I knew nothing about Ambrose Bierce when I plucked this book off the library shelf. I’m always intrigued when I see a title that I’ve not heard of before in a ‘classics’ series. Bierce was a late nineteenth to early twentieth-century American author, and this is a selection of short stories from across his ouevre. (Bierce didn’t write any novels. In his Devil’s dictionary, he dismissively defined the novel as ‘a short story padded’. I love novels, but this made me smile. It’s a typically irreverant Biercism). The stories range from the poignant to the macabre to the ridiculous. Bierce revelled in his characterisation as a cynic and misanthrope during his lifetime and posterity has polished this reputation to a high shine. There is certainly plenty of cynicism on show in his fiction, but I get the impression that like many supposed ‘misanthropes’ Bierce was bitterly disappointed by his fellow humans because he himself had strong ideals and expected better of other people.
The first section is separated into ‘soldier’ and ‘civilian’ stories, with the American Civil War providing the setting for the soldier tales. Bierce fought (on the Union side) and perhaps it made him feel that the world would forever be divided into those who had experienced war and those who had not. Bierce specialises in the way war – especially civil war – artificially sets people against each other. His favourite theme is to pit brother against brother, father against son, close friends facing each other on battlefield. Most of his stories have a twist at the end, and often this involves revealing the depths of emotion hidden behind military demeanour, where following orders and doing your duty can mean struggling against your instincts and killing those you love and admire.
At times the prose is intensely imagined. Bierce is capable of minute detail, such as in ‘One of the missing’, in which a man is trapped under the fallen timbers of a building with the muzzle of his own loaded gun pointing at his head, primed to go off at the slightest movement. Several pages without action or dialogue follow from the point of view of an immobile man sweating with terror and confronting death. At other times the narrative zooms out across the landscape at dizzying speed, as in ‘An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, when a man being hanged on a bridge falls down into the water away from his executioners and is carried downriver towards his wife and home. He experiences a heightened perception of the movement, sounds, and sights of life buzzing all around him:
He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf – saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon-flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat – all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
These stories are not for the squeamish. This is not just the case with the war stories; Bierce is also deliberately horrific in his ‘civilian’ stories. The writer he most made me think of was Chuck Palahniuk, which was not what I was expecting from a nineteenth-century writer. Like Palahniuk, Bierce aimed to shock by pushing his characters way beyond the limits of acceptable behaviour: parenticide and serial killings are common. Several of his tales can be classified as ‘horror’, featuring a (usually terrifying) supernatural element. However, he often offers a scientific or quasi-scientific explanation for the ‘supernatural’ phenomena. I found this aspect intriguing; I suppose it reflects how an intelligent and imaginative person excited by scientific discoveries at the turn of the ninenteenth century would have tried to make sense of the world.
Did I enjoy it? I admit there were moments when I blanched at some of the gorier sections and had to put the book down for a moment to recover from the images Bierce had so vividly implanted in my mind. But I admire his courage. Where others turn their faces away from things they would rather not think about, Bierce confronts life head-on. He’s equally good at describing light-hearted pranks, pettiness, bravery, devotion, injured pride, vanity, betrayal, selfishness, chivalry and cruelty. From the comic to the grotesque, all human life is here.