The Boarded Window by Ambrose Bierce, 1891
The magic trick:
Establishing a real setting with real history before pushing the story into the supernatural
I don’t know what it is. There’s just something scarier about a scary movie when the credits make sure we know “Based On Actual Events.” Whoa, we think, this actually happened! And the goosebumps spread just a little bit faster.
Well, “The Boarded Window” contains no such warning/promise, but it may as well. Bierce spends the introduction establishing the setting with some very real history. He explains how this area (shout out Cincinnati!!) came to be settled and even includes specific dates. Nothing big but just that little push. Now when the story spirals into the supernatural, the reader’s mind has that little unofficial “Based On Actual Events” disclaimer still flashing. And that’s quite a trick on Bierce’s part.
In 1830, only a few miles away from what is now the great city of Cincinnati, lay an immense and almost unbroken forest. The whole region was sparsely settled by people of the frontier – restless souls who no sooner had hewn fairly habitable homes out of the wilderness and attained to that degree of prosperity which today we should call indigence, than, impelled by some mysterious impulse of their nature, they abandoned all and pushed farther westward, to encounter new perils and privations in the effort to regain the meagre comforts which they had voluntarily renounced. Many of them had already forsaken that region for the remoter settlements, but among those remaining was one who had been of those first arriving.
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