The ABP Journal
Fall 2008, Vol. 4 No. 1

ISSN 1939-4578

Paul Juhasz is Instructor of English at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. He has presented scholarship covering a wide range of American and British authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Conrad, Nathaniel Hawthorne, T.C. Boyle, and Katherine Mansfield. His writing has been published by the CEA Critic.

[journal table of contents]






There are two different types of
time hubs in Bierce’s
fiction: those in
which the past becomes superimposed onto the narrative
present, and those in
which a present moment is simultaneously experienced in different locales.















gulch shack




















Vainly he sought by tracing life backward in memory, to reproduce the moment of his
. . . .
He felt as
one who has murdered in the
dark, not knowing whom nor why.


no matter what the actual hour may be

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THE COMPRESSION OF TIME that allows for the noose bruises of Bramwell Olcott Bartine to manifest onto the neck of his great-grandson or that allows the primitive past and the distant future of the famous city of Carcosa to inhabit the same temporal moment is a feature of several other Bierce stories. The representative manifestation of this stylistic device is the temporal hub, a specific narrative moment where multiple timelines intersect. There are two different types of time hubs in Bierce’s fiction: those in which the past becomes superimposed onto the narrative present and those in which a present moment is simultaneously experienced in different locales. [32]

An example of the first type of time hub can be found in “The Other Lodgers.” [33] The story opens with Colonel Levering [34] advising a friend to avoid staying at the Breathitt House during an overnight stay in Atlanta. His poor review stems from a previous stay, when he was negatively impressed with both the physical condition of the hotel and the service he received. Levering describes the Breathitt House as “in urgent need of repair” with “breeches in the walls that you could throw a cat through” (395). Worse than the decrepitude of the building, however, is the fact that one cannot be sure of having a room all to oneself. Levering recounts discovering during the night of his stay that he shared the room with about a dozen corpses. He complains to a spectral night-clerk, who bows apologetically and then disappears. Levering is then startled by a night watchman, who explains that the Breathitt House is no longer a hotel; “It used to be; afterward it was a hospital. Now it is unoccupied” (397). The room in which Levering spent the night, he is informed, was the dead-room during building’s hospital phase.

What is striking about this short three-page story is that during the night in which Levering stays in the Breathitt House he experiences the overlap of all three phases of the building’s existence in time. The Breathitt House functions to some extent as the hotel it was in the past, since there is a night-clerk to check Levering in and to show him to his room. The hospital chapter of the Breathitt House’s history is also quite clearly a component of the narrative. When asked by his companion when the events he relates took place, Levering replies “in September, 1864—shortly after the siege” (397). This reply marks the present moment of Levering’s experiences as during the Civil War, which means that at the time of his stay, the Breathitt House was operating as an impromptu war hospital. This is further indicated by Levering’s recalling that he “had not entirely recovered from a gunshot wound in the head, received in an altercation” [35] (which provides an ominous explanation as to why the night-clerk checks him into the dead-room). Situating the narrative present during the siege of Atlanta also explains the breaches in the walls of which Levering was so critical. Yet the very fact that his narrative presents details and characters that had not happened nor appeared at the time the Breathitt House operated as a hospital (e.g., the night watchman who can speak to the post-war vacancy of the building) indicates that the future of the Breathitt House has also been superimposed onto the night of Levering’s experiences. Like the narrator in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” Levering has been subjected to three separate moments in time during the same moment in time. [36]

The revelatory moment in the supernatural tale “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch” also represents a time hub. [37] The narrator, Elderson, is hunting in a remote area of the Sierra Nevadas and as nightfall approaches, he seeks shelter in the decrepit ruins of a house located in the eponymous gulch. During the night, he becomes aware of the “presence of something malign and menacing in the place” (33). Overcoming his apprehension, he falls asleep and dreams of a strange city through which he navigates, compelled by some unknown force. He soon arrives at a house, which he enters to find a sullen married couple.

