poet!

He clutches his small red-leather pocketbook.

He discovers he is without pencil. He breaks a twig, dips it into the pool of blood and writes rapidly.

A low, wild peal of LAUGHTER breaks out at a distance away, and grows ever louder, approaches ever nearer; a soulless, heartless, and un-joyous laugh. It culminates in an unearthly SHOUT close at hand, then dies away by slow gradations.

Halpin seems to feel a presence nearby.

ECU ON HALPIN’S HAND

He writes with terrible rapidity, the twig in his fingers rill blood without renewal; but in the mid sentence he freezes.

BACK TO SCENE

His arms fall to his sides.

The book to the earth.

He rises. A figure behind him. He turns.

Powerless to move or cry out, he stares into the dead eyes of a WOMAN, standing white and silent in the garments of the grave.

His arms hang helpless at his side.

HIS EYES HE DARE NOT REMOVEÖ

Öfrom the lusterless orbs of the apparition. In its blank stare is neither love, nor pity, nor intelligence nothing to which to address an appeal for mercy.

BACK TO SCENE

For a time the apparition stands within a pace, regarding him with the mindless malevolence of a wild brute; then thrusts its hands forward and springs upon him with ferocity!

The cold fingers close upon his throat.

Halpin is borne backward to the earth.

HALPIN’S POV

Above him the dead and drawn face within a hand’s breadth of his own, and then all is black.

CUT TO BLACK:

A SOUND of the beating distant drums  a murmur of swarming voices, a sharp, far CRY signing all to silence.

FADE IN:

EXT. ROAD – DAY

HOLKER and JARLSON, two experienced hunters, walk along the road carrying guns on their shoulders.

HOLKER

How far is it?

Their feet stir the dust of the road.

JARLSON

A half mile.  There’s a graveyard next to it; the kind some moody poetic type would love.

They walk beside the forest.  Then enter…

EXT. WOODS – MORNING

For some moments Holker sees nothing of the cemetery, but as they walk it reveals itself in faint gray outline through the fog.

CEMETERY

Here and there are small enclosures containing graves, sometimes more than one.  Discolored stones or rotting boards at head and foot, leaning at all angles, some prostrate.

As Jaralson leads the way, he stops and brings up his shotgun.

JARALSON

Wait.

Holker imitates. A moment later Jaralson moves cautiously forward, the other following.

Under the branches of an enormous spruce lays Halpin.

The body lays legs wide apart. One arm thrust upward, the other outward; but the latter bent acutely, and the hand near the throat. Both hands tightly clenched.

Dead and rotting leaves are pushed into heaps and ridges on both sides of the legs by the action of other feet than theirs. Alongside the hips are unmistakable impressions of human knees.

While breast and hands are white, Halpin’s throat and face are purple almost black. The shoulder lays upon a low mound, and the head turns back at an angle otherwise impossible, the expanded eyes stare backward in a direction opposite that of the feet.

From the froth filing the open mouth the tongue protrudes, black and swollen.

The throat shows horrible contusions; not mere finger-marks, but bruises and lacerations wrought by two strong hands that must have buried themselves in the yielding flesh.

Breast, throat, face, are wet; the clothing saturated; drops of water, condensed from the fog, studded the hair and mustache.

JARALSON (O.S.) (CONT’D)

Poor devil! He had a rough deal.

Holker notices something half hidden by the disturbed leaves.

It is a red-leather pocketbook.  He picks it up and opens it.

INSERT POCKETBOOK

Upon the first leaf is the name “HALPIN FRAYSER.”

Written in red on several succeeding leaves scrawled as if in haste and barely legible are the following lines.

BACK TO SCENE

Holker reads aloud as Jaralson scans the dim gray confines of their narrow world and HEARS the drip of water from burdened branch:

HOLKER

(reading)

Enthralled by some mysterious spell, I stood in the lit gloom of an enchanted wood.  The cypress there and myrtle twined their bough significant, in baleful brotherhood. The brooding willow whispered to the yew; Beneath, the deadly nightshade and the rue, with immortals self-woven into strange funereal shapes, and horrid nettles grew. No song of bird nor any drone of bees, nor light leaf lifted by the wholesome breeze: The air was stagnant all, and silence was a living thing that breathed among the trees. Conspiring spirits whispered in the gloom – Half-heard, the stilly secrets of the tomb. With blood the trees were all adrip;  the leaves shone in witch-light with a ruddy bloom.  I cried aloud!  the spell, unbroken still – Rested upon my spirit and my will. Unsouled, unhearted, hopeless and forlorn, I strove with monstrous presages of ill! At last the viewless.

