Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Ambrose Bierce (1842-?)-Part 2

Ambrose Bierce was born on June 24, 1842, along Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio. I have been along that creek, named for its large shelter caves, presumably big enough to stable a horse. If there was ever a single place called Horse Cave Creek, "a religious settlement" as one source says, it's long gone. In short, the exact place of Bierce's birth is unknown.

Bierce's middle name was Gwinett or Gwinnett. I wonder if he could have been related to Button Gwinnett of American Revolution fame. His descent from fame on his mother's side is sure, for she came from William Bradford. By the way, all of Bierce's brothers and sisters bore names beginning with the letter A. In the romances of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the letter A was scarlet.

As a child Bierce moved from the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio to the lake country of northern Indiana. Before age twenty, he enlisted in an Indiana infantry regiment and went to war. Bierce fought at the battle of Shiloh and was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain. Discharged in January 1865, he traveled across the country the following year in a military expedition, finally arriving in San Francisco. There he would find his success as a writer.

From the 1860s onward, Ambrose Bierce wrote editorials, criticism, journalistic pieces, short stories, poems, fables, and satire, including the definitions compiled in The Devil's Dictionary (1911). Most if not all of the work Bierce produced during those many decades is available on the Internet. There are also numerous websites devoted exclusively to him and his work. Some of them are very good. Others are curiously lacking.

In 1913, at age seventy-one, Bierce traveled to Mexico and in one way or another became involved in Pancho Villa's revolution, as a journalist or an observer. And that was the last anyone ever heard of Ambrose Bierce. He disappeared, perhaps in late 1913 or in 1914. No one knows where, when, or under what circumstances he met his end.

* * *

In my research for this posting, I looked at a website called The Ambrose Bierce Project. The author's works are listed there by categories and in columns. The column listing Bierce's horror stories is--surprisingly--longer than his list of Civil War stories and other war writings. (It's also longer than his list of tall tales.) There are forty-five titles all together, and though they're called horror stories, they include science fiction and other kinds of fantastic fiction. Some are well known: "Moxon's Master," "The Damned Thing," "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot." That list makes me wonder if any American writer of equal stature (or any American writer at all) between the time of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft wrote more tales of mystery and imagination than Ambrose Bierce. It also makes me wonder why Weird Tales didn't avail itself of more of his stories. It seems to me that the editor, Farnsworth Wright, a Californian and a fan of fantasy fiction from early on, would have known of Bierce's work. (I even wonder if the two could have met.) In any case, Bierce must have been an influence on younger writers, men who made up the first generation of American authors of science fiction and fantasy. But I haven't found much evidence of that. In fact, Bierce--whom every student of American literature knows--it curiously absent from many sources, and where you find him, there is often only a little said of him. Here's an example from L. Sprague de Camp's Science-Fiction Handbook (1953):
He wrote a large number of short horror-stories, supernatural and otherwise. These are of uneven quality, usually vigorous, but often marked by a crudity and extravagance reminiscent of the original Gothic outburst.
And that's about it. Sam Moskowitz seems to have skipped over Bierce. So did David Kyle, Sam Lundwall, and Brian Ash in their studies of science fiction. James Gunn was only a little more generous. And it's almost impossible to find an illustration for Bierce's fantasy fiction from before recent years.

Before moving on to part three of this article, I should point out that The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests reading Everett F. Bleiler's collection, Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, from 1964. At last, someone had the good sense to issue Bierce's work in a popular format. I should also point out that Vincent Starrett, a teller of weird tales, wrote a biography entitled simply Ambrose Bierce and published in 1969.

Ambrose Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio. In 2003, the state put in place a historical marker in observance of that fact. The marker is located along State Route 7, not far from Horse Cave Creek.
Illustrations for Ambrose Bierce's stories are hard to find. Here's a cover illustration for his Fantastic Fables (1898 or 1899). I don't know whether this is the original edition or a later edition, nor do I know the name of the artist.
Bierce's most popular and well known work is probably The Devil's Dictionary. Here's a French edition with an introduction by Jean Cocteau and a Picasso-like cover illustration.  
The Devil's Dictionary has also been translated into German. 
And into an abbreviated version issued by Peter Pauper Press.
Bierce's stories have shown up here and there in the popular press, but never with any regularity. The Magazine of  Horror reprinted his "One Summer Night" in its February 1964 issue. Most of the other authors listed on the cover also appeared in Weird Tales.
Ballantine Books issued The Frankenstein Reader in 1962. It included "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot" by Bierce and numerous other stories by tellers of weird tales. The cover is by Richard Powers.
Finally, a more recent edition (1977) of Bierce's stories and fables, selected by Edward Wagenknecht and illustrated by the enigmatic Ferebe Streett (or Street).

Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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