Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born
in Meigs County, Ohio on June 24, 1842 and moved with his family to Indianna.
It was still the wild west of the pioneers. One of thirteen children, all
of whom bore names beginning with the letter A, he emerged from a highly
moralistic, religious background on a dreary dirt-poor farm with a moodiness
which vacilated between depression and excessive high spirits. It is not
known what kind of an education he had except for a year at the Kentucky
Military Academy when he was 17. At nineteen he left home to enlist in
the 9th Indiana volunteers as a drummer when the Civil War began. He was
wounded at Kenesaw Mountain. Excelling at soldiering, Bierce was commisioned
an officer in the field for bravery, rose to the rank of lieutenant (brevet
major), and discharged in 1865. He worked as a Treasury agent, then went
west to San Francisco, where, at the age of twenty-four, he decided to
become a writer.
A quick and able learner, Bierce was accepted
by James T. Watkins onto the San Francisco News-Letter and California Advertiser.
Two years later, Watkins left for New York and Bierce became, for some
unknown reason, editor of the newspaper. And he was up to the job. Still
the days of the "Barbary Coast," San Francisco journalism, like its politics
and maritime occupations, was a brawling, undisciplined world. Bierce fit
right in: his column biting, sarcastic, and full of irony. He was not adverse
to beating or shooting a disgruntled victim of his newspaper's attacks.
When he married a tough and independent
woman, Mary Ellen Day, in 1871, her father gave them a gift of money enough
to let them head for Europe to join the expatriate colony of Americans
in London. Bierce did not really get along with the better known of the
Americans there: Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller and Bret Harte. He made his
mark however small, gaining the nickname of "Bitter Bierce." This was a
fitting addition to his unpleasant reputation as the Devil's Disciple.
Within two years the Bierces's were back in San Francisco, in money problems.
The marriage, which had produced three children, broke up.
Bierce knocked about California for the
next decade. In 1887, William Randolph Hearst showed up on Bierce's door
and offered him a column in Hearst's newspapers, eminating from the Sunday
Examiner. Always a bulldog ready to sell his sarcastic services, Bierce
agreed and for the next twenty years produced his column "Prattle" and
gained the tile of "The West Coast Samuel Johnson."
While it was a time of his greatest popularity,
his life began to decline in 1889, when his first son died in a duel over
a woman. In 1891, his wife left him, eventually to divorce him in 1904.
In 1901, his younger son died of alcoholism.
The association between Hearst and Bierce,
which was never very pleasant, would last for twenty years. But Bierce
was one of the Hearst's chief columnists. Hearst was a man who desired
the ability to make and break people. Bierce broke them for him. While
his honesty was rigid, his humor was viscious. He loved tearing apart the
so-called celebrity of his times, including writers he did not consider
worthy, anyone he considered corrupt or with whom he disagreed, and most
advantageously, a railroad robber baron named Stanford, who tried to pass
a federal bill with which he would have bilked the government of millions
of dollars. Bierce was, in a great part, responsible for Standford's defeat.
Thoughout all these years, Bierce produced
a large body of short stories. Many were inspired by his experiences in
the Civil War but half these tales were supernatural in content. Though
he was never very successful as a horror writer, something within Bierce,
something in his very nature, which brought the stories out of him. Unlike
the other writers of his time who were still deriving their horror from
the landscape ladened Gothic writers and the mystically oriented Romantics,
Bierce found horror to be a thing that came from within the soul and psyche
of man. You might live in a dark castle, but the horror was not the castle
but the mind of the inhabitant. One of his most famous is "The Occurrence
at Owl Creek Bridge," required reading from most American high school students.
In it, Peyton Farquhar is led out onto the bridge to be hanged by Union
soldiers. As he falls, the rope breaks and he tumbles to the river below.
He escapes and heads home. As he runs up his walk to embrace his wife,
he feels a horrifying snap at the back of his neck. The rope pulls tight
and Farquhar hangs dead on Owl Creek Bridge. The horror of the tale is
not death by hanging, or even by the fact that a man can dream in his last
moments before death, but the horrible reality that death is inescapable,
no matter how hard we try. The horror is Farquhar's mad and hopeless attempt
to beat death.
While his Civil War based stories have
been favorably compared with those of Stephen Crane, Bierce lacked the
conviction of belief in the supernatural. And he lacked the colorfulness
of language and character. He, perhaps driven by his journalistic sense
of brevity, wrote sparsely, much like the later journalist/writer Hemingway.
He was not as interested in the setting or the humanity as the inhumanity
involved in horror. His characters were often incestuous, murderers; his
images were often gross and sacrilegious. He was, in a way, the Clive Barker
of his day, digging into the flesh of humanity to reveal the sorry state
of the human mind.
His supernatural and horror stories were
not well received and he had great difficulty getting them published. Though
influenced by Poe, his ghost tales lack the conviction of a belief in the
supernatural which imbued many of the writers of the time. The psychological
elements of Bierce's stories, which may have much to do with their popularity
in the twentieth century, was of little interest in his time.
Lovecraft himself spends a large section
of "Supernatural Horror in Literature" to Bierce:
"...the 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. Mr. Samuel Loveman, a living poet and critic who was
personally acquainted with Bierce, thus sums up the genius of the great
"shadow-maker" in the preface to some of his letters:
"'In Bierce the evocation of horror becomes
for the first time not so much the prescription or prevention of Poe and
Maupassant, but an atmosphere definite and uncannily precise. Words, so
simple that one would be prone to ascribe them to the limitations of a
literary hack, take on an unholy horror, a new and unguessed transformation.
