Reading Bitter Bierce: The Lovecraft Connection

As explained in a Terence E. Hanley posting on Bierce, Bierce’s influence on H. P. Lovecraft seems to be by way of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow.

Specifically, two Bierce stories are explicitly referenced to in the Chambers book: “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and “Haita the Shepard”.

Both these stories deviate from Bierce’s usual style described, in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, as “obviously mechanical, and marred by a jaunty and commonplacely artificial style derived from journalistic models”. E. F. Bleiler, in his introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, says there is some merit in the description of Bierce’s stories as “too contrived, mechanical and artificial to be effective” though he does think they have other merits.Bierce LOA

Being more removed from the journalism of the 19th century than Lovecraft, I can’t comment on the standard journalistic matters of the time. I would say that most of Bierce’s horror stories are journalistic in the sense that they specify dates and locations. What Lovecraft calls jaunty and artificial seems to me more Bierce’s wit and cynicism requiring sentences that only seem jaunty on the surface but snag the reader with irony. Bierce is not an anodyne author one reads quickly.

Journalistic specificity is not the case with the two stories that Chambers used. Both are set in vague times and place. Continue reading “Reading Bitter Bierce: The Lovecraft Connection”

Reading Bitter Bierce: An Intermission

My next posting on Bitter Bierce will talk about his influence, actually limited to a few tales, on H. P. Lovecraft.

But I don’t have time to write that post today so let me give you some background via a new discovery of mine, Terence E. Hanley’s Tellers of Weird Tales website.

Part 4 of his series on Bierce gives you most of the background I was going to give — and more. And he has pictures.

In a future posting, I will cover the specific plots of the Bierce stories he mentions and one other possible literary technique that came to from Bierce via Robert W. Chambers.

Previous Installments in This Series

Reading Bitter Bierce

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 2

Reading Bitter Bierce: Life After the Civil War

Reading Bitter Bierce: Life After the Civil War

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After mustering out of the Union Army in 1865, Ambrose Bierce took a job as a US Treasury Agent charged with collecting “captured and abandoned property”.

He wrote about the experience in his autobiographical essay “‘Way Down in Alabam'”. I found this a very entertaining essay partly because I’ve done some time in the tax collecting business myself, though never with as much danger as Bierce faced, and partly because it fleshes out that time covered under the generic heading “Reconstruction” in American history books. Continue reading “Reading Bitter Bierce: Life After the Civil War”

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 2

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“Killed at Recasa” (with Spoilers)

S. T. Joshi, in an interview regarding his Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirsclaims that all his work — essays, poems, journalism, and fiction — was written “under the satirical impulse”.

The target of this story is the cult of bravery under fire, specifically bravery to impress a woman. Continue reading “Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 2”

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1

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Like Edgar Allan Poe, Bierce was most appreciated in his lifetime by the United States Army.

The American Civil War gave Bierce the chance to escape what his family represented: “religion, morality, thrift, and responsibility” as E. F. Bleiler put it. He signed up a week after the beginning of the war. His courage, intelligence, and decisiveness stood him in good stead. Entering a private, he left in 1865 as a captain. The paperwork, though, mistakenly said “Major Bierce” and that was the title he insisted others use the rest of his life.

He saw a lot of action at the Battles of Shiloh, Stones River, Missionary Ridge, and Kennesaw Mountain. It was at the last, in 1864, he was shot, his head, as he put it, “broken like a walnut”. It was that wound which his older brother, Albert (all 13 of the Bierce children had names beginning with “A”), blamed for changing Ambrose’s personality. Albert may have been the sibling closest to Ambrose but that didn’t stop him from sending Albert, shortly before he left on his fateful Mexican trip, a letter said to have hastened Albert’s death due to its sheer fury.

Bierce returned to combat three months later, was briefly captured but escaped, and went on to participate in the Battle of Franklin.

For his Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, S. T. Joshi has included several fiction and autobiographical sketches that came out of that war experience.

This isn’t a review of that volume since I didn’t read it cover to cover, so I’ll not cover every story.

Bierce divided his wartime stories into two camps: soldiers and civilians. In an interview about the collection, Joshi says Bierce insisted on that distinction because civilians could never really understand the experience of the soldier.

Of the soldier tales, many regard “What I Saw of Shiloh” as the best, indeed the best thing Bierce ever wrote. In his 1963 introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, E. F. Bleiler states that Bierce’s Civil War stories appealed to the readers of the 1950s and 1960s better than the readers of the 1890s.

Perhaps so, but I will note that Ken Burns’ documentary series The Civil War, probably the most popular history of the war, does not, to my recollection, quote Bierce once in all the memoirs and speeches and letters and newspaper articles it uses. Nor is Bierce listed in Geoffrey C. Ward’s The Civil War, the companion volume to the series. Continue reading “Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1”

Reading Bitter Bierce

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In preparation for attending Arcana 44, a convention on the “dark fantasy”, later this month, I’ve been reading Ambrose Bierce. He will be discussed as “a classic horror writer … Civil War veteran, crusading journalist, and champion cynic.”

