Ambrose Bierce: The Man and His Demons
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
Published: October 28, 2011
The definition of “ghost, n” in Ambrose Bierce’s puckish “Devil’s Dictionary” is “the outward and visible sign of an inward fear,” and although Bierce was not an entirely reliable lexicographer, his authority on this subject is beyond question. He knew more than any man should about both inward fears and their outward and visible signs. And he was at least arguably the most powerful American writer of horror fiction between Poe and Lovecraft. (Henry James’s supernatural tales are in a class by themselves.) In his career Bierce wrote more than 40 spooky stories, most of them about ghosts, along with a fair number of short narratives — some true, some fanciful — about the horrors of war. All his tales, both the ones about soldiers and the ones about the haunted and the haunting, are steeped in loneliness and dread, which he evokes with the precision of someone familiar with their every nuance. A fat new Library of America volume, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, and Memoirs ($35), collects the best of his work, and almost every page has something to give you the chills, though not always, perhaps, in the way the author intended.
Illustration by Jon McNaught
Bierce enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, a week after the Civil War began. He was not quite 19 years old, and wound up serving for four years, during which he saw action at the notably bloody battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga. The stories he wrote about the conflict form the larger, and more interesting, part of his first collection, “Tales of Soldiers and Civilians,” which was published in 1892. (It was later retitled “In the Midst of Life” and somewhat rearranged for his “Collected Works” in 1909; that’s the text that S. T. Joshi, who edited this volume for the Library of America, uses here.)
The experience of battle clearly had a profound impression on Bierce; he continued writing about it for the rest of his life. But the way he wrote about war was, characteristically, peculiar. In story after story, he begins with minutely detailed descriptions of the hostile landscapes his soldiers — often sentries or scouts — find themselves in: terrain that must be attended to closely, and with sleepless vigilance, for signs of an enemy’s movements. Each of these tales is, in its first couple of pages, marvelous; Bierce is a master of apprehension, always alert to threat. It’s as if every charged moment of his military service were still etched in his memory, persisting as only the most disturbing sensations can. Fear is indelible.
But by the end of these stories, Bierce often seems to have surrendered this valuable territory — his home ground, really — to some other force, an imp of verbal facility that always manages to get the drop on him, no matter how diligently he keeps his watch. Many of these tales end with an O. Henry-like twist, a little flourish of (at best) dramatic irony or (at worst) wild coincidence, which the writer delivers with the practiced flair of a stage illusionist finishing his trick. Bierce was good at literary sleight of hand. His style is dry, precise, elegant, almost dandyish. He turns a phrase beautifully, and knows it. His stories were intended to be read one at a time, in a newspaper or a magazine, and if you came upon one unsuspecting, the deft surprise he springs at the end might appear miraculous. In a collection, though, the magic tends to wear off: you start anticipating the clever reversals, and an expected surprise isn’t a surprise at all.
It’s no wonder that the best known of Bierce’s Civil War tales, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is a kind of ghost story. The hero, a Confederate civilian about to be hanged for attempting to sabotage the bridge, apparently escapes his fate and makes his way home to his family, but the final, curt paragraph reveals that his deliverance, which Bierce has so meticulously and so movingly described, is no more than a dying man’s fantasy. This is the most melancholy of Bierce’s rabbit-out-of-the-hat endings, and it works better than the others because of the sense of the uncanny that it casts, retrospectively, over the tall tale we’ve just read: we had thought we were still in this world, but we were elsewhere, in a no man’s land between the natural and the supernatural. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” this strange country feels like an appropriate, and deserved, refuge from the grim facts of war. Elsewhere, Bierce’s trick endings seem less fully earned. In the more realistic war stories, his ingenuity often feels like a strategic retreat from the field of battle, a last-minute flight from the genuine terrors of the conflict.
In his ghost stories, though, these limitations turn to virtues. If there’s a genre Bierce was born to, it’s horror. He collected his supernatural tales under the title “Can Such Things Be?” — a question whose tone is cunningly ambiguous, hovering between cool skepticism and slack-jawed amazement. And that is exactly the tone of the stories themselves. Lovecraft called Bierce’s horror fiction “grim and savage,” but it isn’t, really. The style of his ghost stories is quiet, detached, oddly companionable. (That is to say, it couldn’t be more different from Lovecraft’s.) He writes as a suave raconteur of the unearthly, with just enough of the ironic in his voice to maintain his distance from appalling events while drawing his readers closer and closer to the inexplicable mysteries at their heart. The opening sentence of “One Summer Night” is typical: “The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince.” Poe and, later, Lovecraft, did horror in ominous, deranging close-ups; Bierce preferred the long and the medium shot, in which the nature of the terrible thing is slightly less distinct, a little harder to make out, and the more awful for it.
Bierce’s ghost stories are all, in a sense, campfire tales, yarns spun in the kind of darkness and solitude where every sound is menacing and, as he writes in “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” “all the finer emotions were swallowed up in fear.” Because he was a man of the West — he lived most of his life in San Francisco — there are actual campfires in some of these stories, in which malevolent specters visit lone prospectors and haunt remote mining camps. But even when the untoward phenomena take place in the city or in another part of the country (as in the brilliant “Moonlit Road,” which is set in Tennessee) or even far out to sea (as in “A Psychological Shipwreck”), the sensation evoked is the same: you feel vaguely rattled, jumpy as a sentry on watch, in the middle of nowhere and the middle of the night.
And Bierce’s penchant for turning the narrative screw finds its rightful home in horror. A ghost story should snap shut firmly, a door shut by an unseen hand: the otherworldly needs that artificial closure, or everything gets swallowed up in fear. Reading this volume, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Bierce himself spent a good deal of his life on the run from that sort of all-enveloping terror — which sometimes required him to run toward it. He lived his last days, as far as anyone knows, in Mexico, where he went in 1913, at the age of 71, to observe and perhaps participate in Pancho Villa’s revolution. (His time there has been movingly imagined by Carlos Fuentes in the 1985 novel “The Old Gringo.”) There was war in Bierce’s youth and war at his end, and writing in between. He vanished in Mexico; no one knows where he’s buried. Alone as ever, and free of fear at last. No need to turn phrases in the grave.