In Poe one finds it a tour de force, in Maupassant a nervous engagement
of the flagellated climax. To Bierce, simply and sincerely, diabolism held
in its tormented depth a legitimate and reliant means to the end. Yet a
tacit confirmation with Nature is in every instance insisted upon.
"'In The Death of Halpin Frayser flowers,
verdure, and the boughs and leaves of trees are magnificently placed as
an opposing foil to unnatural malignity. Not the accustomed golden world,
but a world pervaded with the mystery of blue and the breathless recalcitrance
of dreams is Bierce's. Yet curiously, inhumanity is not altogether absent."
"The 'inhumanity' mentioned by Mr. Loveman
finds vent in a rare strain of sardonic comedy and graveyard humour, and
a kind of delight in images of cruelty and tantalising disappointment.
The former quality is well illustrated by some of the subtitles in the
darker narratives; such as "One does not always eat what is on the table,"
describing a body laid out for a coroner's inquest, and "A man though naked
may be in rags," referring to a frightfully mangled corpse.
"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. The Death
of Halpin Frayser, called by Frederic Taber Cooper the most fiendishly
ghastly tale in the literature of the Anglo-Saxon race, tells of a body
skulking by night without a soul in a weird and horribly ensanguined wood,
and of a man beset by ancestral memories who met death at the claws of
that which had been his fervently loved mother. The Damned Thing, frequently
copied in popular anthologies, chronicles the hideous devastations of an
invisible entity that waddles and flounders on the hills and in the wheatfields
by night and day. The Suitable Surroundings evokes with singular subtlety
yet apparent simplicity a piercing sense of the terror which may reside
in the written word. In the story the weird author Colston says to his
friend Marsh, "You are brave enough to read me in a street-car, but-in
a deserted house-alone-in the forest-at night! Bah! I have a manuscript
in my pocket that would kill you!" Marsh reads the manuscript in "the suitable
surroundings"-and it does kill him. The Middle Toe of the Right Foot is
clumsily developed, but has a powerful climax. A man named Manton has horribly
killed his two children and his wife, the latter of whom lacked the middle
toe of the right foot. Ten years later he returns much altered to the neighbourhood;
and, being secretly recognised, is provoked into a bowie-knife duel in
the dark, to be held in the now abandoned house where his crime was committed.
When the moment of the duel arrives a trick is played upon him; and he
is left without an antagonist, shut in a night-black ground floor room
of the reputedly haunted edifice, with the thick dust of a decade on every
hand. No knife is drawn against him, for only a thorough scare is intended;
but on the next day he is found crouched in a corner with distorted face,
dead of sheer fright at something he has seen. The only clue visible to
the discoverers is one having terrible implications: "In the dust of years
that lay thick upon the floor---leading from the door by which they had
entered, straight across the room to within a yard of Manton's crouching
corpse-were three parallel lines of footprints-light but definite impressions
of bare feet, the outer ones those of small children, the inner a woman's.
From the point at which they ended they did not return; they pointed all
one way." And, of course, the woman's prints showed a lack of the middle
toe of the right foot. The Spook House, told with a severely homely air
of journalistic verisimilitude, conveys terrible hints of shocking mystery.
In 1858 an entire family of seven persons disappears suddenly and unaccountably
from a plantation house in eastern Kentucky, leaving all its possessions
untouched-furniture, clothing, food supplies, horses, cattle, and slaves.
About a year later two men of high standing are forced by a storm to take
shelter in the deserted dwelling, and in so doing stumble into a strange
subterranean room lit by an unaccountable greenish light and having an
iron door which cannot be opened from within. In this room lie the decayed
corpses of all the missing family; and as one of the discoverers rushes
forward to embrace a body he seems to recognise, the other is so overpowered
by a strange foetor that he accidentally shuts his companion in the vault
and loses consciousness. Recovering his senses six weeks later, the survivor
is unable to find the hidden room; and the house is burned during the Civil
War. The imprisoned discoverer is never seen or heard of again.
"Bierce seldom realises the atmospheric
possibilities of his themes as vividly as Poe; and much of his work contains
a certain touch of naivete, prosaic angularity, or early-American provincialism
which contrasts somewhat with the efforts of later horror-masters. Nevertheless
the genuineness and artistry of his dark intimations are always unmistakable,
so that his greatness is in no danger of eclipse. As arranged in his definitively
collected works, Bierce's weird tales occur mainly in two volumes, Can
Such Things Be? and In the Midst of Life. The former, indeed, is almost
wholly given over to the supernatural." (Lovecraft)
In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, Bierce,
now the epitome of the broken and alone "grumpy old man," created the greatest
tale of his life. Many claimed he left a bar drunk as a skunk and disappeared
down an alley never to be seen again. And that is the known truth. But,
it generally believed that he did what he said he wanted to do: head off
to Mexico to fight with Pancho Villa. Many varied stories have been told
of Bierce's death in Mexico though none has ever been proven. One fanciful
version was written under the title "Old Gringo," and filmed by Hollywood.
But, it is still Ambrose Bierce's written
work that continues to amaze and entertain fanciers of the horror and supernatural
This article appeared in the Arkham Advertiser,
volume 2, issue 1, 1995