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He was the successor of Edgar Allan Poe and a harbinger of H. P. Lovecraft, penning some of the most shocking, savage horror stories in the English language. His dark, literary universe was haunted by shadowy monsters who never quite revealed themselves, only stalking in the dim background like woodland predators around a campfire. And what better stories for any campfire’s company: he wrote twilight tales of seductive werewolves, zombie resurrections, nights spent with corpses in empty houses, haunted cabins, killer robots, wartime ghost stories, invisible predators, reincarnated spirits, family curses, ghoul-haunted graveyards, jilted ghosts’ violent revenges, mysterious disappearances, spectral visions, guilt-maddened murderers, and battlefield carnage. There was never a better author to read around the snapping flare of a lonely campsite than the rustic, existential horror stories of Ambrose Bierce.
In death, as in life, Bierce is defined by contradictions. He was a mystical materialist, a cynical idealist, and a compassionate curmudgeon. His stories – especially those which we can classify as horror or fantasy – illustrate a world which fails to live up to its promises. As he wrote in “The Devil’s Dictionary,” a ghost is the outward sign of an inward fear – a visual signifier of a spiritual sickness. His stories are loaded with spooks of this sort. These are the ghosts of what should be. They are the ghosts of a murdered potential: the potential to do life well – properly, as it should be. His stories are haunted by monsters of automated technology (“Moxon’s Master”), intellectual insecurity (“The Damned Thing”), sexual anxiety (“Eyes of the Panther”), and hereditary corruption. Failure is the chief of all these phantoms, however. Failure to do what one ought, and become what one should. This was a deeply personal boogeyman for Bierce. One which cast its shadow over his life and stamped its footprints into his fiction. What he left behind him, after vanishing into the dusty Mexican air, was a universe bedeviled by disappointment – in mankind, in the universe, and in himself. It is a raw and savage universe, but one dimly illuminated by Bierce’s frustrated idealism. We can see the shadows for that light, but in those shadows, what monsters lurk.
TALES INCLUDED in this ANNOTATED EDITION:
The Isle of Pines | A Fruitless Assignment | A Vine on a House | At Old Man Eckert's
The Spook House | The Other Lodgers | The Thing at Nolan | A Man with Two Lives
Three and One are One | A Baffled Ambuscade | Two Military Excursions | Chickamagua
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Present at a Hanging | A Cold Greeting
A Wireless Message | An Arrest | The Moonlit Road | The Middle-Toe of the Right Foot
The Man and the Snake | The Eyes of the Panther | Maxon's Master | The Damned Thing
The Boarded Window | A Watcher by the Dead | The Suitable Surroundings | Beyond the Wall
The Death of Halpin Frayser | The Haunted Valley| An Adventure at Brownville
Macarger's Gulch | The Night-Doings at Deadman's | A Jug of Sirup | An Inhabitant of Carcosa | Visions of the Night | John Bartine's Watch | An Unfinished Race | Charles Ashmore's Trail
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field