On Re-Reading Ambrose Bierce

Some classics are part of our childhood reading. There are many different writers that I haven’t re-read since I was quite young. Ambrose Bierce was one of them.

I remember sneaking off with a volume of his short stories and liking them very much when I was little. I knew nothing about the man, only much later when I read a lot of Latin American literature and came across Carlos Fuentes’ Gringo ViejoThe Old Gringo, that was also made into a movie, did I learn something about the man himself. Or rather the mystery of his ending. In 1913, at the age of 71, he rode off to Mexico and was never seen again. Fuentes’ exploration of his vanishing is a great book. I have also seen the movie but can’t remember if I liked it or not. It is believed that Bierce, who also fought in the Civil War, joined the forces of Pancho Villa.

But even without such a mysterious ending, Ambrose Bierce would be an interesting character. He was known for his satirical writings in which he used an acerbic and vitriolic tone. Some of his articles seem to have ruined more than one career of a new writer. He also wrote a lot of short stories and his famous The Devil’s Dictionary.

Since my time is limited these days, I’m much more inclined to read short stories and novellas besides my chunky August Readalong choice (Elsa Morante’s History – one of the great works of Italian literature ! – Yes, you can still join me).

Yesterday I decided to re-read some of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories. I wanted to see how I would like them as a grownup and how the knowledge of his disappearance would influence my reading. I read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Beyond the Wall, An Adventure at Brownville, The Damned Thing, One of the Missing and The Stranger. Most of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories can be found online here.

I really loved these stories. Bierce is a fantastic writer. Realistic, yet capable of creating an eerily haunting atmosphere. The Civil War, in which he served, is often a backdrop. The stories are either set in San Francisco or rural California, one takes place in an Arizona desert. The city as well as the country provide material for mysterious descriptions.

In my memory, Bierce’s stories had a certain resemblance with Edgar Allan Poe. It is also said that H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by him. Of the 90something short stories written by Bierce far over 50 have a supernatural, macabre or horror theme. What I had not realized when reading them before is the fact that he has a lot in common with Maupassant. The descriptions more than anything bear a strong resemblance with Maupassant’s short stories. Poe’s descriptions are different.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one of his most famous stories. It is set during the Civil War and tells the story of a man who has been sentenced to be hanged. The story is, like so many others, quite surprising, it is non-linear and offers an unexpected ending. There isn’t anything supernatural in this one, just a touch of it.

Beyond the Wall is a ghost story set in San Francisco during a cold winter night.

The night of my visit to him was stormy. The Californian winter was on, and the incessant rain plashed in the deserted streets, or, lifted by irregular gusts of wind, was hurled against the houses with incredible fury.

An Adventure at Brownville is an atmospherical exploration of the mind’s faculties. It is a beautiful story with great descriptions.

As I leaned wearily against a branch of the gnarled old trunk the twilight deepened in the somber woods and the faint new moon began casting visible shadows and gliding the leaves of the trees with a tender but ghostly light.

The Damned Thing is the story that reminded me the most of Maupassant. It is a very subtle horror story in which two men go hunting.

One of the Missing is the longest story in the collection. It is a tragic story of the Civil War in which a soldier of General Sherman’s army is sent on a dangerous mission.

The Stranger is a ghost story in form of a Western. A party of men camping in the Arizona desert meets a mysterious stranger who tells them an uncanny tale.

If I think of the story of his life and compare its ending to his tales, I think, it is safe to say that Bierce loved mysteries. Maybe he didn’t want to return, maybe he got lost on the way or something occurred that was similar to what happened to the soldier in One of the Missing. One thing is certain, we will never know.

As I said, I enjoyed reading these stories a great deal and since we have autumn-like weather it was quite fitting. I sat on the balcony floor while reading them, it was raining and quite cool. One of the cats was lying on a table, the other one sitting with me under the woolen blanket I had draped around myself. There were a dozen ravens sitting on the huge maples in the back garden flapping their wet wings and cawing.