22 February 2008

Creepy, eerily modern masterpieces of short 19th century horror

Can Such Things Be? Tales of Horror and the Supernatural
Ambrose Bierce
Citadel Press, 1990 (Originally published 1893)

[H]e can and will be read with interest in an age which is getting ready to renounce compromise, kindness, and Christianity. (p.9)

This is as much of Clifton Fadiman's introduction as anyone needs to read. After Fadiman (the embodiment of 1940s patrician intellectual snobbery) slights Bierce for his lack of a formal education, he then dismisses most of his journalistic work as "writing badly, doubtless writing too much." He opines that Bierce's writing is only considered interesting because of Bierce's legend and describes Bierce's nihilism as "brutal and simple as a blow, and by the same token not too convincing" and, "if taken in overdoses, a trifle tedious." Bierce's prose is "old-fashioned," "flawed with the bad taste of the period," and melodramatic.

Fadiman's extensive criticisms may or may not be true about the larger part of Bierce's oeuvre (I have, for example, seen Bierce described online as
"ponderous Victorian melodrama"), but they definitely do not apply to the unsettling stories in this volume. Bierce's meticulous grammar (meticulous from the perspective of my relatively grammatically-impoverished ass, at least) and sentences (so typical of 19th-century American prose) chock full of prepositional phrases took me a story or two until I got into the rhythm of his language and storytelling. Once I did, though, each story read better than the one before. I find it hard to believe that he was mocked during his life by many critics for his rough writing, poor grammar, and lack of an education. If only today's university students could write this well.

Many of the stories struck me as strikingly contemporary, perhaps because irony is so central to his writing. As well, Bierce loves to mix the comic (the absurd?) and the horrific in a way that doesn't come through in other classic horror writers like Poe or Lovecraft. One commentator has noted that his "style and journalistic background gave his stories of war and strange disappearances such an uneasy realism that many mistook them for being true." That this realism is often tempered with a Dickian uncertainty about what is real and what illusory is perhaps why many of these stories are ahead of their time while also being of a piece with it.
The fact is, that of your own sanity you have no evidence that's any better than some lunatic who thinks he's Ulysses S. Grant or Jesus H. Christ. I certainly have no evidence of mine. For all I know you don't exist. Everything around me may be fictions of my disordered imagination. - Ambrose Bierce

This fusion of realism and radical skepticism has earned him the almost-postmodern accolade of "the master of magical cynicism," and this mastery is definitely on display in many, if not all, of Bierce's work in this collection.
  • "One Summer Night" -- A scant story, merely a page and a half, about a man apparently buried alive, revived by grave diggers, and killed by the black spadesman. Chilling in its ruthless efficiency.
  • "The Moonlit Road" -- Prefiguring Kurosawa's Rashomon, Bierce tells the story of a murdered wife and her ghost from three different perspectives (son, husband/killer, wife/ghost).
  • "A Tough Tussle" -- In this account of the horrors of war and the veil between lucidity and lunacy, a Union officer ends up sitting next to a Confederate corpse. When shots are fired, the two end up in a tussle from which neither emerges alive.
  • "A Jug of Sirup" -- A morality play about how to behave in a store run, even after he's been buried, by a model citizen.
  • "Staley Fleming's Hallucination" -- In which a man is killed by a hallucinatory dog, the phantom of the dog of the man whom he murdered.
  • "A Resumed Identity" -- Think The Sixth Sense, or perhaps a less overwrought version of Lovecraft's "The Outsider," except that it was written in the late 1800s. The ghost discovers his lamentable status much to his sorrow.
  • "A Baby Tramp" -- A genuinely heartbreaking story about an orphaned toddler who makes his way across the country to die on his mother's grave. Where was "Bitter Bierce" in this story, unless he was bitter against a God and Natural Order that would permit such horrors?
  • "The Damned Thing" -- Was he killed by a mountain lion? Or was it something stranger? Shades of HP Lovecraft, "The Colour Out of Space."
  • "The Stranger" -- A classic ghost story with a genuinely hair-rising ending.
Magical cynicism indeed. Lots of pointed satire and yet also such spooky stories. Another phrase I like that describes the voice which runs through these collected stories is "courageous despair" (most explicitly expressed in "The Baby Tramp.")
There are voices from the Past that can help us in our travail, and eloquent among them is that of the courageous despair of Ambrose Bierce. Behind all the bitterness and the thunderous nay-saying, one can detect a profound interest in, and fascination with, the human adventure. One of the surest signs of this is the vigour and precision of Bierce's language; he could not have created such excellences out of despair, no matter how vividly that despair served as his subject, for the language of despair is silence. There is a secret joyousness in such hatred, and it's a part of what appeals to me in all that I've read of Ambrose Bierce. -- Jack Matthews

I like that. The publishers should use that as this book's introduction in the next edition.

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