Ambrose Bierce, Master of the Macabre

Alan Gullette

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born on June 24, 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio to Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce. He was a "naughty" child, but, when he was not out playing devilish pranks, he would surround himself with the books of his literature-loving father. To these, he once wrote, he owed "everything." Family conditions were never comfortable and Ambrose Bierce left home at fifteen to become a printer's devil for the Northern Indianian in Warsaw. This position he forfeited at seventeen when he was falsely accused of stealing money, and his family insisted that he enroll in the Kentucky Military Institute. Knowledge in army tactics and map reading gained there would aid him in the Civil War, into which he enlisted in 1861, at nineteen years of age. As biographer Richard O'Conner wrote, "War was the making of Bierce as a man and a writer." Surely this cannot be disputed, for it was in the war that Bierce was surrounded by the dead and the dying. From this grim experience Bierce would emerge -- at twenty-three -- a young man with a true understand of death and a destined writer truly capable of transferring the bloody, headless bodies and boar-eaten corpses of the battlefield onto paper (along with other, less gruesome qualities of war). Bierce's war tales are considered by many to be the best writing on war, outranking his contemporary Stephen Crane (author of The Red Badge of Courage) and even Ernest Hemingway.
 When the war was over Bierce worked for the Treasury Department for Reconstruction work in the south and also for the government for mapping unknown regions of the west. He then went to San Francisco where, denied a promised commission in the regular army, he decided on a literary career. While working as a night guard at the U. S. Mint, Bierce read voraciously in his spare time and developed a literary style of his own, "practicing" by producing several tracts intended to defend atheism. He also drew up a folio of cartoons mocking the platforms of both candidates for the 1867 election, which, when circulated among his fellow workers at the mint, gained the attention that led to their being sold and published by the respective candidates as "weapons" against the opponent's campaign.
 But Bierce moved to the written word as a means of self-expression, his first endeavors being at verse that was published in the Californian. Still dissatisfied, he attempted prose, and humorous, satirical articles and essays soon appeared in the Californian, the Atla California, the Golden Era, and the weekly News-Letter and California Advertiser. His first literary models were his contemporaries Brete Harte and Mark Twain, but, under the tutelage of James W. Watkins, editor of the News-Letter, he was introduced to the satire of Swift, Voltaire, Pope, and Juvenal. His style developed and perfected, Watkins loosed him on the world on December 5, 1868 by way of the News-Letter's "Town Crier" page, which soon became entirely occupied by Bierce's remarks and criticism. Mysteriously, Watkins left for New York, leaving Bierce a newspaper editor at age 26. He stayed until March 9, 1872 completing 167 weekly columns.
 Bierce married in 1871 and, as a wedding gift from his father-in-law, spent a long honeymoon in England, where he was soon accepted into the "Fleet Street Gang" -- a social pantheon of prominent authors, critics, editors, and "pub-crawlers." He wrote and published essays for his friend James Mortimer's Figaro (in which he appeared regularly in the column, "The Passing Showman") and for the Fun, edited by his close friend, humorist Tom Hood. At the same time -- in July, 1872 -- J. C. Hotten published Bierce's first book, The Fiend's Delight, a collection of "Town Crier" columns and other material from the California papers. Although the book appeared under the pseudonym Dod Grile, which Bierce used for some of his English-published essays, Bierce gained notoriety for his acid wit and became known as "Bitter Bierce."
 A second collection of California columns appeared under the imprint of Chatto and Windus in 1873, appropriately entitled Nuggets and Dust, and he became so successful as to be honored at a banquet alongside Twain and their fellow Westerner, poet Joaquin Miller.
 The Empress Eugénie -- wife of deposed emperor Napoleon III of France -- had been exiled to England and wished to finance a magazine, the Lantern, to defend Prussia -- and offend her arch-enemy Rochefort, who had published La Lanterne in France. Mortimer, acting as her agent, choose Bierce to "edit" the project, although he wrote virtually every word of its only two issues. In it he established his later-famous "Prattle" column. Afterward, he compiled sketches from the Fun and Figaro for his third volume, Cobwebs From an Empty Skull, which Routledge and Sons published in 1874.
 Bierce's wife had borne two sons in England -- Day and Leigh -- and had returned with them to America before him. He rejoined her and his new-born daughter Helen in San Francisco in September of 1874 and sold irregularly to the journals while again employed at the Mint. In 1877, Col. Frank Pixley founded a weekly, the Argonaut, and signed Bierce as associate editor. The first number -- dated March 25, 1877 -- saw the revival of the "Prattle" column. Again Bierce appeared in book form, in a collaboration with William H. Rulofson and T. A. Harcourt entitled The Dance of Death, issued under the nom de plume (or, better, nom de guerre) of William Herman. It was a full-scale assault on the waltz and enjoyed such attention that an anonymous author (J. Milton Sloluck) wrote a rebuttal, The Dance of Life. Bierce's collaboration was published in 1877 and sold 18,000 copies -- something of a best seller in those days.
 To escape his family and his mother-in-law (who insisted on living with them), Bierce frequented the Bohemian Club, a newly founded excuse for wining and reveling as gentlemen, of which he was for a time the dues-keeping secretary. After quitting, he shut himself up in his study or took long walks alone -- just as Poe had done in Richmond, Virginia and Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island. Meanwhile, the Argonaut because the foremost weekly in all the West, but personal squabbles lead to a break with Pixley. From March 25, 1877 to July 6, 1879 when Bierce left the Argonaut, 87 weekly columns appeared under his name.
 Bierce spent the year 1880 gold mining and shotgun-riding in the Black Hill s of South Dakota for Wells Fargo & Co. but was back in San Francisco in December of that year. The weekly Wasp had changed hands and Bierce became editor-in-chief with the New Year's Day issue of 1881. The "Prattle" lived again, and Bierce also initiated "The Wasp's Book of Wisdom," a new column of witty epigrams. His editorship ended on September 11, 1895 leaving behind 225 columns.
