A couple of Ambrose Bierce stories don’t fall neatly in the categories I’ve covered. They are not weird fiction. They are not science fiction. They are not really satires though they attack, by implication, Bierce’s society.
They are, however, extreme examples of the barbs of irony forestalling any specific emotional effect on the reader. Their plots are straightforward enough and full of black humor. It’s their narrators and what Bierce wants us to think of them that are not so straightforward.
Both are murder tales related by murderers.
“A Bottomless Grave” (with Spoilers)
John Brenwalter narrates his story of family violence and corrupt judiciary. His father is sort of a successful inventor. Sort of because he has to spend so much money defending his successful inventions that he doesn’t have much left over.
When John is 19, his father is granted a patent for “the most ingenious, effective and generally meritorious invention” ever seen by the patent office: a device to burst open safes. One wonders, of course, about a society where there’s such a demand for that kind of device, but that’s a minor part of the story.
On the day he gets his patent, John’s father dies unexpectedly:
His sudden death was, therefore, a deep disappointment to him; but my mother, whose piety and resignation to the will of Heaven were conspicuous virtues of her character, was apparently less affected.
John is his mother’s favorite. “To be the favorite child of a good woman is better than gold.” He’s such a favorite that, when he cuts off half the ear of a baby sibling, he is only admonished about surprising his dear mother.
So, when mom tells the kids their dad’s death must be kept secret to stop the Coroner from doing an inquest for which, she tells them, he will get a “large sum of money”, they oblige.
John, for his mother’s sake, is only happy to comply with her request to “go and remove the Coroner”.
John’s murder trial is rather peculiar. His attorney, brother of the murdered Coroner, gets John off by insulting the judge and accusing him of all sorts of crimes. That attorney later disappears.
His mother applies for the right to his late father’s estate claiming he has disappeared. The Probate Court (or, as Bierce calls it, the Crowbait Court) finds the estate’s debts match the royalties from the inventions of John’s father.
Thus, within a few brief months a worthy and respectable family was reduced from prosperity to crime; necessity compelled us to go to work.
The work taken up by the family? Mom opens a
select private school for instruction in the art of changing the spots upon leopard-skin rugs”.
Brother George takes up burglary. Sister Mary sells patent medicine, and John becomes a “gilder of crossbeams upon gibbets”. Younger siblings take up shoplifting.
In our intervals of leisure, we decoyed travelers into our house and buried the bodies in a cellar.
However a disquieting element emerges when the liquor supply in that same cellar starts to mysteriously disappear. Things get so bad that nobody in the family goes into it alone.
One fateful day a dead man appears. Not just any dead man either:
… the figure, the face and bearing of our father — dead these ten months and buried by our own hands.
A macabre stampede follows:
… the extinction of all human sentiment in that tumultuous, mad scramble up the damp and mouldy stairs — slipping, falling, pulling one another down and clambering over one another’s back — the lights extinguished, babes trampled beneath the feet of their strong brothers and hurled backward to death by a mother’s arm … For within an hour we four, hastily gathering together what money and jewels we had and what clothing we could carry, fired the dwelling and fled by its light into the hills. We did not even pause to collect the insurance, and my dear mother said on her death-bed, years afterward in a distant land, that this was the only sin of omission of that lay upon her conscience.
As there so often is in Bierce’s fiction, a gap of years follows. After ten years, John, now a “prosperous forger”, visits the old home. An explanation follows.
He meets his father, not dead at all but just
“taken bad” at his meal (and I think my sainted mother could have thrown some light upon that matter)
and buried alive. However, the grave was just above a “forgotten drain”. He pushes through it to a chamber below which abuts on the family cellar.
Feeling that he was not welcome in his own house, yet having no other, he had lived in subterranean seclusion, a witness to our thrift and a pensioner on our providence. It was he who had eaten our food; it was he who had drunk our wine — he was no better than a thief! … he had left his place of concealment at a strangely inopportune time, entailing the most deplorable consequences upon those nearest and dearest to him — a blunder that had almost the dignity of a crime.
So ends the story. There is obviously some satire directed at a couple of usual Bierce targets — life insurance and the judicial system. But the main puzzle is what we are to make of John.
Is he just stupid? The reader tumbles pretty quickly to his mother having poisoned his father. He seems clueless even ten years later. Yet he is clever enough to be a forger.
Is he a psychopath? Maybe, but the language of familial love is through out the story. He seems not wholly immoral. He is allegedly horrified at how they acted in the cellar stampede. Yet there is that whole thing with cutting a sibling’s ear half off.
Is he insane? Not really. He knows he’s committed criminal acts.
Is Bierce just, in John’s voice, gleefully inverting normal morality? Those final words, mentioning the “dignity of crime” point to that. However, earlier in that paragraph, he says his father “was no better than a thief!”
I think Bierce is presenting a character who is puzzling because he uses the language of love and morality and familial affection in a manner devoid of any consistent or common meaning.
“My Favorite Murder” (with Spoilers)
Familial relations are assaulted in this story too. It opens with
Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years.
Bierce, again, assaults and insults the judicial system. Our unnamed narrator, to prove that his latest murder was committed with “tender forbearance and filial consideration” compared to an earlier one, tells the court about that one.
We get another criminal family. His father runs a “road agency”, i.e. robs stagecoaches. However, after getting religion, he turns the operation over to his brother Will.
Years later, when traveling by stage through his dad’s old area of operation, the narrator is robbed by his uncle’s family. Charitably not revealing their identity to his fellow passengers, he goes back later to get his money refunded. His uncle and cousins deny they were the robbers, and Uncle Will even threatens to start competing with the new business of the narrator’s father. “… I then perceived that it would be better and more satisfactory if he were dead.”
The narrator’s parents approve of the plans to murder Uncle Will. As a precaution, our would-be murder joins the Knights of Murder (a parody of the labor unions Bierce didn’t approve of) to avoid detection. After his probation in the Knights is ended, he gets to look at the order’s roster and sees Uncle Will’s named as “junior vice-chancellor of the order”.
Showing up one day at his Uncle’s Will he asks about his whereabouts from his Aunt Mary and frankly adds he plans on killing her husband. She helpfully tells him where he’s at and hopes the best man will win. “My Aunt Mary was open of the most fair-minded women that I have ever met.”
After clubbing his uncle, the narrator cuts his Achilles’ tendons. Uncle Will only asks that “you carry me to the house and finish me in the bosom of my family.”
After putting him in a sack for easy carry, the narrator sets off. Then he gets an idea.
He ties a rope to the sack and hangs it from a tree and lets Uncle Will be battered to death by his fierce ram. Bierce describes the event in detail. It takes up three of the story’s seven pages.
The story concludes, as does the narrator’s court testimony, with
” … I cannot help thinking that in point of artistic atrocity my murder of Uncle William has seldom been excelled.”
Incidentally, we never do learn what led to the killing of the narrator’s mother.
This narrator seems less complicated than John of “A Bottomless Grave”. He seems more a conventional psychopath who views his criminality as an art form. Still, he leads a more normal life, apart from the murders, than John does. But he seems to have few scraps of familial affection.
And there’s no doubt Bierce intends this as an even more dark burlesque than that story. We even hear how the battering of Uncle Will registers on local seismographs.
I suppose it’s possible that Bierce was making some commentary on criminal hereditability, “bad blood” as they use to say. But I get no real sense of that being a Bierce concern.
Conclusion and Previous Installments in this Series
And that, unless I find something more worth commenting on in the parts of Joshi’s Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs I haven’t read, is it for this series. I do hope to review some Bierce biographies and satires in the future.