Ambrose Bierce's Brutally Savage, Bitterly Mournful Horror Stories
“GHOST, n. The outward sign of an inward fear” — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
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.
Widely celebrated as the consummate cynic, Ambrose Bierce has given the public great reason to view him as a resolute misanthrope guided by pure reason and utterly certain of the cheeky pessimism that gave him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” His stories are littered with disappointments, tragedies, and human misery. His lovers almost always kill their beloveds, his children almost always either slay their parents, and his friends almost always abandon or murder each other. And yet, when viewed objectively, this is not the work of a cynic: it is the writing of a deeply disappointed idealist. Cynics don’t expect justice and aren’t disturbed by tragedy – they are amused by it. Bierce’s stories clearly don’t feature idealism as a virtue, but its lack casts a ponderous, undeniable shadow over his grim fiction: he mourns, as subtle as it may seem, for a world without trustworthy authorities, and longs, as understated as it may seem, for a restoration of justice and hope. But his stories are unyielding: none is to be expected or delivered. This is what haunts his horror fiction – outward signs of an inward fear – not the certainty of a meaningless existence, but the desperate terror that he might be right.
Bierce’s most traumatizing experiences – his seemingly loveless upbringing, his wartime horrors, his disappointing marriage to an adulterous wife, and his lifelong terror of old age and death – cast ghostly shadows over his writing and heavily influenced his plots and characters. Loneliness, more than smug skepticism, lurks throughout these existential tales, and alienation, more than haughty materialism, provides them with their hallmark bite. This is critical to understanding Bierce’s message, because it was not just the gospel of lowered expectations, but also a drowning man’s appeal for a hope of rescue that he longed for even though he believed in his heart that it was impossible. Rather than an intellectually cool Richard Dawkins or a self-satisfied Sigmund Freud, Bierce was more akin to Marx or Nietzsche: a broken idealist hounded by ghosts of his shattered vision of what humanity should be. This is apparent in his very best stories – like “The Moonlit Road,” “The Boarded Window,” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – which all share a sense of spiritual brokenness and tragic disparity between the heavenly aspirations of soul and the hellish destination of the body. In these stories genuine communication is made impossible, and a life of community and fellowship is infected with the contagion of self-absorption and alienation.
The three family members in “The Moonlit Road” could possibly heal from their tragic separation if only they could communicate the truth to one another, but pride, confusion, and shame suffocate their chances of reconciliation or peace. The couple in “The Boarded Window” are divided by uncommunicated feelings – the wife, perhaps, of a resentment at being dragged into the wilderness, and the husband, almost certainly, of a barely repressed relief at his wife’s apparent death. When she is ultimately torn to pieces by a panther (the symbol of the husband’s delighted Id), he is so traumatized that he resigns himself to a life of lonely penance, boarding up the window through which the panther accessed his bound wife as if it could symbolically block out any further hateful emotions. Most famously of all, in “Owl Creek Bridge,” the condemned planter, who has a lived a false life defined by romantic visions of heroism, glory, and distinction, learns the blessings of life just too late to enjoy a simple life of thankful fellowship with his wife. His spirit longs to embrace hers and to express its love and appreciation, but is cut-off from this spiritual meditation by the hangman’s noose. In other stories – “The Eyes of the Panther,” “The Ways of Ghosts,” “Soldier-Folk,” “Chickamauga,” “Visions of the Night,” etc. – the brutal disparity between expectations and reality is heartbreaking.
In their collection of Bierce’s letters, A Much Misunderstood Man, S. T. Joshi and David Schultz attempt to dispel Bierce’s reputation as a miserable misanthrope, the two scholars characterize him as: a man whose sensitivity to the fragility of beings faced with the cold indifference of an unfeeling universe so pronounced, whose moral code of unflinching honesty and rectitude so unwavering, and whose expectations of moral uprightness in his friends so resolute, that he was prepared to face a hostile world – that ‘unknown destination’ of his final letter – alone but unbroken.