 In March 1887, William Randloph Hearst -- new owner of the San Francisco Examiner -- offered Bierce a handsome salary and a position on his staff. Bierce accepted and was again writing the "Prattle" column; but he also wrote many stories and various sketches and essays. The long era of his employment by Hearst stretched over twenty-one years and the peak of Bierce's writing skill and output. This era, however, also marked the tragic suicide of Bierce's eldest son and Bierce's indefinite separation from his wife. These griefs -- and the later death of his other son, Bierce's divorce and the death of his wife -- combined to harden his outer shell and make him even more bitter than before. It was, perhaps, this bitterness that strengthened the poignancy of his pen -- his scalpel -- and blackened his satire and morbid fiction to an extent perhaps no other author has achieved. It was during this depressive, uncertain age that Bierce coined his famous motto, "Nothing matters."
 In 1891 his first collection of stories appeared -- twenty-six horror stories entitled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, published by Mr. E. L. G. Steele of San Francisco. Shortly after, Andrew Chatto of Chatto and Windus reprinted the collection in England as In the Midst of Life.
 In 1892, Adolphe Danziger (Adolph de Castro), W. C. Morrow (author of The Ape, The Idiot & Other People), Joaquin Miller, and Bierce formed the Western Authors Publishing Co. Originally intended to publish any number of volumes, it issued only one: Black Beetles in Amber, a selection of Bierce's venom in rhyme. Of this work it may be said that its author posed as a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac, composing verse while delivering a deep-cutting slash of the foil! But Ambrose Bierce was not a poet, or so he said himself. In fact he denied the title, admitting: "When I was in my twenties, I concluded one day that I was not a poet. It was the bitterest moment of my life." What, then of Black Beetles and his other critical verse? "I am not a poet," he explained, "but an abuser -- that makes all the difference... so I'm entitled to credit for what little gold there may be in the mud I throw. But if I professed gold-throwing, the mud which I would surely mix with the missiles would count against me."
 Danziger translated The Monk of Berchtesgaden from the German, a long story written by Richard Voss based on a mediaeval Bavarian manuscript. This translation was given to Bierce to revise or rewrite, and the net result was The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter, published by installments in the Examiner and issued in book form by the F. J. Schulte Company in 1893. A controversy arose when Danziger claimed authorship of the final work. Bierce said "I wrote every word of The Monk as published." The friendship, already worn thin over financial problems with Black Beetles, did not survive the dispute.
Can Such Things Be?, Bierce's second and most famous collection of fiction, appeared later in 1893, and expanded the praise and admiration for the author and his work.
The year 1897 found Bierce in Washington, serving Hearst and his country by battling Leland Stanford and the railroad barons (Bierce called them the "Rail Rogues") who sought a bill forgiving massive debts to the government. When the bill was defeated Bierce attained the height of his reputation; but, as E. F. Bleiler has written, "What seemed like the moment of triumph was really the peak beyond which the cliffs fall steep. He was . . . an old man by now, and in many ways he had outlived his powers." The criticism seems harsh but, unfortunately, accurate.
 In 1903, the Bierce disciples (and drinking companions) George Sterling and Herman Scheffauer arranged for publication of a collection of their master's verse, entitled Shapes of Clay, culled from twenty years of newspaper and magazine columns. (Sterling, at the time a promising young poet, went on to publish, with no little help from Bierce, two collections of poetry The Testimony of the Suns and A Wine of Wizardry. Surviving Bierce by some thirteen years, Sterling published many other poems and dramatic verse and became the unofficial poet laureate of San Francisco.)
Bierce's most famous work of misanthropy was published in 1906 by Doubleday Page & Co. under the title The Cynics Word Book. Containing 500 "definitions" from various newspaper columns, this was the first edition of The Devil's Dictionary. By 1911 Bierce had written over 1,000 such "definitions" and published this amount in volume seven of his twelve-volume Collected Works under the title we are familiar with today.
 Shortly afterward, still in 1906, S. O. Howes, an acquaintance of Bierce, selected essays for the author's tenth book, The Shadow on the Dial, published by A. M. Robertson of San Francisco.
 The last episode of Bierce's literary life followed his resignation from Hearst's staff and from periodical literature altogether in 1908. As a farewell gift his long-time employer gave Bierce the right to reprint any or all of the material he had written for the Hearts papers -- permission which was invaluable in compiling the monstrous Collected Works.
 From 1908 to 1912 Bierce amassed considerable amounts of his old work to fill an even dozen volumes of his Collected Works, published beginning in 1909 by his friend and later biographer Walter Neale. The complete set (in deluxe Moroccan leather) sold for $100, a formidable sum in those days, and contained approximately a million words -- surprisingly, only one-fourth of Bierce's estimated total output. At 70, after he had erected this tribute to his ego, Bierce revisited the old places so dear to his memory: the battlefields of his "soldiering days," New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington, and other cities in which he had lived. Then he went south -- to Texas -- where, in San Antonio, he was given a dinner by his old army comrades. Afterwards, he wandered along the border for several days before he finally crossed -- bravely, but gloomily -- into a revolution-torn Mexico. His last letter was sent from Chihuahua on December 26, 1913; Ambrose Bierce was never heard from again. Although innumerable theories, stories, and even a novel and motion picture, have speculated on Bierce's last days, there is no hard evidence to support one above another. More than likely Bierce joined the revolutionary forces of Pancho Villa and fell in the Battle of Ojinaga on January 11, 1914. But the real truth may never be known.

