Short Horror Story: "An Inhabitant of Carcosa"

Subtle unease builds in this short horror story by Ambrose Bierce about the great and ancient city of Carcosa.


| October 2014


The Weiser Book of Horror and the Occult (Weiser Books, 2014), edited by Lon Milo DuQuette, opens with a warning that reading the stories included “could lead to nightmares, irresistible urges, spontaneous dance or ritual, and deep-seated needs to cloister oneself in a damp basement, musty library, or cavernous tomb.” With a collection gleaned from the foundational masters of the short horror story genre, DuQuette presents horror that relies on the reader’s imagination for its power. The following short horror story by Ambrose Bierce is titled “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.”

A Biography of Ambrose Bierce

CHRISTIAN, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin. —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce (1842-1913? 1914? or ?) was a brilliant journal­ist and writer of short stories, fables, and satire. The reason we don’t have definitive date for the death of Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce is because quite frankly nobody knows when or how he died. He left his comfortable (and now historic) home in Washington, D.C. in October of 1913 (he was seventy-one years old at the time) and by December had crossed into Mexico and joined Pancho Villa’s army to get a good look at the Mexican Revolution. That’s the last we hear of him.

The works of Ambrose Bierce are not usually associated with the horror genre. However, because he is such a singularly unique fixture in nineteenth-century American literature (not to mention his breathtaking penchant for being shockingly frank, even macabre) he offers us no better category in which to place him. It is almost certain that his fictional alternate realities and speculations on future events were enjoyed by the founding fathers of horror, especially Robert W. Chambers, whose terrible mytho­logical King in Yellow kingdom of Carcosa—its landmarks and characters—are lifted directly from Bierce’s short horror story, “The Inhabitant of Carcosa.” I encourage the reader who is not familiar with Bierce to do a little homework. I will go so far as to promise that if you enjoy Mark Twain, you will love Ambrose Bierce. His life story is an adventure no novelist could invent.

An Inhabitant of Carcosa

For there be divers sorts of death—some wherein the body remaineth; and in some it vanisheth quite away with the spirit. This commonly occurreth only in solitude (such is God’s will) and, none seeing the end, we say the man is lost, or gone on a long journey—which indeed he hath; but sometimes it hath happened in sight of many, as abundant testimony showeth. In one kind of death the spirit also dieth, and this it hath been known to do while yet the body was in vigor for many years. Sometimes, as is veritably attested, it dieth with the body, but after a season is raised up again in that place where the body did decay.

Pondering these words of Hali (whom God rest) and questioning their full meaning, as one who, having an intimation, yet doubts if there be not something behind, other than that which he has dis­cerned, I noted not whither I had strayed until a sudden chill wind striking my face revived in me a sense of my surroundings. I observed with astonishment that everything seemed unfamiliar. On every side of me stretched a bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn wind with heaven knows what mysterious and disquiet­ing suggestion. Protruded at long intervals above it, stood strangely shaped and somber-colored rocks, which seemed to have an under­standing with one another and to exchange looks of uncomfortable significance, as if they had reared their heads to watch the issue of some foreseen event. A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation.






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