Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ambrose Bierce (1842-?)-Part 4

Ambrose Bierce was one of a kind. Author of journalistic pieces, war stories, horror stories, nascent science fiction, humor, fables, tall tales, and satire, he is an uncategorizable author. S.T. Joshi has called him "a satiric horror writer--or horrific satirist." "As such," Joshi concludes in The Weird Tale, "he simultaneously founded and closed a genre; he has no successors." I won't go into any theorizing about Bierce's work, but it seems to me that Mr. Joshi's conclusion--"he has no successors"--is true. Maybe that's why Weird Tales reprinted only one of Bierce's short stories ("The Damned Thing") and why there isn't much Bierce in the writing of authors who came after him. August Derleth wanted to be H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft wanted to be Lord Dunsany or Edgar Allan Poe. But has anyone ever wanted to be Ambrose Bierce?

H.P. Lovecraft obviously admired Ambrose Bierce, yet he seemed to have looked elsewhere for inspiration. It's true that Lovecraft used names created by Bierce in his own fiction. However, those names seem to have come to him second hand. As far as I know, through my own limited resources, Bierce created three proper nouns that Lovecraft appropriated for his own stories.* Carcosa, a fantastic city, came from "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (1891) by Ambrose Bierce. Hastur, the name of an entity, is from "Ha├»ta the Shepherd" (1893) by Bierce. Finally, Hali, presumably a person, has his origins in "An Inhabitant of Carcosa." Lovecraft didn't look to the source when he wrote the words Carcosa, Hastur, and Hali into his stories. Instead, he found them in the writings of Robert W. Chambers.

Chambers (1865-1933) came into the world about halfway between Bierce (born 1842) and Lovecraft (born 1890). Initially trained as an artist, he switched to the writing life while in his late twenties. His second book, The King in Yellow (1895), had a profound influence on Lovecraft and his circle, and for good reason. The idea of a text that--when read--drives the reader mad is a weird-fictional idea of the first order. Lovecraft would later put the idea to good use in his fictional grimoire, The Necronomicon. In any case, Chambers adapted Carcosa, Hastur, and Hali to his own purposes: Carcosa remained the name of a city, while Hastur was used ambiguously as the name of a place or an entity, and Hali was transformed into the name of a lake. Lovecraft recycled those same names, using them once or twice in his own writings. August Derleth later developed Hastur more fully.

As I have written before, H.P. Lovecraft seems to have injected verisimilitude into his stories by referring to people, things, dates, and places that either are true or sound like they could be true. If you read a Lovecraft story and come across a name like John Dee or Malleus Maleficarum or Carcosa, you might say to yourself, "I've heard of those names before--maybe they're real." In the first two cases you would be correct. The effect (and presumed intent) of all this was that Lovecraft would lend credence to his tale by referring to sources outside his own oeuvre. (It reminds me of a routine Jay Leno did on Star Trek when he appeared on David Letterman's show sometime in the Precambrian Era.)

The upshot of all this is that H.P. Lovecraft, despite knowing of Ambrose Bierce's weird fiction, borrowed three of Bierce's proper nouns not directly from Bierce himself, but from Robert Chambers, who happened to have borrowed them first.

*Postscript: In reading "H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West" by S.T. Joshi, I have come across another of Bierce's creations borrowed by Lovecraft, courtesy of the essay's author: "Morryster's wild Marvells of Science," from Lovecraft's story "The Festival." (The essay by Mr. Joshi, by the way, is in The Weird Tale, published in 1990.) (Nov. 12, 2012)

Carcosa, Hastur, and Hali--three proper nouns that first appeared in the works of Ambrose Bierce but were made famous by other writers, first Robert W. Chambers, then H.P. Lovecraft. Here's a Spanish-language edition of An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Other Tales of Terror.
"An Inhabitant of Carcosa" also appeared in Magazine of Horror in the magazine's winter issue, 1966-1967.
Text copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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