Bierce’s fiction is plagued by an almost endless carousel of viciousness, infidelity, and despair, but this only serves to highlight the all-too-apparent absence of humanity, loyalty, and hope that he expects from a universe bankrupt in its promises. In a parting letter to a friend who had accused his writing, one time too many, of being soulless, Bierce sadly retorts: Maybe, as you say, my work lacks “soul,” but my life does not, and a man’s life is the man. Personally, I hold that sentiment has a place in the world, and that loyalty to a friend is not inferior as a characteristic to correctness of literary judgment. If there is a heaven I think it is more valued there… And let me tell you that if you are going through life as a mere thinking machine, ignoring the generous promptings of the heart, sacrificing it to the brain, you will have a hard row to hoe, and the outcome, when you survey it from the vantage ground of age, will not please you.
These hardly seem like words from Bitter Bierce, but in fact they serve as an indispensable insight into his mind, and hence into his fiction. His stories, filled as they are with gore and tragedy, should not be seen as spiritually-barren torture porn, but as galling indictments against the shortcomings of humanity – the just rage of a prophet pronouncing doom on a faithless generation who have embraced selfishness and hypocrisy instead of empathy and authenticity.
Bierce served as the obvious hinge between American speculative literature of the 19th and 20th centuries – what Henry James was for realism or Stephen Crane for naturalism. He was the bridge which so many critics have said connected Poe and Lovecraft, Hawthorne and Chambers, infusing 19th century thought with 20th century style. His influences are almost exclusively writers who were obsessed with loneliness and hypocrisy, and who wrote fixatedly about the barriers between and definitions of the physical, material world and the psychological, spiritual realm. Poe can be seen influencing stories like “Beyond the Wall” (cf. “House of Usher”), “The Boarded Window” (cf. “Berenice”), “A Vine on a House” (cf. “The Black Cat”), “The Death of Halpin Frayser” (cf. “Ulalume,” “Ligeia”), and “Visions of the Night” (cf. “Silence”) among many, many others. Both men were fascinated by unhealthy relationships between men and women, both loathed hypocrisy, and both wrote about profoundly unsavory events with a cold, reporterly voice. Like Bierce, Poe was annoyed by human vanity and frightened by his own existential unimportance. Both men’s stories explore the deep spiritual longing for transcendence and their instinctual fear of oblivion.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was another major influence on Bierce, and by most measure a kindred spirit. His fingerprints can be found in Bierce’s many stories about lonely men living apart from society in wild nature (there are so many that I won’t even make the pretense of starting a list – just read the stories in this book). Hawthorne – like Bierce, disgusting by his Puritan ancestors’ grim superiority and self-righteous cynicism – was highly distrustful of the American impulse towards Manifest Destiny. Bierce personally experienced this as the son of pioneers, and deeply resented his parents’ decision to raise him in the Midwestern wilderness. Cut-off from society, he resented his childhood. Instead of finding primitive purity, his family suffered from rustic alienation. Hawthorne’s own brutal interpretation of American individualism can be seen in dozens of stories about the perils of isolation and self-reliance (cf. “Scarlet Letter,” “House of Seven Gables,” “Burial of Roger Malvin,” “Minister’s Black Veil,” “Young Goodman Brown,” etc., etc.).
Other influences on Bierce’s style and voice include the godfather of weird fiction, E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose frustration with modern life – with its hypocrisies, lack of imagination, and demands for conformity – spoke to Bierce’s soul. Hoffmann’s dark fairy tales and ghost stories (e.g., “The Nutcracker,” “The Sandman,” “The Entail,” “The Vampire,” “Councillor Krespel,” “The Golden Pot,” and “The Mines of Falun”) speak of the perils of conventionality and the hidden nature of everyday life. Hoffmann regularly used supernaturalism to peel away the seemingly humdrum mask of his society to reveal a surreal dream-world: ugly dolls were in reality cursed princes, foreign salesmen were demonic monsters, pretty women were seductive hypnotists, old apple-mongers were sinister witches, and pregnant wives were cannibalistic ghouls. He deftly blurred the lines between imagination and reality, insisting that one was nearly as true as the other, and that a life in one’s imagination could be just as ordinary as a life in reality could be fantastical.