Elderson awakes and as he muses on his strange dream, he inexplicably arrives at three conclusions: 1) the city in the dream was Edinburgh (although Elderson has never been there); 2) the sullen couple’s family name was MacGregor; and 3) the house in which he sleeps was theirs. These unfounded but convincing conclusions are followed by

a dull, dead sound, as of some heavy body falling upon the floor, . . . . While the flimsy structure was still shaking from the impact I heard the sound of blows, the scuffling of feet upon the floor, and then—it seemed to come from almost within reach of my hand, the sharp shrieking of a woman in mortal agony. . . . The violent sounds had ceased, but more terrible than those, I heard, at what seemed long intervals, the faint intermittent gasping of some living, dying thing! (35-6)
As Elderson examines the room, he discovers his “own tracks were visible in the dust covering the floor, but there were no others,” indicating that despite all of the sensory evidence, the struggle he hears and feels did not actually take place in the room, at least not that night (36).

Later, Elderson learns from Morgan, an acquaintance familiar with the area, that the gulch’s name “is a corruption; it should have been called MacGregor” after Janet and Thomas MacGregor, immigrants from Edinburgh who first settled there (36). Mr. Morgan continues his story, telling Edlerson what the reader has already figured out: that the house he stayed in was the MacGregor’s and in that house, Thomas beat his wife to death with a pick handle. When shown a picture of MacGregor, Elderson recognizes the man from his dream.

The key that explains Elderson’s experience is his description of the dream: “It was as if two pictures, the scene of my dream, and my actual surroundings, had been blended, one overlying the other” (35). In other words, Elderson is within what I have termed a time hub. Two temporal moments, one from the past and one the present, occupying experientially a single time and space; Elderson is temporarily able to perceive both. Mr. Morgan’s narrative adds a layer of depth to the time hub Elderson experiences. There are actually three distinct temporal moments overlapping the night of Elderson’s stay: the past moment (broadly speaking) in Edinburgh presented in his dream, a second past moment where Janet MacGregor’s murder is re-presented, and the present moment of Elderson’s overnight stay in the ruined cabin. While Elderson seems shaken and surprised by Morgan’s history lesson on Macarger’s Gulch, [38] he should not be; he has experienced all this before.

A further example of the overlap of distinct temporal moments is found in “The Death of Halpin Frayser.” [39] At times masquerading as a standard, if unconventionally told, murder mystery, the story offers a temporal complexity rivaled only by “John Bartine’s Watch.” The structure is characterized by the disjointed chronology discussed above in connection to tales such as “The Suitable Surroundings” and “One Kind of Officer.” [40] Before the narrative proper begins, the narration offers, under the guise of presenting Frayser’s age, a brief discourse on time as a function of relative perspective:

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. (59)

This commentary has seemingly no apparent connection to any development of plot, character, or theme; what it does do, however, is challenge the typical human understanding of time as a linear progression. [41]

Without question, the central instance of time distortion in the story is Frayser’s dream in the forests near Napa Valley. [42] The dream, set in the ghastly environment of a menacing forest covered with wet blood, full of “incoherent whispers” in “strange tongues” and “fragmentary utterances of a monstrous conspiracy against his body and soul,” instills in Frayser a foreboding sense of unexplainable guilt and the looming presence of impending vengeance:

it seemed to him that it was all in expiation of some crime which, though conscious of his guilt, he could not rightly remember. . . . 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. (emphasis added, 62)
The solution to the contradictory convictions—of being “conscious of his guilt” but unable to recall his crime—lies in the fact that at this juncture Frayser’s dream has ceased to be a dream; his present moment in time has become blended with a past moment in time, but not his own. His experience, like that of John Bartine, has become overlapped with the experience of his great-grandfather Myron Bayne; the guilt he is aware of and the crime he cannot recall committing are both Bayne’s. This “commingling” of Bayne’s sensations with his own is the cause of Frayser’s “confusion.” [43]

That Frayser is channeling his great-grandfather’s experiences and sensations during the dream is indicated by his response to the overwhelming sense of foreboding that consumes him. Declaring that “I will not submit unheard,” Frayser begins to frantically compose verse, using a twig dipped into a nearby pool of blood to “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!” (61). Myron Bayne, we are told, was “a poet of no small Colonial distinction” (62), while Frayser’s “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” (63). Frayser, in other words, is not the “unoffending poet” in question; his great grandfather was (or is).

