Reading Bitter Bierce

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In preparation for attending Arcana 44, a convention on the “dark fantasy”, later this month, I’ve been reading Ambrose Bierce. He will be discussed as “a classic horror writer … Civil War veteran, crusading journalist, and champion cynic.”

I suspect it’s timed to coincide with the approximate centennial of his death. I say approximate because no one is exactly sure when, where, or how Bierce died.

S. T. Joshi’s chronology of Bierce’s life in Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs says the last word from Bierce was a December 26, 2013 letter from Chihuahua, Mexico that concluded, “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” It was perhaps that line that led Joe Nickell in Ambrose Bierce Is Missing: And Other Historical Mysteries to speculate the 71 year-old Bierce staged his disappearance with a suicide somewhere around the Grand Canyon. Mysterious disappearances, we will see, were an artistic concern of Bierce.

E. F. Bleiler’s long and useful introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce cites other possibilities: death in a battle of the Mexican Revolution or execution after insulting Pancho Villa. (Bleiler, incidentally, was an important early scholar of early science fiction and weird fiction. He read thousands of books and wrote short summaries and critiques of them. In his capacity as editor at Dover Books, he helped bring out cheap editions of old and obscure works.)

That collector of oddities, Charles Fort, mentioned him more than once, but perhaps his most idiosyncratic, most Fortean mention was in 1932’s Wild Talents:

Before I looked into the case of Ambrose Small, I was attracted to it by another seeming coincidence. That there could be any meaning in it seemed so preposterous that, as influenced by much experience, I gave it serious thought. About six years before the disappearance of Ambrose Small, Ambrose Bierce had disappeared. Newspapers all over the world had made much of the mystery of Ambrose Bierce. But what could the disappearance of one Ambrose, in Texas, have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose, in Canada? Was somebody collecting Ambroses? There was in these questions an appearance of childishness that attracted my respectful attention.

But I’m not going to talk about Bierce’s disappearance.

My own exposure to Bierce started out fairly typical, at least for an American high schooler of my age. I was assigned to read his “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and also watched the French film based on it. Shortly after that, I came across, in James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to Wells, Bierce’s “The Damned Thing”. This tale of an invisible menace is still read and admired. At the end of G. W. Thomas’ The Case of the Phantom Legion, he mentions it as one of his fictional inspirations for the story.

No more Bierce for me for decades until I read the several Bierce selections which show up in all those collections of weird fiction based on the writers H. P. Lovecraft admired and mentioned in his “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. Oh, I saw copies of Bierce’s famous The Devil’s Dictionary. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry on Bierce is pretty accurate in summarizing that work, the well from which a significant stream of modern humor came, as “a collection of sometimes brilliantly and sometimes laboriously cynical mock-definitions of pretentiously or hypocritically used words”. Though I will say his definition of “opportunity” as “a favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment” is useful if you work in an office afflicted with a certain type of faddish manager.

However, in those years, I came across references to Bierce in regard to science fiction. He shows up in Sam Moskowitz’s account of the importance of San Francisco newspapers, editors, and writers (Bierce was both of the latter) on American science fiction, Science Fiction in Old San Francisco, Volume 1: History of the Movement From 1854 to 1890. That book is mostly concerned with the career of Robert Duncan Milne, an unjustly ignored and quite talented science fiction writer. But Bierce is mentioned. He was, in fact, Milne’s editor and friend, and Milne’s work influenced Bierce’s more overt science fiction.

In the next postings, I hope to cover a bit of Major Bierce’s life (spoiler, he became, to quote Bleiler, a “domineering, vindictive, suspicious old man”) and talk about some specific pieces of his fiction and autobiographical writings.

21 thoughts on “Reading Bitter Bierce

  1. Pamela J. Glasser April 19, 2015 / 3:58 pm

    thx for an informative introduction to Bierce

    • marzaat April 19, 2015 / 10:40 pm

      Glad it could be of some use to you.

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