DAMNED THINGS

Michael D. Winkle

Ambrose Bierce's most famous short story, "The Damned Thing," concerns an invisible monster on the loose in the Old West, evidenced only by its effect on plants, animals -- and people:

"I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down -- crushed it so that it did not rise; and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us."

According to Paul Fatout's biography Ambrose Bierce: the Devil's Lexicographer, "The Damned Thing" was based on an actual occurrence:

"Another story pertinent to character was 'The Damned Thing,' published in the 1893 Christmas number of the New York Town Topics. Similar to Maupassant's "Le Horla," the tale is of a spectral presence, sensed but unseen: an emptiness that moves and terrifies. It was suggested, the author said, 'by a rather disquieting personal experience while gunning':

"'I am convinced that in daylight and on an open road I stood in the immediate presence of a wild beast invisible to me but sufficiently conspicuous to my dog, and sufficiently formidable to frighten it exceedingly.'" [1]

Texas hosts another invisible monster, according to Lone Star historian William Edward Syers. The Ottine Swamp flanks the San Marcos River southeast of Austin and encompasses Palmetto State Park. About 1980, Syers interviewed Berthold Jackson, an A&M graduate and woodsman, one of many hunters and fisherman who have encountered the "thing" in the swamp. "He had never read Ambrose Bierce's masterpiece, 'The Damned Thing' . . . Yet that is precisely what he described to me over early coffee on a fine spring morning."

One night Jackson was hunting with a friend, Johnny Boehm of Gonzales, Texas:

"'Johnny was behind me, maybe fifty yards. I could see his light, and he could see mine. The damned thing got right between us. We could see the brush move.' He gestured the rippling movement of passage. 'We could hear brush snap underfoot. But we couldn't see a thing except that brush moving. Not the thing itself. And that close, an animal's eyes would show like headlights.'

"'You've never actually seen it?' I asked.

"'Just its movement. And I've put a big light on it; so have others, more than once. Nothing!'"

Jackson named several others who had encountered the thing, from Luling and Gonzales. Two men, Billy Webb and Ab Ussery, running a trotline one night, saw an expanse of bloodweeds along the riverbank move as if something large were passing through it, following them. They shone a large light at the disturbance from only 20 feet (six meters) away but still saw nothing.

The "Thing" seems to be attracted to vehicles parked on Lookout Hill, which lies near the entrance of Palmetto State Park. Two young men, Brewster Short and Wayne Hodges, readying themselves to go home from a hunting trip, claimed that something unseen reared up on the back of their car. They fled hastily, leaving their dogs behind. This experience so disturbed Wayne that he moved into his parents' bedroom. Lamar Ryan, Jackson's cousin, was parked one night on the hill with his fiancee when something started shoving his pickup towards the edge of a steep drop-off. Lamar jumped out, but he could see nothing, despite the moonlight. He and his wife-to-be left hastily.

Jackson's son spoke to a couple who lived in a trailer house near the swamp. He was informed that something had once or twice shook the trailer "like a box," and that the couple had come home one day to find the wife's best dress, which had been on a clothesline, "torn in half, and each half rolled in a ball and stuck under each bed." [2]

The unseen being of Palmetto State Park still roams about, at least according to the author of an anonymous letter sent to Wesley Treat, Heather Shade, and Rob Riggs, authors of Weird Texas. "Many years back," after receiving a camera from his wife for Christmas, the author drove out to the park to take pictures. He began to feel that someone was following him. He headed for his vehicle, but the feeling grew so intense that he started running. He tripped and fell, looking back as he rolled over to get up.

"I saw the tall grass off to the side of the trail getting flattened and parting, as if someone was pushing their way through it. But there was no one there. I jumped up and broke out into a full sprint until I was inside my car. I quickly took off, without even catching my breath, and felt something hit the car from behind." [p. 105]

The author wondered if he was going crazy, but eventually he heard the stories about an "invisible man" in the park. [3]

Jody Noller of Connecticut provided a similar "invisible thing" report for Joanne Austin's Weird Hauntings. The year is unspecified, but the event occurred at a YMCA camp near Washington, New Hampshire, when the witness was fourteen. One night at about 2:00 am Noller woke to "heavy footsteps" in the leaves. "I heard brush being swept aside and a kind of low-pitched wailing I couldn't identify," he reports. He claims to have been familiar with most animal noises (and teenage camper noises, for that matter). Noller woke his tentmate Bruce, and both looked out with large flashlights. "The leaves and branches were being pulled off trees and thrown around, as if something very large and invisible was deliberately destroying the trees."

The boys naturally yelled for help, but the camp counselors who responded were equally mystified. One counselor, Jim, left and returned with a shotgun. As the other counselor held a light, he fired into "it" twice from 20 feet (six meters) away. "It" did not seem to be harmed, but now "small- to medium-sized rocks" came flying out of the trees. One hit Noller painfully in the head. The thing moved noisily into the deep woods, wailing again.

By now, all the young campers were awake and screaming. The councelors called the state police, who found nothing but torn saplings and underbrush. From then on, several counselors sat up at night with shotguns, but the "Camp Morgan Thing" never returned. [3]

Another story of a huge invisible entity was posted at alt.folklore.ghost-stories and later on GHOSTS.ORG by "Nina":

Invisible Creature

"They had both heard something very large and heavy enough to shake the ground with its footsteps come up from a nearby ravine and walk around their house, trying to get in."

(The book Haunted Reality by Sharon A. Gill and Dave R. Oester (1996) identifies the author as Nina Kilgore -- but, curiously, the story is not in their book.)

There is a running thread in these stories of something massive and powerful close by yet as clear as air, a solid and destructive "emptiness" -- an incongruity Charles Fort would have liked.

1. Paul Fatout. Ambrose Bierce, the Devil's Lexicographer (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), pp. 202-203. The quote within the quote comes from the San Francisco Examiner, May 27, 1894.

2. Ed Syers. Ghost Stories of Texas (Waco, Texas: Texian Press, 1981), pp. 22-25.

3. Treat, Wesley, et al.. Weird Texas (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2005), p. 105.

4. Joanne Austin. Weird Hauntings: True Tales of Ghostly Places (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2006), pp. 141-142.


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