Yet Frayser’s dream is no foray into subconscious familial associations; in fact it is no dream at all. That his dreamscape experiences were experientially real is established (in addition of course to the fact that the next morning Frayser is very much dead) by the discovery next to his body of poetry written in blood. The discoverer, a Sherlock Holmes parody named Jaralson, comments that the verse “sounds like Bayne” and further notes that he owns Bayne’s collected works and “that poem is not among them” (71). Thus, the poem cannot be the result of memorization or subconscious recall; it could only have come from Bayne himself, channeled through Frayser during a moment of overlapped time.

As mentioned above, there is a second type of time hub operating in some of Bierce’s short fiction. In these stories, co-existent present moments overlap at a single point in the spatial perception of a single character; a prime example is “A Psychological Shipwreck.” [44] As with many other stories in which dysfunctional time is explored (see, for example, “The Suitable Surroundings” above), Bierce peppers this story with several suggestions of distorted or nontraditional time structures. The central character, William Jarrett, decides to take a sailing vessel, the Morrow, from Liverpool to New York rather than a steamer because he “felt that a protracted sea voyage would be both agreeable and beneficial”; in other words, Jarrett is actively seeking an experientially slower advance of time (188). On board the Morrow, he meets a young English woman, Janette Harford, attended by a slave woman from South Carolina. The slave’s presence is the result of both her master and mistress dying in separate incidents on the same day during a visit to England; the simultaneous deaths prefigure the focus on coincidental events that will be the main focus of the tale. In a final foreshadowing, the master’s name was also William Jarrett, which offers the reader an alternate parallel biography of the narrator—a possible existence in time that is not this particular existence in time.

The most significant manipulation of time, however, is the presentation of two distinct, seemingly linear experiences of William Jarrett (the narrator, not the slave holder). The first portion of the story deals with his experiences aboard the Morrow, with particular focus on his interaction and emotional engagement with Harford. This portion of the narrative ends with the sudden sinking of the Morrow, the death of Harford, and the ostensible rescue of Jarrett.

As Jarrett regains consciousness, he is aboard the steamer City of Prague with his friend Gordon Doyle. As he inquires about his rescue and the condition of Harford, Doyle informs him that he (Jarrett) has been aboard the steamer for the entire voyage; he has never been on the Morrow, has never met Janette Harford, and had no need of rescue from a ship that has never sunk. Doyle does reveal, however, that Harford is his fiancée, and that she is currently sailing to New York on the Morrow so that the two can be married.

The two competing narratives advance questions about which is “real.” Jarrett has clearly experienced both; he has not been dreaming and his behavior for the three weeks onboard the City of Prague prior to these events has been unremarkable. Further developing the confusion, the end of Jarrett’s narrative indicates that “the Morrow was never heard from” again, confirming that his experiences aboard that ship actually happened (192).

As with “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch,” the key lies in the description of the alternate temporal experience being superimposed onto the actual present. While Jarrett is on the Morrow interacting with Harford, [45] he is actually resting in the stateroom he shares with Doyle on board the City of Prague. As he gazes into Harford’s eyes, his

mind was dominated by as strange a fancy as ever entered human consciousness. It seemed as if she were looking at me, not with, but through, those eyes—from an immeasurable distance behind them—and that a number of other persons, men, women and children, upon whose faces I caught strangely familiar evanescent expressions, clustered about her, struggling with gentle eagerness to look at me through the same orbs. (189)

This experience seems to offer a blending of both present-tense moments. Jarrett perceives the faces of other men, women, and children—the other passengers on the City of Prague with whom we know from Doyle’s account Jarrett has been routinely interacting —while at the same time sharing conversations with Harford aboard the Morrow. Jarrett’s physical and experiential duality is mirrored by the similar duality of the book which both Harford and Doyle, on opposite sides of the time hub, are reading. Both are reading Denneker’s Meditations (Doyle explains that Janette had two copies) and in each manifestation of the book, the same passage is being read: the repeated passage discusses “rills which would flow across each other” allowing for the flow of souls back and forth across time and space. [46] The result is that Jarrett’s experiences, which seemed at first-glance linear, are in fact simultaneous; he has two distinct present tense experiences at the same time.

