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”