A Vine On A House by Ambrose Bierce, 1905
The magic trick:
Identifying a character by a single, obvious physical characteristic
Ambrose Bierce is best known for his Civil War stories, many of which we have featured in the past on this very website. This week we turn our attention to his horror stories (it is October, you know). They pale in comparison to his war material, but that’s a very high standard to hold, and there’s no doubt many of them are quite good. So here we go.
“Vine” employs a classic magic trick favored by mystery authors: a character with an obviously noticeable physical characteristic. I trust I risk no spoilers here when I say that the reader knows immediately upon learning of Matilda’s missing left foot that she is in trouble. It allows the author minimal introduction or description of the character at the start and then provides a similarly simple reference point later in the plot. And that’s quite a trick on Bierce’s part.
Mrs. Harding was a gentle, sad-eyed woman, lacking a left foot.
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