I suspect it’s timed to coincide with the approximate centennial of his death. I say approximate because no one is exactly sure when, where, or how Bierce died.

S. T. Joshi’s chronology of Bierce’s life in Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs says the last word from Bierce was a December 26, 2013 letter from Chihuahua, Mexico that concluded, “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” It was perhaps that line that led Joe Nickell in Ambrose Bierce Is Missing: And Other Historical Mysteries to speculate the 71 year-old Bierce staged his disappearance with a suicide somewhere around the Grand Canyon. Mysterious disappearances, we will see, were an artistic concern of Bierce.

E. F. Bleiler’s long and useful introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce cites other possibilities: death in a battle of the Mexican Revolution or execution after insulting Pancho Villa. (Bleiler, incidentally, was an important early scholar of early science fiction and weird fiction. He read thousands of books and wrote short summaries and critiques of them. In his capacity as editor at Dover Books, he helped bring out cheap editions of old and obscure works.)

That collector of oddities, Charles Fort, mentioned him more than once, but perhaps his most idiosyncratic, most Fortean mention was in 1932’s Wild Talents:

Before I looked into the case of Ambrose Small, I was attracted to it by another seeming coincidence. That there could be any meaning in it seemed so preposterous that, as influenced by much experience, I gave it serious thought. About six years before the disappearance of Ambrose Small, Ambrose Bierce had disappeared. Newspapers all over the world had made much of the mystery of Ambrose Bierce. But what could the disappearance of one Ambrose, in Texas, have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose, in Canada? Was somebody collecting Ambroses? There was in these questions an appearance of childishness that attracted my respectful attention.

But I’m not going to talk about Bierce’s disappearance. Continue reading “Reading Bitter Bierce”

Bookending Purdom, or the Tom Purdom Project, Part 5

If I can not live like a man, I shall die like a man.”

At least that’s my version of Juan Belmonte’s final words. The famed bullfighter, suffering from the effects of multiple injuries in the ring, heart disease, and lung cancer, mounted his favorite horse one last time and rode back to his estate for a rendezvous with a handful of cigars, two bottles of wine, and a couple of hookers.

I’m not a bullfighting fan and only really know what little I do about Belmonte by coming across his Wikipedia entry. However, I thought of him when reading Tom Purdom’s first published story, “Grieve for a Man”.

Looking at “Grieve for a Man” (with Spoilers)

Purdom’s story is about bullfighting, and its hero, matador Don Julian Artego, does say, near the climax, “I will show you what it is to see a man die.” However, Belmonte’s suicide was almost five years in the future when Purdom’s story was published in 1957. (You can read the entire story at Purdom’s website.) And, 57 years later, Purdom is still publishing, and that’s the occasion for looking at his first and most recent stories.

In the section of his biography talking about the story, Purdom evokes Belmonte as a symbol of his writing career, from then to now:

A young matador has just killed his first bull. He thinks of the future, of the possibility he will someday join the greats like Manolete and Belmonte. Then he finishes: “To know that you are good enough to be in the ring\For me, for now, that is enough.”

Purdom said be based the plot on the American folk story of John Henry. Artego, an aging matador, has to compete for the crowd’s attention in a world where robot matadors now exist. Artego is aghast that there could be any competition, any comparison between a flesh-and-blood matador facing death and a machine facing destruction. How could people not be interested in seeing “a man tempt death”?

But a younger matador, who has reconciled himself to the changing times, advises Artego that the crowd fears and is moved by a robot matador’s death because it is “the creation of a man’s mind. Isn’t it moving to see such a creation face destruction?”

Artego, for the sake of his art, comes out of a three year retirement for a match with a robot matador. In front of a crowd, the arena split in half via a force field, the matadors, one man and one machine, will face a bull to see who can move the crowd. Even the President, of Spain presumably, will attend the match.

Like John Henry, Artego dies in his duel. But, unlike John Henry, he doesn’t even get the satisfaction of victory. Only one old man in the crowd cheers his efforts. Even the sight of Artego’s blood does not move the crowd. In the end, Artego turns his back on the bull, waits for it to charge him. “‘I will show you,” he said, “what it is to see a man die.'”

But the crowd still isn’t paying attention, and this short, dialogue-heavy story ends as a dying Artego realizes it is not his death the crowd is concerned with: “They were watching the twisted pile of metal at the other end of the plaza. And their faces were bloodless from shock.”

The “Automation” entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes that “The grimmer imagery of the automated future became more extensive in the 1950s.” That was shown particularly in various stories of professions being rendered obsolete. So, this story fits in with the general temper of 1950s’ sf.

However, the fear that technology will render our skills, our personality, and our bodies obsolete, that we might have to upgrade each to retain our economic viability and social status is a notion Purdom has explored several times.

In “Romance in Extended Time” the Casanova-like figure of Joseph Louis Baske loves a woman who is gloomy because, while genetically engineered to be the best possible, she is already “an imbecile by comparison” with younger humans. Where Artego seeks solace in making a statement by his death, the woman is told by Baske that she can’t be replaced in his heart, that the generation after her can’t live her life for her. Not a very comforting argument especially when considering the necessity of earning a living.

