Bierce, as mentioned in the first installment in this series, is a Fortean phenomena — not for his art so much as his mysterious death. (I recently learned that science fiction and mystery author Fredric Brown wrote an entire novel on the idea of an “Ambrose Collector”.)
But was Bierce a proto-Fortean, a man who collected oddities?
He did do serious, non-fiction pieces on mysterious matters.
Bierce recounts his lifelong interest in his vivid dreams, both happy and grotesque, in the essay “Visions of the Night”.
E. F. Bleiler, in his insightful and useful introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, mentions a ghostly encounter by Bierce:
Bierce was avowedly an atheist or agnostic, as the mood struck him, who violently rejected beliefs in survival after death. But, as is often the case, the total situation does not permit a simple answer. Bierce seems to have believed that he had a supernatural experience in England, when a wind-wraith rushed past him at the moment of Tom Hood’s death. He often stated this was Hood’s spirit. And in his old age he collected stories of disappearances, especially those with adumbrations of the supernatural.
I maintain that interest in ghosts and mirages and dreams is pretty common. The collecting of disappearances that Bleiler mentions is another matter.
I haven’t yet delved deeply enough in the details of Bierce’s life to know if he really did collect stories of disappearances. Bleiler was a good scholar, so I will take his word for it. Of course, collecting “stories of disappearances” could mean exactly that: stories, fictions of disappearances as opposed to allegedly real stories of disappearances.
In his Can Such Things Be?, Bierce published three stories in a section called “Mysterious Disappearances”. They were “An Unfinished Race”, “Charles Ashmore’s Trail”, and “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”. In Joshi’s volume, they are presented without any introduction though there is a coda at the end of them, “Science to the Front”. It purportedly considered the beliefs of one Dr. Hern of Leipzig that explain these disappearances as resulting from cavities in the universal medium of the world.
Two of the three stories went on to have a convoluted lives beyond Bierce. That literary mutation from Bierce fiction to folklore and hoax is very well detailed in Marian Kensler’s article “The Farmer Vanishes” available at Strange Horizons.
I think I was exposed at a young age to a transmuted version of “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” via the old syndicated tv show “Our Changing World” with Earl Nightingale — but I haven’t been able to confirm it with a video on the Web of a Million Lies.
Previous Installments in This Series