‘The Suitable Surroundings’ by Ambrose Bierce: Short Story Analysis
‘The Suitable Surroundings’ by paranormal fiction writer Ambrose Bierce is a story of obsession, horror, and death. The fulcrum of this story rests on a mentally unstable writer called Colston who dares his friend Marsh to read a ghost story. This ghost story will have to be read in an abandoned house, by candlelight, and at nighttime. The reason for this peculiar dare is sordid and very unnerving. Colston was mentally deranged. We get to know of this only at the end of the story. We surmise that he is of an excitable and unbalanced nature by the way he prefers his stories to be read. He especially wants his ghost stories to be read in the surroundings that are suitable for the greatest effect on the mind and heart of the reader. It seems as if the reader had to respect the story of the writer and create a suitable surrounding to read the story of a certain genre penned by the writer.
Now, this is taking things too far. However, it is a fact that a ghost story seems scarier when it is read in a spooky atmosphere especially to the mind of a suggestible reader. Colston’s dare to Marsh at first seems like a regular normal ‘dare’ like teenagers and young adults do at parties. It seems harmless enough; Marsh doesn’t feel that Colston has written anything so dreadful that he will be frightened even if he was reading it in an abandoned house. However, Marsh after reading what Colston handed to him in the Breede house does indeed die. He dies of fright and horror with a long letter penned by the deranged Colston about how he very wickedly went about not only to frighten and therefore kill Marsh but also the reason for Charles Breede’s death. Charles Breede was the owner of the abandoned and seemingly haunted Breede house in a dark forest. Charles committed suicide due to reasons not mentioned in the story. But coming back to Marsh, he was made to read some loose sheets of paper which spoke about some unimaginable horror that the author of this short story Ambrose Bierce for emphasis didn’t include in the short story titled ‘The Suitable Surroundings’. This horrific writing ended with Colston claiming that he would commit suicide and then would visit Marsh in the Breede house after midnight in the form of a ghost. This is so because, before midnight, Colston claimed he would already have committed suicide.
We know that Marsh gets a bit deranged from shock on observing a farmer’s boy peeking into the Breede home late that night. It was he who saw Marsh reading the terrible scribblings of Colston and gets so frightened out of his wits that on getting up from his seat overturns the table. The boy didn’t see any ghosts. The poor fellow thought Marsh himself was the ghost. The farmer’s boy was a humble but bright lad and so brings some adults along with him to the Breede house to see if anyone was in the place. On reaching the place, they find the dead body of Marsh, absolutely frightened out of his wits as can be made out by the expression of his contorted face and his twisted arms.
As it were, Colston never did commit suicide. He was placed in a mental asylum after the death of Marsh. That leaves us with the question: Did he go to the Breede house at midnight or not? According to me, Colston must have shown himself at midnight at the Breede house thereby frightening his friend Marsh to death. But that part of the story by Bierce is left to conjecture. One would never think after reading the intellectual dialogues Colston had with Marsh when they were in the tram car that Colston was so diabolical and sinister a person as to wish the death of two of his friends. But the fact is he did, and so was in a way punished for his obsession with ‘the suitable surroundings’ for Marsh to read the ghost story. This leads us to another question. Was Colston telling the truth about Charles? That too is left to conjecture. We know how innovative writers of horror can be, they have this stubborn urge in them to scare their readers at any cost. Ambrose Bierce works on that psychological part of Colston and that is reflected in the death of Marsh and mental derangement of Colston.
It is very ingenious the way Colston tricks Marsh to read a ghost story penned by him in the Breede house. It takes two readings for a modern-day twenty-first-century reader to comprehend the crux of the debate that readers should create a suitable environment for a particular story if they want to experience the desired effect produced by the literary efforts of a writer. Colston is very clear that since he gave the story that Marsh read in the tram car the simple title of ‘A Ghost Story’, Marsh did him a wrong by reading it amid the hustle and bustle of the tram journey. Colston is very clear about what constitutes ‘suitable surroundings’ for reading his story:
By reading in such a surrounding, Marsh would be making himself accessible to the emotions that Colston would try to inspire.
Colston is a fascinating man. As mentioned in the story, he didn’t drink but probably ate opium. He had great writing talent and was a gifted intellectual. The morning of July 15 found him with rapid speech, pale-faced, and overexcited. The farmer’s boy impressed me with his bravery and I felt he was rewarded well enough when his truth won over the skepticism of the adults. I would like to add here that probably that day, July 15, Colston was indeed thinking of committing suicide. He was even prepared to leave a letter next to his corpse which was ultimately put next to Marsh’s corpse as found by the farmer’s boy and the adults with him. Marsh died by default. He was not meant to die.
There are a few takeaway points in this short story titled ‘The Suitable Surroundings’ which I would like to place before you:
- I love the line where Colston rightly tells Marsh that he was only ‘brave enough’ to read a ghost story in a tram car but not in the ‘suitable surroundings’.
- I loved another beautiful line made in the first part of the story that ‘it was the courage of terror’ that made the farmer’s boy advance to peep into the Breede house at night when he got lost on his way.
- Colston after Marsh’s death was found at home sharpening his knife, baring his throat, and cutting or trying to cut his arm to make it bleed.
Pride, obsession, psychotic thoughts, horror, and self-harm are some of the subplots to this wonderful but very charming ghost story.
I have always loved the ghost stories of Ambrose Bierce right from the time I was a child at school. He is a great stalwart in American letters and once was so formidable that a word from him could make or break a young budding author’s career. He died mysteriously in revolution-torn Mexico in the year 1914. I hope to read and review more short stories by him soon. He is a fascinating paranormal writer.
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