 


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Ambrose Bierce wrote a total of ninety-three short stories (based on published material at the time of this writing) -- of which fifty-three are what we may term "supernatural": they offer an escape from the well-known and unbroken laws of the mundane, ranging from mysterious telepathic power to survival on earth after death. The most effective of these "escapes" are presented in the form of a twist coming at or near the end of the story. This type of shock has been more deeply exploited and popularized by Saki and O. Henry. Another twenty-two are outright satires -- what Ernest J. Hopkins has classified as "Tall Tales." The remaining eighteen are mainly Civil War stories that are not supernatural in content but upon which rests Bierce's reputation as a writer, at least in academia.
 The predominant theme of the supernatural stories is that of a haunting by a ghost. In fact, Bierce is often thought of as a writer of ghost stories alone (except to those who know him only for his Devil's Dictionary). The "haunting" occurs for various reasons and by various means. Of these, ghostly revenge -- by death or other justification -- is one well-known and often used, and was perhaps best handled in "An Arrest," "Two Military Executives," and the widely anthologized "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot." Another type of ghost story produces apparitions who attempt to warn someone of danger, best seen in "A Diagnosis of Death," "The Stranger," and, perhaps, "A Wireless Message."
 A different theme deals with the continuance beyond death of a motivation unsatisfied or a goal unattained in life -- the type adopted by Algernon Blackwood in his brilliant "The Deferred Appointment." This motif may be related to the device of astral projection and can be illustrated by an event recorded by Charles Fort, the famous investigator of supernatural phenomena. In 1888 (the story goes) a certain Dr. W. W. Wescott had arranged to meet Rev. W. T. Leman in a reading room of the British Museum. Dr. Wescott arrived first and was seen by five persons to enter the reading room and not come out; of these witnesses, four spoke with him. When the Reverend arrived, he was told that Wescott awaited him; but the reading room was empty. Nor had Wescott been to the Museum, for he was bedridden with fever and a cold in his home miles away -- to which his entire family testified. Stories of the event reached Bierce and influenced such stories as "The Thing at Nolan," "A Jug of Sirup," and "The Isle of Pines."
 A related theme is the reenactment of a crime or the unnatural extension of an event long after its first happening. This was developed in "The Other Lodgers," "The Secret of Macarger's Gulch," "A Cold Greeting," "Beyond the Wall," "A Fruitless Assignment," and others. This theme was profoundly analyzed by Blackwood in such stories as "The Empty House," "The Haunted Island," "Smith: An Episode in a Lodging House," and many others.
 Of those supernatural stories revolving around a departure from natural laws presented with a sudden, shocking twist or reversal of the expected, three stand out as the best known -- and also serve as the most characteristic -- of Bierce's tales. These are "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "The Boarded Window," and "A Horseman in the Sky." The first of these was effectively adapted to celluloid by the Frenchman Robert Enrico and broadcast in America on the popular Twilight Zone television program of Rod Serling. (The French film won the Cannes Film Festival in 1962 and other international awards.) There are, however, some other fine shockers, lesser known and seemingly ignored by anthologists -- including "The Applicant, " The Man and the Snake," and "The Affair at Coulter's Notch." Another set of stories of this type includes "The Coup de Grâce," "George Thurston," "One Kind of Officer," and "Killed At Resaca," which border on satire by mocking common human traits and tendencies.
 The remaining supernatural stories use a variety of themes, including lycanthropy, hypnosis, telepathic influence, "mysterious disappearances" (as one collection of episodes was called), etc. Several deal with "psychic" themes ("The Death of Halpin Frayser," "A Psychological Shipwreck," "One of Twins," "John Bartine's Watch," et al.). A few are strongly Lovecraftian ("The Damned Thing" and "The Vine on a House," among others); "At Old Man Eckert's" and "The Spook House" deal with the "dislocation of time and space" so dear to Lovecraft and his brood. "Moxon's Master," which features a lively but insubordinate automaton, is thought by some to be one of Bierce's finest tales and perhaps his only science fiction piece; since the robot plays chess the comparison to Poe's article "Maelzel's Chess Player" is inevitable.
