For those who embrace horror and the weird tale, there is so much about Ambrose Bierce that is intriguing. For those who write horror and the weird tale, there is so much about Ambrose Bierce to emulate.
Bierce was not an academic: his degree in letters came from the school of life. Born to poverty in a log cabin in 1842, the tenth of thirteen children, he left home at age fifteen to become an aptly titled ‘printer’s devil’ for a small newspaper in his home state of Ohio.
In 1861 he volunteered on the side of the Union and later saw action in the Battle of Rich Mountain where Bierce was cited for bravery under fire, Shiloh, and the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. His initial enlistment ended in 1865. A short time later he re-enlisted to ride west with patrols and wagon trains across the Great Plains, straight to San Francisco and the rest is history.
History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves and soldiers, mostly fools. This is Bierce’s quote from his 1906 book “The Devil’s Dictionary”, originally titled as “The Cynic’s Wordbook”.
But this history is not false or foolish. Next to Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Chambers and H. P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce is arguably one of the most important originators of the horror/weird tale genre. His intellect, his training as a newspaper man and his experience as a soldier forged the ground breaking collection of short stories titled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Ironically, this game changing collection of horror and psychological terror could not find a publisher. Only through the financial backing of a friendly San Francisco merchant, was Bierce able to self-publish it in 1891. Initially, the book proved itself a commercial flop. But fueled by Bierce’s other writings and his contentious celebrity as a critic and essayist, it slowly began to take on a cult status. Later editions saw additions and revisions but the overall impact and importance of the core stories was indelible.
Within this volume is perhaps one of the most anthologized and greatest short stories ever written. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “I consider anybody a twerp who hasn’t read the greatest American short story, which is ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce.”
‘Owl Creek Bridge’ along with ‘A Horseman In The Sky’, ‘Chickamauga’, ‘A Watcher By The Dead’ and fifteen other tales capture all of the dark imagery of Poe but infuses it into the normal day to day. Many of Bierce’s darkest tales occur in the sunshine to common people in everyday circumstances. War was still fresh in the minds of the reading public, with raids and skirmishes continuing into the territories providing the news of the day. Bierce encapsulated the horror that was everyday life at that time.
Many stodgy, literary snobs haven written him off as an unrealistic writer: a simple chronicler of the improbable. But Bierce created credibility for both the supernatural and ensuing psychological terror by placing the reader in a familiar context – in a very real, probable situation, germane to his life experiences – then enjoining the character’s thoughts and feelings to the reader. His version of horror never cedes to the melodramatic that was so popular in early 1900s writing. Bierce’s methodology was pure and precise: realism through trauma. Today, this is a staple of the genre, but it began with Bierce.
The essence of terror in an Ambrose Bierce story is realism and psychological horror.
Bierce, as a newspaper man, learned to deliver descriptions that were succinct and never overwhelmed the action. He allowed his reader the mental latitude to fill in the scene as a participant, a technique that became the hallmark of another news scribe, Earnest Hemingway.
Ambrose Bierce was also the first writer to understand the essence of and to perfect the short story for what it is: a frozen point in time. Again, his prime example is the perfectly constructed short story: ‘An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge’ where a mere few seconds are woven into a tale that spans time.
Bierce recognized that the foundation of a weird tale/horror story is the blurring of absolute time, where the real and possibly real meet, where the dimensions of past, present and future overlap and ‘at the sign post up ahead …’ You get the idea.
Can Such Things Be? Yes they can, when you consider that Bierce’s range touched novellas, poetry, fables, humor, criticism, journalism, editorials and even writing instruction. Ambrose Bierce is arguably one of the more important literary figures of any time period in any country.
For all these reasons I am grateful to the ‘Bitter’ master for not only shaping storytelling as an art form, but for making the language and themes of the weird tale understandable to us all by exposing that which lurks in the shadows of our hearts and minds.
Although he disappeared under mysterious circumstances over one hundred years ago, his legacy survives. If you are unaware of his work, ‘don’t be a twerp’: any collection of Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce should not only be required reading, but savored word by word.
Joseph J. Patchen stories have appeared in print, on the web and in podcasts. He is the literary critic for www.lurid-lit.com and has own website his own josephjpatchen.weebly.com. He write horror and humor and sometimes doesn’t see the difference between the two.