The Ways Of Ghosts (An Arrest) by Ambrose Bierce Short Story Analysis


“The Ways Of Ghosts”, also called “An Arrest”, is a very short ghost story by American writer Ambrose Bierce, first published in October 1905. Perfect for a 1905 Hallowe’en? This story has the feel of ‘urban legend’ about it.

WHAT HAPPENS?

A man called Orrin Brower murders his brother-in-law. We don’t know why, but it doesn’t matter. The real story here concerns what happens next.

Orrin is soon captured and thrown into jail. However, the guard isn’t too good at his job, and Orrin kills that guy, too, by thwacking him with the jailer’s own iron bar.

Next, Orrin runs into the nearby forest. Unfortunately for him, it is dark. He doesn’t know the area and is soon lost. He doesn’t hold high hope for his own escape. He knows all the men of the town will be sent out with dogs to find him. But getting lost isn’t exactly helping.

Suddenly he emerges from the forest onto a dark road. There’s a man there, just staring at him. Orrin freezes. They’ve got him. He’s dead meat. The man says nothing, just points. He’s pointing in the direction of the town, where Orrin escaped from jail.

Crapping his daks, Orrin decides to go where the dark man points, back through the forest, the way he just came. He’s a pretty brave guy. I mean, you have to be fearless if you’re going to set about murdering people. But he’s scared of this creature. He doesn’t even want to look behind him. At one point the clouds open up to let a little moonlight through. Orrin dares glance back. The freaky man is the ghost of the jailer he just killed! Burton Duff is his name. The ghost bears the wound on his forehead, where Orrin thwacked him one.

They reach the town. Everything’s all lit up (with street lights, I guess) but everything’s silent. Only women and children remain inside their houses, because all the blokes have been sent to find Orrin.

Still under the spell of the ghost of Burton Duff, he opens the door of the jail. The dead body of Burton Duff is on a table. This is the bit where we know for sure that Burton of the Forest is a ghost.

SETTING OF “THE WAYS OF GHOSTS”

PERIOD

The story was published in 1905, and the events of the story took place ‘many years ago’.

DURATION

The course of a single afternoon and evening.

LOCATION

The escaped prisoner is from Kentucky, but he’s not from around these parts exactly. This story could take place in another state for all we know.

MANMADE SPACES

The county jail.

(Jails are short-term holding facilities for the newly arrested whereas prisons are for long-term stay.)

NATURAL SETTINGS

Orrin ‘had the folly’ to escape into the nearby forest. We are also told that the region was ‘wilder than it is now’.

ARENA

What does ‘wild’ mean?

This is your archetypal fairytale world, where civilisation sits uncomfortably next to the symbolic forest, which in fairytale equals the subconscious. In the forest nightmares play out, and where we come face-to-face with our personal demons.

WEATHER AND CONDITIONS

‘The night was pretty dark, with neither moon nor stars visible’. This story happened before people had become accustomed to electricity. These earlier humans made much use of all senses when navigating through darkness.

TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY

The escaped prisoner has no weapon on him, so we are told at the beginning. The jailer he knocked over the head was unarmed.

When Orrin is brought back to town, the main street is alight. (See: Lanterns and Street Lighting In Art.) This prefigures Orrin’s descent into Hell.

Sticking with the corridor theme, note that Burton’s body is on a table in ‘the corridor’. Everything points towards Orrin going straight to Hell.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WAYS OF GHOSTS”

SHORTCOMING

Orrin’s maladaptive problem-solving: Killing people who stand in his way.

Would Orrin have been hypnotised by the ghost had he not looked back? Stories urging character not to look back at the terror are evident across the history of storytelling, including in The Old Testament. Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt.

Lot’s wife, biblical character, a disobedient woman who was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back to see the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as she and her family were fleeing. Her story is seen as an example of what happens to those who choose a worldly life over salvation.

Britannica

I believe this story by Ambrose Bierce is an urban legend of its day. Can you think of a more modern urban legend in which a character is punished for daring to look?

THE HEAD

At dusk one night a young couple were parked in their car on a deserted track. the radio was playing appropriately romantic music, while the youngsters kissed and cuddled. Suddenly, the music was interrupted by a newsflash warning that a dangerous maniac had escaped from a local asylum. Then, they heard a strange noise outside.

The boy decided to investigate, telling the girl to lock the doors until his return. As the night turned pitch black, she waited and waited, becoming increasingly terrified when her boyfriend did not return. The silence was broken by a loud noise outside the car, followed by a thumping sound on the roof. Thump, thump, thump.

By now she was petrified with fear. Despite her fear, she managed to get out of the car and began walking towards the police lights, but could not resist the temptation to look behind her. She turned around to see the horrific sight of the escaped maniac perched on the roof of the car, banging her boyfriend’s severed head up and down — thump, thump, thump.

Great Australian Urban Myths by Graham Seal, 1995

DESIRE

To not get hanged as a captured murderer.

OPPONENT

‘A posse of citizens with a pack of bloodhounds’

‘The figure of a man, motionless in the gloom’, described as ‘the other’. Burton Duff, the jailer, as white as death and bearing up on his brow the livid mark of the iron bar

PLAN

  1. Kill brother in law
  2. Go to jail (probably not in the plan)
  3. Break out of jail
  4. Escape to the forest

Not in the plan:

  1. Get lost in the forest
  2. Meet the ghost of the jailer you just murdered

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Orrin meets the ghost and comes under his ghostly spell, bound to follow the ghost’s command.

ANAGNORISIS

The reader will understand, probably from the beginning, that Orrin meets a ghost in the woods. These old ghost stories work like tall tales. The listener/reader pretends (even to themselves) that they are hearing a true story. They know from the outset that it’s unlikely to be true, just as they know from the outset that the mysterious ‘man’ is a ghost, but in order to fully enjoy the horripilation, it is necessary to put that aside.

Hence, the writers (unnecessarily, by modern standards) include a bit at the end which reveals (shock, horror!) that the freaky opponent is (oh no!) a ghost!

His captor was Burton Duff, the jailer, as white as death and bearing upon his brow the livid mark of the iron bar. Orrin Brower had no further curiosity.

This also explains the two titles. One (“The Ways of Ghosts” reveals in the title that this is a ghost story. The other (“An Arrest”) suggests a journalistic story of fact. In turn, the first paragraph is written in faux-journalistic style (of the day).

NEW SITUATION

The escaped criminal has been recaptured.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Although we’ve been told that no men remain in the town, we now meet six of them, all armed, presumably standing around the body of Burton Duff. These guys are ghosts too, I guess? Orrin has just killed two men in quick succession. The guy’s a mass murderer? And these are all the men he has killed, back in their ghostly form to terrorise him, I guess? In that case, one of them is his dead brother-in-law.

I’m guessing the very recently dead brother-in-law is salty as heck about it, too.

This story plays into a religious idea that even if someone evades punishment in life, they will meet their just desserts eventually. Typically this is by judgement from God. In this case, Orrin meets his victims rather than his Maker. Either way, justice is restored.

We know from the narration that Orrin will get hanged now:

Brower was as courageous a criminal as ever lived to be hanged

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header illustration: Figure in the Moonlight by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836 – 1893), an English Victorian-era artist best known for his nocturnal scenes of urban landscapes.