JARALSON

There is a devilish mystery here. I don’t like it.

Out of the fog seemingly from a great distance comes the SOUND of a laugh, a low, deliberate, soulless laugh that freezes their blood. Slowly it dies away and sinks to silence.

FADE OUT:

If you’re familiar with screenwriting format you should know that I did not correct the format when copying the document from an .rtf  copy of a .mmsw . If you’re not familiar with screenwriting format then…don’t worry about it. 😀

“Engineer the future now. Damn tomorrow, future now! Throw the switches. Prime the charge. Yesterday’s for mice and gods.”

English: The new Informatics Building on the c...

English: The new Informatics Building on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) at the corner of West and Michigan Streets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The suck-thing about being a student is you’re constantly looking to the future when you need to be focused on the here and now (save it, Yoda).

For example, today I met with one of my professors to discuss my resume. We discussed how it would be best to focus on my education, computer skills, work/projects, work experience…and so on. The good news is that we realized I have developed quite a few marketable skills, but the bad news is that there is still quite a ways to go yet.

So today I thought I’d tell you about where I am and where I plan on going in the next 12 months.

Family Life

Michael is our new babysitter

We approve of Michael’s tactics

 

I’m less than 21 days away from marrying the greatest woman on the planet, Laura Ann Fisher. We’ve been living together for almost 8 months and it almost seems like we’re already married, but I still cannot wait to make it official. We have two great kids, Cameron and Tommy, who I hope to adopt soon after. We have six children if you count Chance “McPants” and Stephen King (our German Shepherds, two guesses on who named the latter) and Oscar & Moose Kitten. And there’s eight if you include Chester Rabbit and the fish(es?), but I don’t. Fish aren’t really family members. F@#$ you if you’re a fish (I know you slimy bastards can read, it’s just no one will turn the page or scroll for you, so if someone is doing that for you now then they should be ashamed of  themselves. Human traitors! Close the page!).

FrogFish is about family. My family. Me, Laura and the kids.  We are a unique bunch with strong opinions, likes and dislikes, but we’re very compassionate and easy-going as well. We love everyone on principle alone, but we realize not everyone feels the same way about us and, for the most part, we don’t lie awake at night crying over that (Stephen King is a bit of a neurotic). FrogFish will not be for everyone. It’s not that we don’t want everyone to like us, it’s just that there are way more of you than there are of us and no matter how friendly we try to be, some of you are going to take offense. We can’t waste our time worrying about that. We want to tell stories. Scary stories. Funny stories. Stories that entertain first, and cause conversation later (“You mean like how George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ was really about consumerism, but I was too busy trippin’ out on the zombies to realize that the first time I saw it?” Yes, observant reader. Just like that).  Stories for you to take and do with as you like. Like using as an excuse to hate us.

I’m cool with that (but seriously, don’t make stupid threats. I don’t respond well to stupid).

School

I am currently in my first semester at Indiana University – Indianapolis (IUPUI) as an undergrad in the Media Arts & Science program. Because of my previous BA in Liberal Arts (English), I do not have to take a single course outside of my program, but I still have to take some seemingly meaningless prerequisite courses like:

  • N100 – Foundations of New Media: It’s the marijuana to the school of Informatics’ hardcore drugs of Media Arts and Science. It gives the student just a little taste of what to expect should they pursue the degree, specializing in areas like Storytelling Fundamentals, Gaming, Web Design and Development, Programming, Audio/Video or 3D graphics. This blog post, right here, is actually part of my assignment for this class. It’s free too. But the next one will cost you.
  • N101 – Multimedia Authoring Tools: This class is all about Adobe Dreamweaver CS6. There is a lecture/lab component of the course and I enjoy both. This is the class that will help me develop the website for FrogFish.com (the end-zone to this hail-mary pass of a career).  I also use Lynda.com to support my lab work. It’s free to Indiana University students and I will be using it the entire time I am a student. The entire time. I’m using it now. And always.
  • N102 – Digital Media Imagery: Adobe Photoshop CS6. Same as N101 just different software. IU and their campuses love to let the students know that this software is free to them. I love them for that.
  • N199 and N299 – Directed Study I & II: How to use your education to find a job. It’s very helpful to freshman straight out of high school. It’s a good aid to those entering the job market. It’s a good tool for those starting their own company while using a school program as their main resource (do we know anyone like that?).