 The group of stories classified above as "non-supernatural" includes a dozen "straight" war tales, two of which -- "The Mocking Bird" and "The Story of a Conscience" -- show Bierce to be actually human and almost sympathetic. Another, "The Major's Tale," gives humor free reign. A couple unusual stories are entirely unlike Bierce's other works: "The Lady [or Heiress] from Redhorse" and "The Man Out of the Nose" (reminiscent, in part, of Fitz-James O'Brien's "From Hand to Mouth"). Two final stories, "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" and "Haïta the Shepherd," rank as Bierce's only fantasies and provided elements later co-opted by developers of the so-called Cthulhu Mythos.
The short fiction of Ambrose Bierce is characterized by subtlety, abruptness, and meticulous detail. E. J. Hopkins has noted that a great many of his horror tales are less than 3000 words in length; several are less than 1000. Bierce himself recommended that, in successful writing, each word should do the work of four. Such measured brevity is perhaps natural for a journalist, although Bierce was never a reporter per se. Plot is granted the major part of each story, to the virtual neglect of mood (except in the two fantasies). In this Bierce contrasts sharply with such other masters of the macabre as Poe, Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Lovecraft, in his celebrated essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and in several of his published letters, discussed the importance of plot as opposed to mood; a reading of any of his stories ("The Outsider" is a good one to begin with) reveals a strong preference for atmosphere. Poe is known for his verbosity and his works present detailed studies of feelings and moods (e.g., "The Fall of the House of Usher"). Smith -- the least known of the writers here named -- indulged in flowing prose of otherworldly descriptions and was even more practiced in creating terrifying and alien moods (e.g., "Xeethra").
 In relation to the comparisons with Poe, it has been said that Bierce "followed Poe in most of his stories" but was "less literary and more observant." This is true considering the complexity of Poe's sentence structures compared to the great detail so succinctly presented in such Bierce pieces as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." H. L. Mencken, one of Bierce's most successful and well-known understudies, wrote that Bierce's "own style was extraordinarily tight and unresilient, and his fear of rhetoric often took all the life out of his works."
Whatever the outstanding characteristics of Bierce's stories and the style of his writing, Bierce has an assured place in the history of the weird tale. As Bleiler has argued, he followed Poe in transporting Gothic and Victorian ghost stories to realms of the mind, finding in the human psyche "the ultimate source of horror." His contributions were epoch-making; they influenced such writers as Blackwood, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, W. C. Morrow, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany, and Lovecraft; and the tidal wave that swept through these authors was in time felt by such modern writers of the weird as Carl Jacobi, Charles Beaumont, Rod Serling, among many others. His total influence can hardly be computed, for he wrote in that era when the horror tale was undergoing great development in the hands of a dozen well-known authors, so that his integral and cooperative part of the whole cannot be estimated today other than to say that his importance was indeed great, as was his satanic skill.
 The 1960s saw something of a resurgence of interest in Bierce. In 1964 Dover issued a collection of ghost stories; in 1966 the Collected Works were reprinted in facsimile by the Gordian Press of New York; in 1967 a biography by Richard O'Connor appeared and Carey McWilliams' 1929 biography was reprinted, as was the Pope edition of Letters; and Ernest J. Hopkins engineered three Doubleday publications: The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary (1967), The Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader (1968), and The Complete Short Stories (1970; reissued in 1971 as a two-volume paperback by Ballantine Books.)
In 1980, poet and noted Clark Ashton Smith scholar Donald Sidney-Fryer edited a volume of Bierce's selected poems, A Vision of Doom, unfortunately now out of print.
Today, Bierce's "complete" short stories are available on the World Wide Web, along with several versions of his most famous work, The Devil's Dictionary. Current efforts are underway on the part of S.T. Joshi and David Schultz, noted Lovecraft scholars, to bring most -- if not all -- of the writings of Bierce back into print. This includes his complete fiction, his collected fables, his autobiographical writings, the corrected complete Devil's Dictionary, and his massive amounts of journalism. The year 1998 saw the first fruition of this enormous project: A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography, a compilation of Bierce's non-fiction and letters which shed light on his own life, times, and opinions. See my main Bierce page for Bierce publishing news.


