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.

20 thoughts on “On Re-Reading Ambrose Bierce

  1. I’ve never actually read any Ambrose Bierce. Perhaps I should give him a try.

    Lucky lucky lucky on the fall weather. We’ve been having a major heat wave here for the past week, lol.

    • I thought he was much better than I remembered him to be and really worth reading.
      Most US bloggers mention the heat these days. Must be quite intense. I’m not complaining about the weather, I love fall, although, a little warmer would be OK as well. It’s quite nippy.

  2. A friend of mine said the weather was in the triple digits in Minnesota last week. I was so shocked I thought only the south got that hot. I guess not 🙂

    I had to read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for school once. I remember being sad at the ending. Now that you mention it, it did sort of feel like an Edgar Allen Poe sort of story. I’ll have to read more of his stories then. Have you read any of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories?

    • Triple digits! I’m suprised as well, I would have expected Texas to get hot but not Minnesota. Our summers can go up to 96° but that’s it. Not this year. the hottest we had so far was 89°.
      “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is really not cheerful. I didn’t see it coming.
      I liked the ghost stories a lot and also think i’d like to read more of his stories.
      I haven’t read anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne so far. I got “The Scarlett Letter” but always thought it might be a bit dull. Did you like the stories?

      • I read “The Scarlett Letter” but I don’t really remember if it was dull. It was one of those books you had to read in school. I always wanted to read his short stories because a girl in my class did her thesis on them and she made them sound really interesting. I’ve only gotten half-way through “The Birth Mark,” but I guess I should finish it now.

        • I’ll keep him in mind and will look for his short stories. I guess “The Scarlett Letter” can’t have been all that boring, usually one does remember those books. At least I do.

      • It is too cold here for the season but I think all in all we are lucky. We had one summer like that in which it was hot from May until August without rain… It’s a once in 100 years thing. It was a nightmare.

  3. Thanks for the post I’d never heard of him before. Perhaps it’s because it is ghost short stories. Unlike you, I’ve only started to read short stories recently. I have plenty of them to discover and the reference to Maupassant is tempting.

    As you live about 3 hours drive from me, I’ll second you on the autumn-like weather. Summer, come back please!!

    • You are welcome. I’m sure you would like Ambrose Bierce. Maupassant has also written “horror” stories. There is a resemblance, more even than to Poe. They still feel very realistic although there is a touchof the supernatural. I’d be curious to read what you think of the comaprison. You can read them all online in the link I attached. The longest was 20 pages, they are quite short.
      I’m a fall person but some warmer weather now would be nice. I don’t want winter to start in August!

  4. I have never heard of Ambrose Bierce, either, but his disappearance is fascinating. I’m a fan of Maupassant, so I might well like him. Thank you for bringing him to my attention!

    • It is quite a story, isn’t it? I think you would also find Carlos Fuentes’ book fascinating.
      As I wrote, I grew up with his stories, they were next to Poe’s and other’s short stories on my mother’s shelves but it was interesting how different we read when we are very young and I was pleased to see that he writes really well. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a story you don’t forget easily.

  5. I love The Devil’s Dictionary (wonder where my copy is?)! An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is my favorite short story. The man was certainly worth a book in his own right.

    • It’s an incredible story. It’s so well written but also the others. I’m in the mood to read more of him. From the reactions I see that he is not very well known outside of the US. I wouldn’t have known him if my mother hadn’t been such an avid short story reader.

  6. There was this short story I read as a child that had a strong effect on me. It was about a man standing on a bridge, waiting to be hanged. The ending had a clever twist that really shocked me at the time, as it made me realise the story had not been quite the kind of straightforward narrative I’d been reading until that point in my life. All these years I remembered the story vividly, without knowing who it was by or what it was called. When I saw that your post was about Ambrose Bierce, I said to myself “Who?” And then with one click I find myself once again reading that story from my childhood about the man on the bridge waiting to be hanged. How funny. I’ll read some of the other stories now – may track down a book rather than using the website, as it seems I have a limited attention span online. Thanks for reconnecting me with a writer I’d never heard of, who nevertheless had a great influence on me!

    • This is so great! I’m really glad I could help you find him because I also have some childhood memories like this and hunt for movies or writers and when I finally find them I’m always very glad.
      I’m suprised that, like me, you read him as a child. Re-reading him I think it isn’t really a writer for children.
      I have a book but there are only a few stories in it and I want to read some more.
      My attention span online is also quite limited.

  7. From the way you shared about the stories…they sound like a heavy read. How young are you when you read them?

    When I was young my read was according to my age. Comic book, Manga (which I still love till this day), and teenager books such as The Three Detective and Goosebumps. I started reading ‘heavy’ books in late high school.

    Those shorts worth reading in my opinion, I will copy and save them my pc till I am ready to read them. Thank you for the link, Caroline.

    • You are welcome. My parents had a lot of books. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted as they had no books that were ” for grown-ups only” … I thinkI didn’t get the full meaning when I was little and I loved ghost stories even more than now. I really think you might like them. His stories can be divided in ghost and civil war stories.

  8. I read Bierce in school, too, many years ago! I remember An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge–I like reading short stories, too, and have been reading more of them lately.

    • They are great choices for Carl’s R.I.P. I will read more of them later in the year. I love short stories and would like to read the collections you are reading right now. They sound wonderful.

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