Next semester I hope to take N202 – Digital Storytelling, N256 – Digital Composition, N261 – Storyboarding for Multimedia, and N300 – Digital Media Production. Some of those may change. One of the biggest obstacles in having a set goal and a clear path is that there are other drivers on the road, and sometimes construction, and things do not work out as planned (which is why you will often hear me say, “God willing”). By the end of the semester I should have a stronger portfolio and, God willing, I will have not only my own projects to work on, but some friends who need a strongly opinionated, intelligently compassionate writer/production assistant/storyboard artist/cinematographer

Projects

While in school I have had several projects completed thus far. Here is one of them:

Student work with lots of room for improvement, but I’m proud of it.

I’ve worked on a few other projects since my first school stint. You can find them through my imdb.com page. I give lots of credit to the Indiana Filmmakers Network and cool people like Zack Parker, Veronica Diaz, Brian Pearce, Joshua Hull and Jim Dougherty for those opportunities (my first “thank-you-speech” and I’m sure there are those who feel left out…damn!).  I look forward to working more with IFN and a new group I just met called Quadrivium Media; fellow Media Arts & Science students focusing on Video/Audio.

Some of the projects I am currently working on are…

  • Short Films – Next semester I will begin adapting several short stories into films. My first three our adaptations of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories: “The Death of Halpin Frayser”, “A Watcher by the Dead”, and “The Suitable Surroundings”. I’d also like to take a crack at Arthur Machen’s “The Gread God Pan”, M.R. James’ “The Mezzotint” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Tomb”. I think there are a lot of stories that audiences today don’t even know exist or the version they know is far from the original author’s intent. Whether my adaptations are faithful page-by-page renderings (and they’re not) or completely new imaginings (and they’re not that either) I hope they lead audiences to the source material that I fell in love with.
  • Graphic Novels – I use the term graphic novel here because I am not writing an ongoing series comic (yet) and the project has a limited run. The story is called The Wet Grave and is an action, horror story that explores what we are willing to do for safety, security and freedom. It’s set in 1750 New Orleans between the clash of the French, African and Native American cultures and is about a young slave girl who reanimates her murdered lover to seek revenge on her oppressors. I have found a talented new artist to bring the webcomic to life (she’s working on the FrogFish logo as we speak…I said, “She’s working on the FrogFish logo as we speak!”…so, I’ll be premiering that soon). I am writing the second issue right now (literally, I have four hands typing).  I will reveal more soon, but this is something to look for next summer.
  • Feature Film Screenplay – I am working with my good friend and sometimes reluctant witness, Eric Anderson on a horror comedy. The only thing I can say about it right now is that it is actually a two-parter, so the sequel is already built into the original. At this time, we intend to market the project to other producers when it is finished (thus “Screenplay”), but you never know. It could be the first Corn Bred/FrogFish collaborative production.
  • Others – Far too many to name here, and most are in the synopsis/outline stage (come on people, I’m a full time student, part-time employee, part-time SAHD, I can only give so much), but there has been a recent leaning toward 2D animation. A series in fact. I love animated horror. And this Halloween animatic at Horror-Movies.ca (one of the BestF@#$ingWebsitesEver that I will be talking about next week) got my heart racing like it did when I took Shakespeare a few years ago and decided creative performance was my true passion (and politics, yeah…you might want to avoid me on Facebook).  There is also a lot of Feature Films (God willing, my senior capstone will be a feature film project), more comics, more shorts…and that’s just the stuff I’m working on. Laura has got stuff for AsteriasMedia (the Fish side of FrogFish).  We’ll be publishing new, talented horror writers on our site. In fact…there should be a call for submissions coming up soon. Yeah…soon.

So there you have it. An eye on the future and a leg in the present with thoughts in the past and limbs in an alternate universe and…damn this was a long blog. What was I talking about? Hit me up on the comments to let me know. Follow me on Twitter. Find me on Facebook. Visit me in Indiana. Stalk me from the other side of the fence (remember, two German Shepherds. They’re sweethearts…when I have their leash). Until next week.

“Indiana wants me, Lord I can’t go back there.”

That may not be true. I have a tendency to rub most of my fellow Hoosiers the wrong way with my political views, but I wouldn’t be the first, and certainly not the most famous one to have ever done that.