Selected Bibliography

Bierce, Ambrose. A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography. Eds. S.T. Joshi and David Schultz. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998.
 -----. A Vision of Doom. Edited D. Sidney-Fryer. West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant, 1980.
-----. Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce. Edited by E. F. Bleiler. New York: Dover, 1964.
-----. The Complete Short Stories. Edited E. J. Hopkins. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970; New York: Ballantine Books, 1971 (paperback, two volumes).
 Bleiler, E. F. "Introduction," Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce. New York: Dover, 1964.
 Joshi, S. T. "Ambrose Bierce: Horror as Satire." In The Weird Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
 Lovecraft, H. P. Selected Letters. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1965-1976, in five volumes.
 Lovecraft, H. P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover, 1973.
 McWilliams, Carey. Ambrose Bierce, A Biography. New York: A. & C. Boni, 1929; Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1967.
O'Conner, Richard. Ambrose Bierce, A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1967.





First Posted: April 2, 1997
Last updated: October 13, 2004

First published in Ambrosia #1 (July 24, 1972) as "Ambrose Bierce: A Literary Analysis."
Revised February 1996 and March 1997.
© 1972, 1996, 1997 Alan Gullette




A George Sterling Page
Includes a short biography and online links for this notable but neglected
California Romantic Poet and disciple of Bierce.



Selected Authors of Supernatural Horror

Ambrose Bierce H.P. Lovecraft Edgar A. Poe
Algernon Blackwood Arthur Machen M. P. Shiel
Lord Dunsany Fitz-James O'Brien Clark Ashton Smith
William Hope Hodgson Other Links Photo Gallery

Alan Gullette, Oakland, California. Email: alang@alangullette.com