Ambrose Bierce’s horror and Civil War stories are American literary classics. Learn about the troubled yet adventurous life that inspired them.
In October 1913, an old man returned alone to Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield outside Atlanta, Georgia. Nearly 50 year prior, he fought here as a first lieutenant in the Union army. Now 71, it was miraculous he had escaped that bloody Civil War battle largely intact. He was fit for his age, stood tall and straight, his thick white hair blowing in the cool autumn breeze.
Dressed largely in black, right down to his black walking cane, the old man sat and gazed with piercing blue eyes over the now silent battlefield. He had to conserve his energy. Chronic asthma and that darned bullet fragment still lodged behind his left ear – courtesy of a Confederate sniper – sometimes tired him. And he had a long journey ahead.
Nature had reclaimed this once devastated field, known as Cheatham Hill or the “Dead Angle.” Now it looked like just another Southern pasture. He heard some Union veterans purchased this land after the war as a monument to the fallen. But the old man scoffed at war monuments. His acclaimed short stories on the Civil War practically screamed with the horrors, injustices and futility he witnessed.
But what the old man could no longer see still haunted his thoughts repeatedly. He could hear the deafening cannon and rifle blasts, see his terrified comrades blown apart and bleeding, pale limbs strewn across the blood-soaked grass. Such thoughts generated waves of anxiety he often had trouble controlling, the bullet throbbing in his head like a taunting metronome.
The old man eventually stood to leave. He had visited numerous battlefields on this solo trip. Each time a part of him asked what, exactly, he was doing there. The war was long ago, the dead remained dead, and the world marched on to its next bloody conflict. But he had one more adventure left in him, many miles south of here. The thrill of risky adventure still remained the only balm for his tortured soul.
This was no ordinary old man. He was Ambrose Bierce, one of America’s most influential journalists and authors. Ambrose Bierce’s short stories – surreal horror stories, and ultra-realistic Civil War stories – would inspire and terrify generations of writers, filmmakers and other artists.
But to truly understand the dark universe of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories, one must revisit his turbulent, accomplished and implausibly adventurous life. Fittingly, a life that would end with Ambrose Bierce’s mysterious disappearance, unsolved and much debated to this day.
Table of contents
- Where Was Ambrose Bierce Born?
- Ambrose Bierce And The Civil War
- The Coin Lands On Journalism
- Ambrose Bierce Short Stories
- The Devil’s Dictionary
- Disappearance Of Ambrose Bierce
- Ambrose Bierce In Popular Culture
Where Was Ambrose Bierce Born?
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842 at Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio. His parents, Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, were poor farmers of direct English descent. His ancestors had fled England during the Great Puritan Migration of the 17th century.
Ambrose was the 10th of 13 children – strangely, all with first names starting with the letter “A,” at his father’s insistence.
Bierce’s parents first encouraged him to read, but only had the Bible and a few books on hand. While they helped inspire his future literary career, Bierce actively rebelled against their strict discipline and hellfire religion. As an adult he would become agnostic, writing scathing pieces on ‘“Puritan values” and defining religion itself as:
Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
It was Bierce’s combative, larger-than-life uncle, “General” Lucius Verus Bierce (Marcus’s younger brother), who nudged Bierce down parallel career paths that would later define his life: journalism and the military.
Uncle Lucius was the polar opposite of Bierce’s rigid father. Lucius was at various times an adventurer, state senator and passionate abolitionist. Along with a self-appointed “general” of a ragtag “Patriot Army,” attacking British forces along the Canadian border. Known as the Patriot War (1837-1838), this brief conflict was fought over ideas more than territory, most notably the abolition of slavery. Lucius had once traveled the American South and seen the horrors of slave markets firsthand.
Likely inspired by his uncle, Bierce rejected farm life at age 15. He found work in Indiana as a printer’s devil (or assistant) at a small abolitionist newspaper, the Northern Indianian. Here, he first discovered his talents not only a journalist, but a budding cartoonist.
With the Civil War looming, Lucius sent Ambrose Bierce to the Kentucky Military Institute for training. Shortly thereafter, Bierce answered President Lincoln’s call for volunteers by enlisting in the 9th Indiana Regiment.
Bierce would eventually travel miles from home as a soldier. This would be a mind shattering journey, emotionally and physically, altering the rest of his life.
Ambrose Bierce And The Civil War
According to legend, Bierce had a terrifying nightmare at age 16. He saw his own decomposing corpse, and both God and humanity were dead. This began a lifetime preoccupation with death and suicide that would creep into Ambrose Bierce’s latter day horror and Civil War short stories.
During his military service in the Civil War, Ambrose Bierce would witness violence and gruesome death on a more epic, widescreen scale than he ever could have imagined.
Bierce saw his first military action at the Battle of Philippi (1861), in Western Virginia. He then received newspaper attention for his daring rescue of a wounded comrade at the Battle of Rich Mountain.
At the end of his three month term, Ambrose Bierce reenlisted and was made a “sergeant of volunteers.” For the next three years, Bierce was thrust into some of the most critical battles of the Civil War: Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Chattanooga and, finally, Sherman’s march through Georgia.
