The Best Ghost Stories HTML version

The Damned Thing
By Ambrose Bierce
By the light of a tallow candle which had been placed on one end of a rough table a man
was reading something written in a book. It was an old account book, greatly worn; and
the writing was not, apparently, very legible, for the man sometimes held the page close
to the flame of the candle to get a stronger light on it. The shadow of the book would then
throw into obscurity a half of the room, darkening a number of faces and figures; for
besides the reader, eight other men were present. Seven of them sat against the rough log
walls, silent, motionless, and the room being small, not very far from the table. By
extending an arm any one of them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the
table, face upward, partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.
The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no one spoke; all seemed to be
waiting for something to occur; the dead man only was without expectation. From the
blank darkness outside came in, through the aperture that served for a window, all the
ever unfamiliar noises of night in the wilderness—the long nameless note of a distant
coyote; the stilly pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange cries of night birds, so
different from those of the birds of day; the drone of great blundering beetles, and all that
mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem always to have been but half heard when
they have suddenly ceased, as if conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was
noted in that company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle interest in
matters of no practical importance; that was obvious in every line of their rugged faces—
obvious even in the dim light of the single candle. They were evidently men of the
vicinity—farmers and woodsmen.
The person reading was a trifle different; one would have said of him that he was of the
world, worldly, albeit there was that in his attire which attested a certain fellowship with
the organisms of his environment. His coat would hardly have passed muster in San
Francisco; his foot-gear was not of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on the floor
(he was the only one uncovered) was such that if one had considered it as an article of
mere personal adornment he would have missed its meaning. In countenance the man was
rather prepossessing, with just a hint of sternness; though that he may have assumed or
cultivated, as appropriate to one in authority. For he was a coroner. It was by virtue of his
office that he had possession of the book in which he was reading; it had been found
among the dead man's effects—in his cabin, where the inquest was now taking place.
When the coroner had finished reading he put the book into his breast pocket. At that
moment the door was pushed open and a young man entered. He, clearly, was not of