Fitz-James O’Brien – a fellow veteran of the Civil War who was killed in a skirmish in 1862 – was a disciple of both Poe and Hoffmann, whose early dalliances in science fiction, weird fiction, and fantasy would help influence Bierce’s own toyings with the nascent genres. Like O’Brien, Bierce would experiment with robot rebellions (cf. “The Wondersmith” and “Moxon’s Master”), alternate dimensions (cf. “The Lost Room” and “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”), invisible monsters from unknown worlds (cf. “What Was It?” and “The Damned Thing”), seductive mesmerists (cf. “The Bohemian” and “An Adventure at Brownville”), the existential terror of eternity (cf. “The Ghosts” and “Visions of the Night”), viciously brutal love triangles (cf. “Jubal the Ringer” and “…Brownville,” “Moonlit Road,” “Halpin Frayser,” etc.), the almost supernatural power of perception (cf. “The Golden Ingot” and “The Man and the Snake”), and the ghoulish juxtaposition of children and death (cf. “The Child who Loved a Grave” and “Chickamauga”).
As an influence to the proceeding generations – especially of American horror writers – Bierce was second only to Poe. Robert W. Chambers entire “King in Yellow” mythos was largely founded on Bierce’s off-putting references to unheard-of civilizations and dead gods in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” “Haita the Shepherd,” “Halpin Frayser,” and “Visions of the Night.” Chambers also modelled his twist-endings in stories like “The Key to Grief,” “Demoiselle D’Ys,” and “The Repairer of Reputations” on Bierce’s hallmark, trapdoor style. Both Bierce and Chambers would figure as substantial influences to H. P. Lovecraft, who was thrilled by Bierce’s no-holds-barred savagery, his themes of depravity caused by rural alientation, and his ability to summon a realistic sense of cosmic vertigo in stories like “The Man and the Snake,” “…Carcosa,” “Halpin Frayser,” and “The Damned Thing.” Lovecraft also admired Bierce’s shock endings, his use of purifying lightning or fire as a plot mechanism, and his lack of neatly explained horrors (like Bierce, Lovecraft was fine with leaving the provenance, motives, and nature of his monsters utterly ambiguous). Concerning Bierce’s role as a master of American horror, Lovecraft has this to say:
[T]he bulk of his artistic reputation must rest upon his grim and savage short stories; a large number of which deal with the Civil War and form the most vivid and realistic expression which that conflict has yet received in fiction. Virtually all of Bierce’s tales are tales of horror; and whilst many of them treat only of the physical and psychological horrors within Nature, a substantial proportion admit the malignly supernatural and form a leading element in America’s fund of weird literature… Bierce’s work is in general somewhat uneven. Many of the stories are obviously mechanical, and marred by a jaunty and commonplacely artificial style derived from journalistic models; but the grim malevolence stalking through all of them is unmistakable, and several stand out as permanent mountain-peaks of American weird writing.
Lovecraft goes on to cite “Halpin Frayser,” “The Damned Thing,” “The Suitable Surroundings,” “The Middle-Toe of the Right Foot,” and “The Spook House” as his horror masterpieces. Bierce would go on to influence many writers of non-supernatural fiction (e.g. Hemingway, Crane, London, Faulkner, Menken, Vonnegut, Heller, O’Brien, etc., etc.) as well as many filmmakers (e.g. David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Rod Serling, etc.), but his legacy as a writer of horror, science fiction, ghost stories, and weird fiction is probably his most powerful.
Of his speculative fiction output, Bierce stories generally fall into five clear categories: the horrors of war, weird fiction and fantasy, ghost stories, haunted places, and mysteries of a strange universe. During the Civil War, Bierce rose to the rank of brevet major with the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment, and was the unhappy witness of many of the war’s most gruesome battles. Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain (where he was seriously wounded in the head) were among the vicious engagements he fought in, and his traumatic experiences there inspired some of his greatest works.
While most of Bierce’s Civil War stories are not supernatural, one collection of stories (“Soldier-Folk”) merged his two most regular genres and used a form of anecdotal ghost story to comment on warfare’s psychic impact. Tales such as “Three and One are One” (a prodigal Union soldier returns to his strangely mute, dismal Southern family), “A Man with Two Lives” (after waking up from unconsciousness, finding himself naked, and stumbling through a wood, a scout is told that his body had been buried two months ago), and “Two Military Executions” (after being shot by a firing squad, a dead man refuses to stay quiet during role-call), explore the deep, undying trauma of total war. He uses ghosts as motifs of disappointment, revenge, and the agony of unfinished business, manifesting when the dead are prevented from achieving their goals or satisfying their last wishes.
