Reviewing: The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce
When I made the decision to start Oldstyle Tales Press, I had only four books planned – The Best Victorian Ghost Stories, The Best Edwardian Ghost Stories, The Best Weird Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, and The Best Horror of Ambrose Bierce. So far, only one of those books is in print, and that foursome has turned into an extant catalogue of fifteen and a planned corpus of over thirty. But it was terribly important to me – even when I thought that we would only publish four texts – to include the mystifying speculative fiction of Ambrose Bierce. Bierce is a more inspiring monolith in American horror than any single author, save Poe.
He was an influence to Robert W. Chambers and F. Marion Crawford, Irvin S. Cobb and H. P. Lovecraft, and while these 20th century masters have attracted cult followings of their own, it is the unquestionably bizarre weird fiction of Bierce that inspired the young men who followed him. Bierce’s writing inspired me to found Oldstyle Tales because it was so enigmatic, so puzzling, so contradictory, and so disturbing – a chilling blur of reporterly realism and surreal romanticism – and yet was largely un-annotated. How could these intrigues be left unplumbed and undiscussed? In his latest book, Don Swaim dares to plumb the recesses of the man and the mythos.
It was no surprise to me that Swaim wrote “The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story,” or that it is as brilliantly written as it is. Swaim is a leading scholar of Bierce studies – a writer and historian with a national reputation – and I was honored to include his ingenuous short story, “The Barrier: Nits in the Eyebrow,” in the very first edition of our annual journal “The Yellow Booke.” As such, I was already acquainted with Swaim’s clear, journalistic voice, his captivating scope of imagination, and his superb ability – one shared with Bierce himself – to blend realism and fantasy as deftly as an artist would mix oils on a canvas with the slow stroke of a brush.
“The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce” is duly subtitled “A Love Story.” It is both a love story about Bierce, and a love story to Bierce – one between the artist and his subject. And there is no doubt – as you turn through its hypnotic pages – that Swaim carries a deep affection for the war-battered Midwesterner who had a habit of offending nearly every person he ever met before fading into the Mexican dust in the winter of 1914. The historical detail is deliciously authentic and well-researched. The writing is keen, crisp, and lively. The depth of imagination is – there is only one word for it – startling. The dean of weird fiction, S. T. Joshi, rightfully claims in his introduction that the book is “a work as complex as Bierce himself” – no mean feat.
The novel follows Bierce on his fated final journey into Mexico as it is being terrorized by Poncho Villa. Leaving his family and home with little warning, he follows a pilgrimage to various Civil War battlefields, before crossing the border and making the acquaintance of the bombastic Villa. Bierce and Villa work well together – not literally, but as literary counterpoints: the smug, sardonic writer, and the egotistical, sadistic warlord. It is as if Bierce has met the incarnation of the spirits that mowed his countrymen down in the blood baths that are so deeply engraved into his memory. And memory is richly celebrated in Swaim’s tender homage: knowing that death is ever near him, his thoughts frequently return to the events of his life that cannot be forgotten. Some are humorous, some terrifying, and some morose, but they fly through his mind like phantoms filling the night air. Bierce constantly seems torn between two worlds – the past and the future, imagination and reality, death and life.
These polar extremes tear viciously at him – one compelling him towards destruction, the other to love and life, and are brilliantly personified by two figures: Elizabeth Dumont – a woman whose captivating beauty and wit reminds him of the woman from his youth who laughed in his face – and The Damned Thing, a weird specter, a demon of death, who ferociously hunts and haunts the man who has so often been spared from death. In the end, Swaim takes advantage of Bierce’s mysterious disappearance to effect a masterful and unforgettable conclusion to the great man’s riveting story – one worthy of Bierce himself.
Swaim ultimately weaves an engrossing web-work of literary references, historical detail, and ingenuous imagination.
Genuine admirers of Ambrose Bierce will have no trouble falling in love with Swaim’s “Love Story” – in fact, the only trouble they will have will be putting the book down for the night.
The writing is elegiac at points, sardonic at others, and – for fans of his supernatural fiction – often gripping with terror.
As a devoted student of Bierce I cannot imagine a more fitting tomb to this un-tombed man – a more splendid epitaph to a man who devoted his life to satire and the bizarre. And as a publisher who has had the honor to showcase Swaim's talent in the past, I wasn't surprised in the slightest.
In reading “The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce” – although I know it to be a work of fiction – I found a strange sense of peace about his demise. His death, so often a compelling mystery, suddenly became a trivial matter. In “The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce,” expect to be entertained – to laugh and sneer and shiver – expect to think – on life, on death, on love – and expect to feel – pain, anger, desire – but most importantly, expect to find out what happened to Ambrose Bierce when he left his home without looking back, and faded into the white dust of Mexico.
Joshi concludes his introduction with the following praise: “Readers of this book will come away moved, amused, or terrified – but chiefly they will come away with a profound understanding of what it means to be human.” After reading the novel, I couldn’t agree more myself. I urge you to join me in this experience.
"The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce" can be found here, at Hippocampus Press (whom, by the way, we featured (with rave reviews) on our list of top 10 small publishers of speculative fiction):