Short Story #167: The Death of Halpin Frayser by Ambrose Bierce

Title:  The Death of Halpin Frayser 

Author:  Ambrose Bierce


Book cover: Complete Short Stories of Ambrose BierceThe story begins with Halpin Frayser speaking the words Catherine Larue into the darkness and we're told that he died shortly thereafter at the age of 32 of unnatural causes.  As he wanders the darkness, it is clear there is something devious about and he is stricken with fear but tries to fend it off.  He confronts the darkness and claims power over it.  He quickly grabs quickly begins to write but before he can write too much, he is confronted by the corpse of his mother.  The story then switches to telling us about Frayser's upbringing in Tennessee.  He never fit in with most of his family except for his mother.  His penchant for poetry--albeit bad poetry--makes him a favorite to her.  As Frayser becomes a young man, the relationship between mother and son is perceived as strange as they are together constantly.  One day, Frayser tells her that he will take to California and though she initially tries to go with him, she relents.  While in San Francisco, Halpin is kidnapped onto a ship and spends several years at sea.  The story switches back to the day after Halpin's confrontation.  A deputy and detective are walking the roads near where Halpin was last seen, looking for a criminal named Branscom.  They heard he is in town and plan to capture him.  He's wanted for slicing the throat of a woman in California.  While exploring an area beyond a graveyard, they find a body that clearly was in a struggle before dying.  The discover that this is Halpin's body and a poem on him that he had just written.  Nearby, they discover another headboard with the name Catherin Larue.  It's at this point that the officer remembers that Larue was Branscom's originally last name and Frayser was the name of the woman whom Branscom killed.


A little convoluted and it's not entirely clear if Bransom or the ghost of Catherine killed Frayser.  Though in some facets Frayser is a likeable character, he is not overall agreeable.  The suggestion of incest and the contrast between he and his mother and Branscom and this Catherine (is she his mother, sister, or wife?) are not as strong as they could be.  However, Bierce does nail the atmosphere with this story.  

Short Story #167 out of 365
Rating: 3 (out of 5 stars)
Date Read:  6/13/2014
Source:  The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, compiled by Ernest Jerome Hopkins.  Bison Books, 1984.  The full works of Ambrose Bierce, including this story can be found here on

For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.

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