Co-existent overlapping present moments are also at the center of the brief, two-page treatment, “A Wireless Message.” [47] The central character, William Holt of Chicago, is estranged from his wife and is currently living with his brother in central New York. Taking a walk one night, he becomes lost. He soon notices that the landscape glows with a bright, reddish glow. At precisely 11:25 p.m., the “mysterious illumination suddenly flared to an intense, an almost blinding splendor” (135). In the sky, he sees a spectral image of his wife and child, which soon vanishes. Holt later recalls that the image “showed only the upper half of the woman’s figure: nothing was seen below the waist” (135). The next day, Holt receives a telegraph informing him his wife and child were killed the previous night in a fire; unable to escape, she was witnessed standing at an upper window with her child in her arms; at precisely 11:25, the floor gave way “and she was seen no more” (135).

An understanding of the story, however, must come in spite of its narrative filter. The narrator attempts to frame this account as the result of the intense psychological pressure under which Holt labored: “it may be assumed—whatever the value of the assumption in connection with what is said to have occurred—that his mind was occupied with reflections on his domestic infelicities and the distressing changes that they had wrought in his life” (134). Moreover, his inclusion of the phrase “what is said to have occurred” suggest skepticism on his part that these events were in fact experienced, rather than imaged, by Holt. [48]

The unreliability of the narrator is further underscored by his frequent admission of gaps in his knowledge. The town in central New York where these events took place “has not [been] retained” by the writer’s memory (134). He cannot speak to the marital difficulties that led to Holt’s split with his wife, excusing this gap by noting Holt was “not addicted to the vice of confidences” (134). Yet another limitation is indicated by the narrator’s vagueness in the final line of the opening: “Yet he [Holt] has related the incident herein set down to at least one person without exacting a pledge of secrecy. He is now living in Europe” (134). Does the “he” here refer to Holt? Is it an indirect third-person reference to the narrator himself? Or does it suggest that the narration we are presented with is at the least a third-hand account, given to our narrator from the individual to whom Holt imparted it?

Despite the obvious difficulties presented by the narrator, the details offered correspond to the type of time manipulation found in the Bierce stories discussed immediately above. The place in which Holt gets lost seems outside of objective time, suggested by Holt no longer experiencing “the lapse of time” (134). The reddish glow projects his shadow in front of him, no matter what point of the horizon he faces, suggesting his locus is somehow removed from the normalcy of compass points and orbital movements. This is also indicated by his return to the village “at a point opposite to that at which he had left it” (135). Since Holt has been traveling on the same road the entire night, and moreover traveling back and forth upon it, his being flipped to the opposite side of the town becomes navigationally challenging (to put it mildly) by standard concepts of time and space.

As with previously discussed examples, the description of the experiential moment is quite telling. Holt describes the flare at 11:25 as “momentary, followed by black darkness, in which, however, the apparition still showed white and motionless; then by insensible degrees it faded and vanished, like a bright image on the retina after the closing of the eyes” (135). The blending of the two moments is equated with retinal afterimage, in which an image is superimposed onto one’s “normal” or primary visual perceptions. Holt’s temporal experience at an overlapping juncture of time and space operates in much the same way. As with “A Psychological Shipwreck,” two simultaneously occurring moments, the fire in Chicago and Holt’s nighttime wandering in New York are blended, allowing Holt to experience both of them. [49]

next Next Section

Essay Table of Contents

1. "No Matter What the Actual Hour May Be:" Time Manipulation in the Works of Ambrose Bierce

2. Disjointed Chronology: Bierce's Temporal Shell Game

3. Lives on Hold: Paused Timelines

4. Time Manipulation: Expansion, Compression, and Irrelevance of Time

> 5. Time Hubs: Intersections of Time and Space

6. Security in a Second Hand: The False Comforts of Time

7. Final Thoughts: Bierce's Place in Time

8. Notes

9. Works Cited

Copyright © 2008 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.