His name was Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce.

Born in 1842, the tenth of thirteen children, he grew up around Warsaw, Indiana in a poor but literate, Christian family.

He left home at 15 and began his first foray into publishing, but long before becoming a distinguished author he was a military hero. He was the 2nd man in Elkhart County to sign up for Indiana’s 9th regiment after Lincoln’s call to arms. At the Battle of Rich Mountain he earned praise in the media for his heroic rescue of a fellow soldier. He rose quickly in the ranks until he was commissioned First Lieutenant and served as a topographical engineer making maps of battlefields. At the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain he was shot in the head and survived. In fact, he returned to active duty less than six months later.

It would be easy to see why the man had developed a sardonic view on human nature.

In 1867 Bierce arrived in San Francisco and began writing for several local papers where he began one of his most famous works The Devil’s Dictionary. He traveled to England, where he lived and wrote from 1872 to 1875, then returned to San Francisco to become a regular columnist and editorialist for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. He found himself in the midst of a few controversies of political matter while working with Hearst.

He is best known for his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”  and his strange disappearance where, in 1913, he was rumored to have run off to join Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution.

I’ve read a few of the biographies written about “Bitter” Bierce and would love to one day make a biopic of this great author. In the meantime, I hope to adapt several of his short stories next year for both class projects and my personal portfolio. One of my favorites, and most likely the first story I will adapt is the “The Death of Halpin Frayser.”

The story, in a nutshell, is about a man lost in the woods, who falls asleep and has a mortal encounter with a malevolent spirit. However, Bierce’s prose and description, the subtle tools of a well practiced author, elevate the story to something more then mere spookery despite its contrived ending. Many of Bierce’s stories have characters whose undoing is due  to the lack of recognition of some flaw in themselves, their past or their peers (often lunatics in disguise), in this case it is the former.

Halpin Frayser claims he is ” a helpless mortal, a penitent, an unoffending poet,” but Bierce goes to great lengths to show that “Halpin was pretty generally deprecated as an intellectual black sheep who was likely at any moment to disgrace the flock by bleating in metre.” This is a great of example by Bierce where, how the character sees himself versus how the author sees him, combined with how the world of the character see him, presents a vivid, three-dimensional picture for the audience on a limited two-dimensional medium; leaving them with a subtle change in their own perspective on their own perception (i.e. it changes the way they think they think) all delivered under the guise of a mere ghost story. It is this type of a subtle social commentary that attracts me to horror and humor and authors like Ambrose Bierce.

He then continues to describe the lost fool as a bit of a momma’s boy with a bit of the Oedipus in him:

Between him and his mother was the most perfect sympathy, for secretly the lady was herself a devout disciple of the late and great Myron Bayne, though with the tact so generally and justly admired in her sex (despite the hardy calumniators who insist that it is essentially the same thing as cunning) she had always taken care to conceal her weakness from all eyes but those of him who shared it. Their common guilt in respect of that was an added tie between them. If in Halpin’s youth his mother had ‘spoiled’ him he had assuredly done his part toward being spoiled. As he grew to such manhood as is attainable by a Southerner who does not care which way elections go, the attachment between him and his beautiful mother — whom from early childhood he had called Katy — became yearly stronger and more tender. In these two romantic natures was manifest in a signal way that neglected phenomenon, the dominance of the sexual element in all the relations of life, strengthening, softening, and beautifying even those of consanguinity. The two were nearly inseparable, and by strangers observing their manners were not infrequently mistaken for lovers.

This all ties in to the character’s demise in some bit of an unfortunate, serendipitous encounter; for as I said, Bierce’s characters often have a hand in their own ending and this is no different. However, if you’re looking for more scares than backstory, then I suggest this passage from the story:

But what mortal can cope with a creature of his dream? The imagination creating the enemy is already vanquished; the combat’s result is the combat’s cause. Despite his struggles — despite his strength and activity, which seemed wasted in a void, he felt the cold fingers close upon his throat. Borne backward to the earth, he saw above him the dead and drawn face within a hand’s-breadth of his own, and then all was black.

Even in his day Ambrose Bierce was accused of overwriting, and surely in today’s immediate access world he would find it difficult to play in the sandboxes of Twitter. But he was an artist and his written words nearly beg to be read aloud to enjoy them to their full extent. This is just one examples of his great talent. I would suggest some of the following:

You can find these stories and many of his other works here at the Ambrose Bierce Project