Other stories from the war, though not supernatural per se, have such a profoundly shocking nature that they easily fit in a horror anthology. “Chickamauga” tells of a little boy’s bizarre encounter with a herd of crawling, bleeding men (maimed soldiers from a nearby battle), whom he rides and imagines himself leading into battle. The powerful twist ending is one of Bierce’s most naked refutations of war’s glory and romance. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” while not supernatural, is almost universally included in printings of Bierce’s horror fiction, in part because it is his masterpiece: the story of a condemned man’s racing thoughts as he peers over the bridge from which he will be hanged. An existential chef d’oeuvre, its blend of realism and surrealism make it one of the best American short stories of any genre.
Although “ghost stories” could be used to describe a great deal of Bierce’s supernatural fiction, one branch of them stand apart: stories of spirits reaching out to the living – often in vain – to accomplish unfinished business. In the anthology-piece, “The Ways of Ghosts,” Bierce offers four examples of psychic projection: “Present at a Hanging” (a long-dead specter draws attention to the hanging body of his murderer), “A Cold Greeting” (a man is chaffed by a brusque encounter with an out-of-town friend – moments after the latter’s death), “A Wireless Message” (a traveler on a country road sees an ruddy vision of his wife in the air – as she dies in a house fire miles away), and “An Arrest” (a convict overpowers his guard, but is recaptured by his ghost).
Three of his most famous stories, “The Moonlit Road,” “The Middle-Toe of the Right Foot,” and “The Death of Halpin Frayser” each involve murdered wives coming back from the dead in attempts to contact their guilt-ridden lovers. The first doesn’t even realize he was her killer, and ends up driving him away from their son, and taking on a new identity, the second is successful in frightening her spouse to death with her telltale deformity, and the third – most famous of all – wreeks her vengeance on her incestuous son (who ran off with her, then abandoned her, whereupon she was murdered by his outraged father) by strangling him on her own grave. Generally considered three of his best stories of any genre, they share Bierce’s autobiographical distrust of love, his own barely repressed misogyny, and brilliant narrative structures that jump back in forth in time before assaulting the reader with a lurid twist ending.
Several of Bierce’s ghost stories involved men spending time in empty houses with corpses (either out in the open or buried nearby) with disastrous results: “A Watcher by the Dead” (a bet that a skeptic could last all night in the company of a corpse goes predictably wrong), “Macarger’s Gulch” (a night spent in a deserted cabin brings telltale dreams brought on by the body buried under it), “Night-Doings at Deadman’s” (a murdered immigrant returns to an empty cabin for his severed ponytail), and “The Suitable Surroundings” (another bet has a literary critic scared to death after reading a madman’s story in a derelict house). There are also stories of ill-starred lovers driven to tragic ends, such as “Beyond the Wall” (a man is hounded by the continued knocking of a dying woman whom he ignored), and “An Adventure at Brownville” (a misogynistic mesmerist drives his unfaithful wife, and later her sister, to suicide). These stories all have a classic, “campfire-y” sort of nature, and while not overly literary, serve the purpose of highlighting themes of hypocrisy, intellectual hubris, and the brutal power of the human will.
Another branch of ghost story is the haunted house tale, and Bierce put together an anthology-piece of his various stories of cursed properties called “Some Haunted Houses.” A surefire crowd-pleaser, it involves houses haunted by ghost pirates (“The Isle of Pines”), anthropomorphic vines entangled around a murdered wife (“A Vine on a House”), a family of putrid corpses who were starved to death in a locked panic room (“The Spook House”), a group of sadistic maniacs kicking around an old woman’s head (“A Fruitless Assignment”), a retired pirate who vanished without a trace (“At Old Man Eckert’s”), and more. Each of these lurid stories explores the theme of collective sin: how a house can become infected by the shared crimes of the community where it stands. In some cases the sin is the turning of a blind eye to a criminal act (“Isle of Pines,” “Old Man Eckert’s”), while in others it is a failure to uncover a family atrocity (“Vine on a House,” “The Thing at Nolan”), and in others it is merely the traumatic family secrets which the house alone survives as a witness to (“Fruitless Assignment,” “Spook House”).