by Ambrose Bierce
292 pages, Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural
Review by Pat Black
Ambrose Bierce has to be one of my favourite literary wallopers. A great writer of uncanny fiction, the former Union soldier turned journalist seemed to have a life filled with oddness and macabre coincidences. This all culminated in a bizarre ending to his recorded life in keeping with his fictional contrivances – as well as his sense of humour, which was black as tar at two in the morning.
Bierce is probably best known for “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, and that widely-anthologised chiller serves as a taster for much of what is to come in Terror by Night. This story follows a US civil war soldier who is about to be hanged for plotting to blow up a bridge. There then follows a miraculous escape from the noose, and the soldier goes on the run. A happy ending seems to unfold for the man on the scaffold, but all is not as it seems. Don’t expect too many happy endings in this book.
That story hinges on an uncanny twist, and also an odd time structure. These, too, would crop up throughout Bierce’s work. “The Moonlit Road” has a similarly disjointed feel, jumping between different narrators, and yet coming no closer to the facts of an apparent case of domestic murder. Bierce, who came from a family of 13 children, all of whom were given names starting with the letter “A”, has a somewhat bleak view of family life. His opening line in “An Imperfect Conflagration” sums his attitude up: “Early in 1872 I murdered my father – an act that made a deep impression on me at the time.”
Fathers never come off particularly well in these stories – “The Thing at Nolan”, which sees an uncanny apparition following one man’s death, apparently at the hands of his vengeful son, is a perfect illustration of this. Wives rarely escape Bierce’s bitterness, either – “An Adventure at Brownville” sees a cuckolded husband taking a weird revenge on his spouse. It’s a good fit for Bierce, who divorced his own wife after finding “compromising letters” from another man in her possession.
Many of Bierce’s tales look at the inexplicable. People looking for easy explanations will be left frustrated by the likes of “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, which examines the facts surrounding a young man’s disappearance, without the merest hint of a plausible resolution in its two pages. It’s worth remembering that X Files/Twilight Zone-style twist stories were a good 60 and more years away. Ironically, my favourite story in the book is “The Damned Thing”, which actually does go on to explain its monstrous antagonist in a very scientific way, and is more in keeping with the style of HG Wells.
Bierce’s humour was of the blackest variety. The author of the sardonic lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce had a smirk in reserve for just about anything (His definition of Love: “A temporary insanity curable by marriage”). This is most evident even in otherwise grim stories, such as “A Holy Terror”, where he dares to squeeze a laugh out of a woman whose face has been scarred by a lover.
Bierce’s life was punctuated by tragedy and horror. He was a hostile participant in the civil war, sustaining serious head injuries during one engagement. He knew that in warfare, one’s fate was often a matter of atrocious luck. His experiences in uniform inform many of his grimmer stories, particularly “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch” and “The Mocking-Bird”. Again, ugly coincidences and uncanny apparitions play their part in soldiers’ experiences – the world of unknown terrors granting a lacquer finish to the more earthly horrors of cannonades and gunpowder.
The greatest mystery of all is reserved for Bierce’s passing, probably in 1913, probably somewhere in Mexico, after he decided to travel there for a bit of action and adventure. You suspect he found it – or it found him. His fate, and the location of his body, remains a mystery. The shade of Bierce would undoubtedly have a chuckle at that.
This book is not easy reading, despite many of the stories being only a handful of pages long at most (and in some cases two pages or less). The view of humanity is almost impenetrably bleak and cynical; for this reason, Bierce is a unique voice, Mark Twain’s sardonic doppelganger when it comes to recording American life in the late 19th century. This makes it an essential purchase for lovers of dark fiction.
A wee word about the cover, though: minging. My edition bears a representation of a Mexican mummy, “disturbingly well preserved”, at a museum in Guanajuato. If it was meant to induce people to turn the book face-down on the bedside table, then… mission accomplished. Urgh.