Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills

You didn’t really think I was done with Bitter Bierce did you?

I came across this book entirely accident while hanging around the Spearfish Public Library with my mother. Bierce expert Don Swaim says it’s the only book on an obscure part of Bierce’s life.

How could I resist this one?

Review: Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills, Paul Fatout, 1956.Ambrose Bierce and the Black HIlls

In May 1879, Bierce’s column in the San Francisco newspaper Argonaut suddenly stopped appearing, and he spent the next year-and-a-half in an experience which was to embitter him further, yield little money, and which he spoke of very little in later years.

He became involved with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company.

Bierce finally gave into his wife and mother-in-law and left England in 1875 though he was a successful journalist in London. On his return to San Francisco, he worked in the Assay Office at the local branch of the United States Mint. That, along with all the talk about California mining and the Black Hills gold rush which started in 1874, may have gotten him interested in mining. His father-in-law, Captain H. H. Day, was a famous mining expert, and Bierce liked him a lot more than Day’s daughter or his wife.

In March 1877, Bierce was back at the Argonaut. Fatout thinks it was this period that the Black Hills began to show up in Bierce’s fiction. The title “The Night Doings at Deadman’s” may have been inspired by the name Deadman Gulch near Rockerville, in Dakota Territory, and it was Rockerville which was to be at the center of Bierce’s time in the Black Hills. I think Fatout’s on far less certain ground when he says the “gulches, sluice boxes, pans, and a Territory” of Bierce’s “The Famous Gilson Bequest” may derive from the gold rush in Dakota Territory. Those appurtenances of placer mining certainly would have been in California too. Continue reading

“The Last Test”

The Lovecraft series with another one of his heavy, i.e. “primary” revisions.

This one has a tie to another frequent subject of this blog: Ambrose Bierce.  De Castro and Bierce collaborated on one work (which I have not read): “The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter”.

Raw Feed (2005): “The Last Test”, Adolphe de Castro [and H. P. Lovecraft],

This story has a curious pedigree.

It originally showed up in an 1893 collection of Castro, and then, says S. T. Joshi, Lovecraft rewrote it completely.

The original plot skeleton explains the presence of a woman character and a frustrated romance between the Governor of California and the sister of a mad scientist — both elements very untypical of Lovecraft.

But some of the Cthulhu gods are mentioned, and I suspect the presence of Surama and the Thibetans is a Lovecraft addition.

I liked the idea that the black fever may have extraterresterial orgins.  The vernacular and language of the tale is more mainstream than a lot of Lovecraft.

I’m curious if Lovecraft did his revisions quicker and with less care than stuff appearing under his own name or if he tried to match the style of his client.


More Lovecraft related reviews are on the Lovecraft page.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Scientific Romance

Being a fan of Stableford’s work, I immediately requested a review copy when I saw it on Netgallery.

Review: Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction, ed. Brian Stableford, 1917.Scientific Romance

Before America colonized science fiction with its conquistador John Carter in 1912 and made it into a genre concerned with space and adventure, it was something different. It was, argues Stableford, a stream of literature interested in “the adoption of the scientific outlook and the attempt to employ the scientific imagination as a springboard for speculative fiction”.

Just as the Vikings colonized the New World before Columbus’s voyage, Francis Bacon and Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac discovered new frontiers for literature when they wrote scientific romances. And, just as the Viking colonization inspired no immediate imitators, no writers imitated Bacon and de Bergerac for a while. Bacon’s New Atlantis was unfinished and published posthumously in 1627. De Bergerac’s L’Autre Monde ou les Etats et Empires de la lune [The Other World] wasn’t published until the 1920s.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that authors in France, America, and England began producing work that was noticeably something different and that stuck in the public mind. These were stories about the drama to be made out of new scientific discoveries, new technologies, and the peculiar psychologies of inventors and scientists. Continue reading

Ambrose Bierce the Accidental Legendmaker



I have reached the pinnacle of my blogging career.

Screw page views and numbers of follows and retweets.

I’ve been footnoted in the Fortean Times.

Specifically in issue 335’s “Nightmare Before Christmas: The Strange Disappearance of Oliver Lerch” by Theo Paijmans and Chris Aubeck which references my Reading Bitter Bierce: Was He a Proto-Fortean?.

Ok, lots of people with widely varying amounts of rationality, credulity, credibility, and coherence get footnoted in the Fortean Times. And I didn’t really offer a definite answer to my question.

Quibbles. Quibbles.

That particular posting on Ambrose Bierce mentioned his story “Charles Ashmore’s Trail”, part of a trio of stories first presented in the entertainment section of the 14 Oct. 1888 issue of the San Francisco Examiner as “Whither? Some Strange Instances of Mysterious Disappearances”.

Marian Kensler’s article “The Farmer Vanishes” in the 12 May 2008 edition of Strange Horizons looked at how “Charles Ashmore’s Trail” and another of the Bierce stories, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, were the wellspring of Stuart Palmer’s “How Lost Was My Father?” in the July 1953 issue of FATE magazine. Kensler showed how this allegedly true account of a farmer vanishing as he walks across a field can be traced to Bierce. (She gets footnoted by Paijmans and Aubeck too.)

She also mentions the legend of Oliver Lerch which got its fame — if not its start, in another “true story”: Joseph Rosenberger’s “What Happened to Oliver Lerch?” in the September 1950 of FATE.

Kensler cites Algernon Blackwood as patient zero for the mutated viral version of Bierce’s tale that became “What Happened to Oliver Lerch?”, specifically in his 1914 story “Entrance and Exit”.

