Friday, October 19, 2012

Ambrose Bierce (1842-?)-Part 3

GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.

from The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Fritz Leiber, Jr. and the problem of the weird tale. You're probably saying, oh, no, not that again. Bear with me for a moment, then I'll move on. One of the points I had hoped to make in that article is that we will always have ghosts and monsters because we will always have fears. The form taken by our ghosts may change; they keep haunting us nonetheless. You never know when Ambrose Bierce is pulling your leg, but his definition of the word ghost goes along with what Leiber seemed to be saying and what I attempted to say in my essay. (1)


* * * * *

Speaking of fear, less than a decade and a half after Bierce's death--if he indeed bit the dust in Mexico in 1913 or 1914--another author of weird stories began a seminal essay with these words:
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
The author was H.P. Lovecraft and the essay was "Supernatural Horror in Literature." By the time he wrote those words, Lovecraft was well on his way to becoming the most important American writer in the field of horror and fantasy since Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce notwithstanding. I have wondered what influence Bierce may have had on later writers. It seems not to have been very significant, at least in any direct way. But listen to what Lovecraft had to say about him in the course of a very long passage from "Supernatural Horror in Literature": 
Closer to real greatness [than Fitz-James O'Brien] was the eccentric and saturnine journalist Ambrose Bierce. . . . Bierce was a satirist and pamphleteer of note, but the bulk of his artistic reputation must rest upon his grim and savage short stories; a large number of which deal with the Civil War and form the most vivid and realistic expression which that conflict has yet received in fiction. Virtually all of Bierce’s tales are tales of horror; and whilst many of them treat only of the physical and psychological horrors within Nature, a substantial proportion admit the malignly supernatural and form a leading element in America’s fund of weird literature. . . .
Bierce’s work is in general somewhat uneven. Many of the stories are obviously mechanical, and marred by a jaunty and commonplacely artificial style derived from journalistic models; but the grim malevolence stalking through all of them is unmistakable, and several stand out as permanent mountain-peaks of American weird writing. "The Death of Halpin Frayser," called by Frederic Taber Cooper the most fiendishly ghastly tale in the literature of the Anglo-Saxon race, tells of a body skulking by night without a soul in a weird and horribly ensanguined wood, and of a man beset by ancestral memories who met death at the claws of that which had been his fervently loved mother.
There's more, and in writing about Bierce, Lovecraft could almost have been writing about his own works. One story "evokes with singular subtlety yet apparent simplicity a piercing sense of the terror which may reside in the written word." In another, a character "is found crouched in a corner with distorted face, dead of sheer fright at something he has seen. The only clue visible to the discoverers is one having terrible implications." Another tale--"The Spook House"--is "told with a severely homely air of journalistic verisimilitude, [but] conveys terrible hints of shocking mystery." Lovecraft may have been a different kind of writer, but it seems that he gained something by reading Bierce.

In his conclusion on Bierce, Lovecraft wrote:
Bierce seldom realises the atmospheric possibilities of his themes as vividly as Poe; and much of his work contains a certain touch of naiveté, prosaic angularity, or early-American provincialism which contrasts somewhat with the efforts of later horror-masters. Nevertheless the genuineness and artistry of his dark intimations are always unmistakable, so that his greatness is in no danger of eclipse. (2)
Lovecraft created his dreamland fantasies and his tales of the Cthulhu mythos in part by looking at the works of writers who went before him. Lord Dunsany was of course a major influence. But what of the occurrence of proper nouns created by Ambrose Bierce in the work of H.P. Lovecraft? That will have to wait until next time.

To be continued

Notes
(1) Bierce continued his definition of ghost: "There is one insuperable obstacle to a belief in ghosts. A ghost never comes naked: he appears either in a winding-sheet or 'in his habit as he lived.' To believe in him, then, is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power inheres in textile fabrics. Supposing the products of the loom to have this ability, what object would they have in exercising it? And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk abroad without a ghost in it? These be riddles of significance." Bierce lived during the era of spiritualists and had reason to look closely at these questions. It would wait for Dr. Seuss to answer them in "What Was I Scared Of?" in The Sneetches and Other Stories (1961).
(2) Lovecraft criticizes Bierce for his provincialism. One irony here is that Bierce was born and lived the first few years of his life in the same kind of place that Lovecraft set his rural horror stories such as "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Dunwich Horror."


Speaking of Dr. Seuss, if you haven't yet seen Dr.FaustusAU's version of "The Call of Cthulhu" as done by Dr. Seuss, you should do so right now. It's the kind of thing I wish I had done as an artist. You'll find it by clicking here.
Text copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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