A spirit of aggressive disdain runs through his four decades of prose, from his furious assaults in his weekly columns for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle to the acid-in-your-face definitions of The Devil’s Dictionary, the startling violence of his Civil War stories, his Grand Guignol horror yarns, ghost tales, and sci-fi fables.Marx locates one of Bierce’s animating influences in the “slice-and-dice reviewing style of Edgar Allan Poe.” Much like Poe, Bierce was fond of ridicule:
“Ridicule, as I venture to use it myself,” wrote [Bierce] in the Chronicle in 1890, “seems to me to be the most excellent of offensive weapons because it hurts without damaging. No man’s good reputation is permanently impaired by ridicule, yet most men would rather be slandered rather than ridiculed. It is monstrous hard to bear; it lacerates the sensibilities horribly—if artfully done.”Yet, Marx writes, the energy that fueled Bierce’s venomous journalistic efforts generates a different result when he turns to fiction:
His bedeviling ferocity, born of an excess of satiric disdain, is also the key to Bierce’s continuing appeal as a writer. The author’s reputation as a misanthrope obscures how the gauche energy of his allegories are actually their strength: His heavy hand penned wholly original stories that avoid staid moral messages or conventional intimations of the supernatural. The Civil War stories, for instance, are admired for more than just their documentary value: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” with its death’s head japes and narrative somersaults, is considered by critics to be one of the finest “experimental” American stories of the period. . . .
Told in a lean, tongue-in-cheek style, Bierce’s wised-up supernatural and horror stories are head-scratching hybrids, twisted bridges between Poe’s Gothic scarefests and the overripe monster mashes of H. P. Lovecraft.Being called an “imitator of Poe” rankled Bierce. As he wrote a friend in 1909: “If I had left the tragic and supernatural out of my stories I would still have been an 'imitator of Poe,' for they would still have been stories; so what’s the use?” Yet he clearly revered Poe, writing in the essay “Who Are the Great?”: “I should say that the greatest American that we know about, if not George Sterling, was Edgar Allan Poe.” As Arthur M. Miller has written “Having accepted Poe as the leading arbiter and expert in the field of the short story, he wrote after his leadership, and tried to excel him. . . . To Bierce there was only one ‘right’ kind of fiction form, and Poe had invented it.”
In his essay Marx finds the contrast between Bierce and Poe best exemplified in the opening paragraphs of Bierce’s “compact masterpiece, ‘One Summer Night’”:
The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture—flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation—the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.
But dead—no, he was only very, very ill. He had, withal, the invalid's apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon fate that had been allotted to him. No philosopher was he—just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference: the organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So with no particular apprehension for this immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.Premature burial fascinated both writers. Poe famously explored it in “Berenice,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” and “The Premature Burial.” Bierce used it in no less than six of his tales.Yet their approaches to the subject couldn’t be more different, as Marx details:
For Poe, premature burial is a fixation that generates psychological panic once nightmare becomes reality. For Bierce, it is a relaxing experience, an invitation to take a nap. How or why did Henry Armstrong end up in a casket under the ground? Bierce offers no explanation, just proffers a tongue-in-cheek gibe at the threat of oblivion. Henry’s “pathological indifference” to ultimate reality burlesques our fear of death as well as American pragmatism: When six-feet-under, you might as well be reasonable, face facts, and not make a fuss. The best thing is to mark time before the end comes, somewhat behind schedule.This appreciation for Bierce’s somewhat relaxed attitude toward death leads Marx to speculate on whether Bierce’s mysterious death may have been a form of “performance art”:
Even the mystery of the author’s death may have been the capstone of a life dedicated to ridicule. According to biographer [Roy Morris Jr.], a reasonable case can be made that Bierce’s publicized intention to go down to Mexico to cover Pancho Villa (“To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”) was nothing but an exercise in fatalistic performance art, a dodge concocted to cover up the writer’s plan to commit suicide in a place where his body would never be found: Death Valley. Bierce may have plotted his demise as his final grisly farce, driving the credulous fools to distraction one last time.Also of interest:
- Previous Reader’s Almanac posts on Ambrose Bierce: S. T. Joshi on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War; Celebrate the centennial year of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary; Silence as a weapon: the two most embarrassing speeches Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce ever gave
- Story of the Week selections by Ambrose Bierce: “The Eyes of the Panther,” “A Horesman in the Sky,” “The Moonlit Road”
- Read the exclusive LOA interview with S. T. Joshi on Ambrose Bierce