‘Can Such Things Be?’ Review

Michael Parke, Staff Writer

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Continuing on with the book entitled The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, I decided to skip The Devil’s Dictionary and move straight onto Can Such Things Be?, a collection of twenty-four short stories by our beloved author and misanthropist, Ambrose Bierce. In this collection he focuses on the supernatural, and once again, a lot of people experience strange things.

It all starts off with The Death of Halpin Frayser, a story about a man with a slight Oedipus complex who is killed by the corpse of his mother. Then after that it’s either a ghost, invisible force or object that kills or psychologically maims the character. There are no war stories, just straight horror. Personally, having read some of his other works, I thought Can Such Things Be? was a slight let down. I prefer the harder, crueler deaths in the first collection of stories. It’s what can concretely happen that gets me. But nonetheless these stories have what they have, and I liked a few.

My personal favorites were A Psychological Shipwreck, Beyond the Wall, Haïta the Shepherd, and The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch. They were better than stories like The Middle Toe of the Right Foot, which was leading up to be a good story until the antagonist died after seeing the ghosts of his family members. (I mean, come on.) The stories listed at the beginning of this paragraph had instances of telepathy, voices from beyond the grave and a good deal of suspense. That’s what made them better—suspense; some stories lacked it.

But it’s Ambrose Bierce, and as Clifton Fadiman said in the foreword, he didn’t really care about harnessing his writing ability to please the masses. He just wanted to come in quick, bite lethally then retreat to do it again. He certainly did here.

I’ve already went over the names of comparable authors, but maybe you stumbled upon this article instead of the first two and need the names: they are Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dashiell Hammett (although he pertains less here). I’ll add H.G. Wells because of Moxon’s Master, a story about sentience in a man-made machine.

Bierce’s foray into the supernatural with the same relentless energy as ever was exhausting, but that’s probably because I read so many stories in one sitting. At a certain point I had soaked up so much negativity that I felt devoid of happiness. I should’ve taken that as some sort of sign to stop and recuperate, but of course the nasty little flag didn’t register in my brain. It is not to say that these stories should be avoided though, even if some are more clay than gold. It’s just that Can Such Things Be? should be read over multiple sittings.