Before I end my discussion of Bierce’s weird stories, I wanted to note a couple resources in case you don’t want to use the two main sources I did: S. T. Joshi’s Ambrose Bierce’s: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs and E. F. Bleiler’s Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce.
The first is the grandly titled The Ambrose Bierce Project. It has online copies of all the works I’ve mentioned though I don’t know if the texts are identical to those in Joshi’s volume which uses Bierce’s last revisions.
While it doesn’t look like that the Ambrose Bierce Project’s webpage has been updated for awhile, Don Swain seems to keep his Bierce page current.
“The Ways of Ghosts”
In his Can Such Things Be?, Bierce has a section, “The Ways of Ghosts”, with four short, fairly unexceptional ghost stories. His introduction to the section is actually more interesting than the stories. He ironically asks the reader “to overlook the absence of explanation” as to where he got them. Of the author, he says “I should rather not undertake to say if he were himself persuaded of the truth of what he relates”. He also accurately says they are free of embellishments of “such small ornaments of diction as I may have felt myself able to bestow”.
“The Famous Gilson Bequest”
The setting is another mining town, and the story starts with Gilson being lynched after the “decent formality of a trial”. The citizens of Mammon Hill have tired of his highway robbery, horse stealing, and stealing gold out of the sluice boxes of miners.
Before he dies, Gilson gives his chief persecutor, Brentshaw, a will. Gilson wills his estate — which turns out to be surprisingly large thus explaining how he seems to have spent way more gambling than he ever panned in gold — to Brentshaw.
There is just one condition. Brentshaw has to defend, for the next five years, that estate from anyone who can prove that it derives from crime. If any person or persons can do that in a court of law, they will get the estate. However, if Brentshaw successfully defends Gilson’s memory against all those charges, he‘ll get the estate.
Bierce has fun showing how Brentshaw mounts all sorts of defense, legal and illegal, to preserve Gilson’s reputation. He puts up a large grave marker proclaiming Gilson’s goodness. He even comes to believe in “the entire blamelessness of the dead Gilson”.
The battle takes its toll on Brentshaw:
Five years of toil, anxiety, and wakefulness had dashed his black locks with streaks and patches of gray, bowed his fine figure, drawn sharp and angular his face, and debased his walk to a doddering shuffle.
On the night of his victory, after torrential rains, he takes a walk in the cemetery where Gilson is buried. Gilson’s monument has fallen flat and the dirt over coffins has washed away, exposing them.
Brentshaw sees the ghost of Gilson, in a parody of his old thefts of gold from others’ sluice boxes, go to other coffins, pan the remains of others out of the water and put them in his own coffin. This “solemn farce enacted by pranking existences that throng the shadows laying along the border of another world” kills Brentshaw in the hour of his triumph.
For me, this is one of Bierce’s most successful efforts at combining satire and the weird and supernatural. “Pranking existence” is a good summation of many of his stories.
“An Adventure at Brownville”
This is something of a collaboration. Bierce says he worked with one of his friends, Miss Ina Lillian Peterson, on it and credits her with “whatever merit it may have”.
It is the story of a male predator but nothing so simple or so common as a vampire or serial killer or con artist.
The narrator’s adventure takes place during a summer vacation at the large Brownville House, a resort of sorts. One evening, around twilight, he takes a walk around the woods. He hears a man and woman arguing:
“I will have no threats; you are powerless, as you very well know. Let things remain as they are or, by God! you shall both suffer for it.”
“What do you mean?” — this was the voice of the woman, a cultivated voice, the voice of a lady. “You would not — murder us.”
Moran, the narrator, deciding that propriety needs to take a back seat to potentially stopping a murder, leaves his place of concealment to confront the man. Bu the man and woman vanish.
The next morning, at breakfast with the other guests, Moran hears a woman whose voice reminds him of the one he heard the night before. But, after her older sister shows up and speaks, the narrator knows it is the latter he heard.
They are the Maynard sisters, Eva and Pauline respectively. In tow is their guardian, Richard Benning. Moran does not care at all for him:
He was apparently of middle age, dark and uncommonly handsome. His attire was faultless, his bearing easy and graceful, the look which he turned upon me open, free, and devoid of any suggestion of rudeness. Nevertheless it affected me with a distinct emotion which on subsequent analysis in memory appeared to be compounded of hatred and dread — I am unwilling to call it fear.
(It actually reminded me of the charming impression that Bierce gave, according to Bleiler, on first meeting.)
Moran also finds Benning’s singing of an aria from “Rigoletto” unnerving. Still, he resolves to learn as much as possible about the three.
After about a month — and after the narrator starts to lose his interest in the whole matter, Pauline dies suddenly one night. Eva accuses Benning, in front of several witnesses, of killing Pauline.
Benning, staring at Eva as she retreats from the room matching every backwards step of hers with a step forward, says she is raving. Moran says “there was nothing of tenderness nor of compassion ” in his gaze.
Officials, however, rule Pauline’s death the natural result of heart disease. About a week after the event, the narrator comes across Benning and Eva. “You will take my life … as you did Pauline’s,” says Eva. She goes on, fatalistically, “I know your intention as well as I know your power, and I ask nothing, only that you finish your work without needless delay and let me be at peace.”
The narrator, with no resistance from Benning, takes Eva away, but she insists he can do nothing to save her.
When pressed for explanation, Eva says she can give none and tells Moran not to meddle:
“Listen,” she interrupted, leaning toward me. “I loved her, yes, god knows! But more than that — beyond all, beyond expression, I love him. You have overheard a secret, but you shall not make use of it to harm him. I shall deny all. Your word against mine — it will be that.
On Eva’s last scheduled day, she and Moran take a walk in the afternoon. As they are enjoying a view from a cliff, Benning comes up to them.
Eva greets him with a sincere “I am so glad you came!”. Benning begins to talk of local flowers. Then he stops talking, fixes a gaze on Eva, and upon her face comes a “dreadful contrast between the smile upon her lips and the terrified expression in her eyes”.
Eva drops dead.
“She is dead — quite dead,” he said coldly. …
“You have doubtless observed, my friend,” he said, “that this was entirely her own act. I did not rise in time to prevent it, and you, not knowing her mental condition — you could not, of course, have suspected.”
His manner maddened me.
“You are as much her assassin .. as if your damnable hands had cut her throat.”
And the story ends with no explanation. A satiric look at women who like bad men? A metaphor for domestic abuse? Simple sadism on Benning’s part? What sorts of things did Benning want to remain as they were? Typically, Bierce gives us a lot of unanswered questions.
And that concludes my look at Bierce’s weird fiction. In future installments, I’ll look at the question of whether Bierce was a proto-Fortean, Bierce’s place in science fiction and his science fiction stories, and a couple of stories I refer to as “grotesqueries”.
Previous Installments in This Series
More Bierce related material at the Bierce page.