The hero of Purdom’s “Canary Land” tries to upgrade himself with implanted skills but that only insures he can do what the future considers unskilled labor just like his fellow immigrants. Purdom’s point here is that even trying to accommodate the demands and fads of the future does not guarantee success.

The general idea of bullfighting doesn’t seem to get talked about much these days. Even in the early 1970s, I can remember my sister reading some biography of a bullfighter. Now no one really talks about it or Hemmingway.

I suspect the influence of Hemmingway on science fiction writers has waned and is most strong on those who were at an impressionable age to imprint on him as a new literary phenomena. Joe Haldeman (b. 1943) is a noted Hemmingway fan. Purdom (b.1936) has expressed his admiration of Hemmingway who, of course, wrote about bullfighting. Another writer influenced by Hemmingway was Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). With 1967’s “Auto-da-Fe”, Zelazny also did a sort of bullfighting story but with a “mechador”.

Looking at “Bogdavi’s Dream” (with Spoilers)

Purdom’s latest story, “Bogdavi’s Dream”, is in the September 2014 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

I have no plans to start reviewing magazines, but I will make an exception for certain authors, and Purdom is one.

The novella is a sequel to Purdom’s The Tree Lord of Imeten. You don’t have to read the novel to appreciate this story. I didn’t — though I would have if I had started to reorganize my library earlier. I was about to order the novel when I found out I owned it already. I hope to cover it in a future review.

For all I know, the story might have started out titled The Conquistadors of Imeten. That was the title of a sequel to The Tree Lord of Imeten that Purdom actually wrote. He talks about the writing of both works in his biography.

The story involves a coalition of two alien races and some humans mounting a military expedition. The alien races are the Warriors, a tree-dwelling race of aliens and former enslavers of another alien race, the itiji, which Harold, an exile from the sole human settlement on Delta Pavonis II, forced the Warriors to recognize as equals. Joanne, Leza, and Harold fled the new regime that took over the human settlement on the planet and killed Harold’s father.

Now Emile, leader of that coup, has incited another tribe, the Drovil, against the Warriors and burned their home. A somewhat autistic itiji, Golva, has concocted a plan. Using their individual capabilities, the three races are to scale the plateau the small human settlement is on and depose Emile.

The attack is ultimately successful, but Purdom shows he can keep a lot of balls in the air. There is the alien biology and culture of Delta Pavonis II’s two native races, though, of course, that was mostly worked out in the 1966 novel.

There’s the mildly comic interspecies infatuation the titular Bogdavi has for Leza and the much more serious problems of the three groups co-operating to make the attack successful.

Purdom has an interest in military history so he might have had a model in mind for the assault. I thought of General Wolfe’s assault on Quebec during the French and Indian War, but the parallel, operationally and typographically, is far from exact.

Harold is the leader of the attack, a figure who has done much killing and has an interest in military history. But the story’s climax has Leza supplanting him in a sense.

The combat on the plateau, involving small groups and with the three dimensional element of antigrav floaters, is well plotted and thought out in terms of time, space, angles, weapon potential, and effective ranges. This is an example of combat in Purdom’s stories that owes a lot to his interest in wargames and makes the physical conflict in his “The Mists of Time” and “The Path of the Transgressor” so engrossing. Wargamers of a certain age might be reminded of a Steve Jackson microgame like G.E.V. or Ogre.

But, I think, there is something of a comment on contemporary history too for the story contemplates the dilemnas of “regime change”. Leza and Harold disagree as to how many collateral casualties are acceptable to get rid of Emile and his confederates.

Ultimately, they disagree on Emile’s fate after the attack succeeds. Harold, tired of killing, wants to let Emile just flee into exile. Leza, afraid of Emile using a weapons cache and the Drovils to cause trouble, kills him as he lies wounded. Harold may be the hero “sick of violence” and “burned up [of] all the emotions that drive warriors and soldiers” but Leza, the biologist, thrown into a violent situation, turns out to have the ruthlessness and acumen needed where Harold doesn’t.

The humans on Delta Pavonis II are a small group. There is some debate about the motives of Emile. Does he foresee a day when their imported and not to be replenished technology will fail and humans will need to enslave the itiji? Or do he and his henchman just like frightening people, the thrill of being a tyrant? I was reminded of the small scale struggles of the future humans in Purdom’s “Fossil Games”.

Purdom has said The Treelord of Imeten is one of his most remembered novels, so fans of that should like this novella. While I wouldn’t say this is top-drawer Purdom, it’s still skillfully done and worthwhile. My enthusiasm was perhaps muted because of the heavy presence of aliens, not my predominate interest in science fiction. Also, I have become very fond of Purdom contemplating futures where human personality and skills become economic commodities capable of upgrade and quantification, the power of the Information Age fully applied to human body and cultures. That element was lacking here.

And I’m glad to know that more Purdom is still in the pipeline for future publication

Earlier installments in this series:

Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons

The Tom Purdom Project, Part 2

Five Against Arlane, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 3

“A War of Passion”, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 4


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.