Paijmans has been doing a semi-regular column, with more than 60 installments so far, for Fortean Times called “Blasts From the Past”. Basically, it’s armchair Forteanism which takes advantage of the huge online newspaper archives that now exist thus leading to Paijmans re-telling tales of Parisian child torture rings and mad scientists making monsters and Louisiana devil men.

In the article he pushes the origin of the Oliver Lerch all the way back to Irving Lewis’ “The Man Who Disappeared” which appeared in the Dec. 25, 1904 edition of New York City’s Sunnday Telegraph. Lewis’ has all sorts of good hoax details — the names of specific parties who witnessed Lerch’s disappearances and their residence. Well, good hoax details for 1904.

In the age of online census records and, they didn’t withstand Paijman’s efforts at verification.


More Bierce related is available on the Bierce page.



The King in Yellow

Since I’m off preparing new stuff, you get this retro review, from November 10, 2012, of an obscure tome.

Review: The King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers, 1895.The King in Yellow

The sole title he’s is now recognized for is The King in Yellow. Like most literary works, it was drifting into the dark and cold zone of cultural oblivion. Then he was caught in the gravity well of that coalescing star of weird fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. And, once illuminated by Lovecraft’s in his Supernatural Horror in Literature, this work became sort of a bright satellite beckoning Lovecraft fans to explore it.

But Chambers’ book is one of those moons with only one face of any interest.

To be sure, there is the appearance, in several connected stories, of the sinister effects and reputation of the titular volume and its enigmatic references to the Pallid Mask and Carcosa and Hastur and the lake of Hali. And the notion of such a book definitely inspired Lovecraft to create his more famous book of blasphemy, the Necronomicon. Continue reading

The Fantasy Hall of Fame

An unproductive day new writing-wise, so you get a retro review from June 12, 2009.

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame, eds. Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg, 1983.Fantasy Hall of Fame

The reputations of some of these stories and that of their authors may have waned in the 26 years since this anthology was published. None of the stories are bad though a few aren’t that special. The stories were selected in a manner similar to the Silverberg edited The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One. Attendees of the World Fantasy Convention chose stories to honor that were published before the convention begin doing their annual awards.

The stories are arranged chronologically, and the first is Edgar Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). This classic tale of a plague, mysterious colors, and death coming to a cloister of aristocrats is the grandfather of all those far future tales of decadents on a dying Earth. Poe influenced the prose and poems of Clark Ashton Smith, but the influence isn’t very evident in the latter’s “The Weird of Avoosl Withoqquan” (1932). It’s a story of an avaricious man who hears an ominous prophecy from a beggar he snubs. Smith’s Zothique series, very definitely a series of far future decadence, is not represented here directly, but it’s certainly echoed in Jack Vance’s “Mazirian the Magician” (1950), part of Vance’s Dying Earth series. In a story full of Vance’s exuberant palette of colors and exquisitely named magic, a sorcerer determines to possess a woman who has avoided him.

Of course, Poe was not just an inspiration but an idol to Smith’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft. He is represented here by “The Silver Key” (1937). It’s an odd choice, perhaps dictated by its length. There is nothing wrong with the story. Featuring Lovecraft’s alter ego Randolph Carter, it’s Lovecraft’s most autobiographical work. Carter, a man in his thirties, goes on a quest to find his way back to the world of dreams – and its innocence – that he knew as a child. There are many better Lovecraft stories though. Lord Dunsany was an influence on Lovecraft’s dream tales, and he’s represented here by “The Sword of Welleran” (1908). A wry tale of a city no longer defended by its legends and full of humor and despair and perverse emotion. Dunsany’s oddly syntaxed voice is probably still unique in fantasy. A lesser influence on Lovecraft was Ambrose Bierce. He shows up here with “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), a short, eerie tale of life after death in a far future land. Continue reading

The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires

Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires

Mission Creep

It started innocently enough.

I read a few stories in September, so I could get more out of a one hour convention panel celebrating Bierce and the (probable) 100th anniversary of this death.

I couldn’t just read the stories, though. Those Civil War stories and memoirs in between the covers of Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs looked interesting. And I had plenty of time left before returning it to the library.

And then it was interesting enough to buy my own copy. And then I find out that Mr. Joshi co-edited a whole bunch of Bierce satires in the vein of his “Ashes of the Beacon” and “For the Ahkoond”.

So I bought that. And read it cover to cover.

Review: The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires, eds. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, 2001.

As I said when last speaking of Bierce, death is Bierce’s usual punch line.

And the joke was starting to wear thin for me with this book. Continue reading

Is Death His Only Character?: Edmund Wilson and Ambrose Bierce

In any case, it is certainly true, not only that, as has been said by Clifton Fadiman, Death itself is Bierce’s favorite character, but that, except in The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, a rewriting of a story by someone else, Death may perhaps be said to be Ambrose Bierce’s only real character.

That’s from American literary critic Edmund Wilson’s “Ambrose Bierce on the Owl Creek Bridge” from his Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. After hearing Wilson’s remark repeated so often, I decided to actually read the essay.

“Death may perhaps be said” is a weaselly phrase because “perhaps” is a weasel-word. “Death may perhaps be said to not be” is equally true if no weight of probability is assigned to that “perhaps”.

But I will agree that death is an obsession with Bierce.  Continue reading

More Ambrose Bierce

And so I return to America’s legendary curmudgeon.

Yes, I did find things to write about after polishing off the rest of the stories and autobiographical bits in S. T. Joshi’s volume Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. Yes, details on Bierce pivot points (i.e. spoilers) follow.Bierce LOA

Who knew Bitter Bierce could write a story of lost love with a mega-happy ending? Continue reading