In 1863, Bierce joined the staff of General William Babcock Hazen, noted as a tough and fiercely independent high officer. Hazen needed an audacious soldier to serve as a pre-battle scout and draw topographic maps. Hazen considered the adventurous Bierce to be the perfect candidate, promoting him to first lieutenant. Bierce enjoyed the solitary nature of reconnaissance work, with his writing and drawing skills put to full use.
A Brutal Injury
But Ambrose Bierce witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Civil War. The Battle of Shiloh (1862) was a lengthy conflict that horrified him with its carnage and brutality. At the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (1864), a Confederate sniper shot Bierce in the head – a blow that, according to Bierce, “crushed my skull like a broken walnut.” Miraculously the bullet wasn’t fatal, but remained lodged behind his left ear, too dangerous to remove.
After a brief discharge, Bierce returned to distinguished service in Sherman’s army after Atlanta’s capture. When the Civil War ended, Ambrose Bierce continued work for the government with reconstruction efforts in the South. But his brutal head injury had changed him. He suffered blackouts and dizzy spells, along with periods of restlessness, anxiety and traumatic visions (what we might diagnose today as PTSD) that would plague him well into later life.
But Bierce recovered enough that General Hazen enlisted him again, this time to inspect western military forts. Hazen recommended a captaincy for Bierce – important for a man with an uncertain career path. Military life offered Bierce adventure, camaraderie and a sense of belonging, even if he was disenchanted with war. So he rejoined Hazen in Omaha, Nebraska and journeyed via horse-drawn wagon across the Great Plains. Their journey ended in San Francisco, California.
The Coin Lands On Journalism
As their mission ended, Bierce discovered, via dispatch, that the Army had denied Hazen’s capitancy recommendation. Instead, the Army reduced Bierce’s rank to second lieutenant, with no prospect for promotion anytime soon. Dismayed, Bierce literally flipped a coin to decide his fate. Either he would stay with the Army which, despite the insult, still appealed to him. Or the only other career he knew from back in Indiana: journalism.
The coin landed on journalism, a career that would catapult Bierce to fame – and to some, infamy.
Bierce first worked as a night watchman at the San Francisco Mint, writing articles in his off time. Two years later, the San Francisco News Letter, a small financial journal, discovered Bierce. The paper’s owner wished to revive a humor page called “The Town Crier,” spoofing San Francisco politics, people and nearly anything else the columnist fancied.
The Wickedest Man In San Francisco
Bierce took over as editor and chief writer/satirist of “The Town Crier” in 1868. Management gave Bierce a long leash, his columns growing more biting, witty and cynical, with seemingly nothing or nobody off limits. Bierce also reported on local crime, attracted to salacious and dark stories that would establish him as a pioneer of the “true crime” genre.
San Franciscans knew Bierce as an easily offended, short tempered man. He earned the monikers “The Wickedest Man in San Francisco” and “Bitter Bearce,” striking fear and annoyance in numerous high society figures. Despite his reputation, his column boosted newspaper sales.
Having found some success, Bierce married a society girl named Molly Day in 1871. Day’s father bought the couple a trip to London as a wedding present. Bierce hoped to establish himself in the London writers market, and moved there with his new bride from 1872-1875.
England proved to be a prolific writing environment for Bierce. He wrote for the humor magazine Fun while also reprinting his more outlandish “Town Crier” columns in the magazine Figaro. He also wrote three books: Nuggets and Dust (1872), The Fiend’s Delight (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874).
A Troubled Family Life
Despite his notoriety – and now with two young sons, Day (born 1872) and Leigh (born 1875) – Bierce would return to San Francisco with limited prospects. He served as associate editor of The Argonaut primarily for his technical skills. But he was an odd fit with the magazine’s establishment leanings and conservative owner.
When his daughter Helen was born (1875), Bierce left journalism for more steady work. He put his wartime topographical skills to use as General Agent of the Black Hills Placer Mining Company, a gold mining outfit in South Dakota. But the company folded, sending Bierce back to San Francisco in 1881 and another crack at journalism.
Bierce then became editor-in-chief of The Wasp, an established humor and politics magazine. Again given full independence, Bierce, in his column “Prattle,” fired off stinging, satirical columns against lofty politicians, high society types and, notably, railroad tycoons who then enjoyed significant power in San Francisco. These were often accompanied by Bierce’s sharp political cartoons.
But Bierce’s life would take another sharp turn. Now suffering from chronic asthma and likely seeking solitude, Bierce moved away from his family to the northern hill community of St. Helena in Napa Valley (Bierce’s home today is a bed and breakfast). Editing The Wasp remotely, he became estranged from his wife and children. In 1886, Bierce left The Wasp when its more conservative owners deemed him too inflammatory.
Ambrose Bierce and William Randolph Hearst
But Bierce’s infamy would attract yet another aggressive newspaperman, one of the most powerful in American journalism: William Randolph Hearst, then 24 years old. Hearst’s father, wealthy mining tycoon George Hearst, owned The San Francisco Examiner, a smaller scale, political newspaper. Appointed a state senator in 1886, George had turned management of the Examiner over to his persistent son. Williams’s eventual success with the Examiner was the birth of his colossal publishing empire (and the inspiration for Orson Wells’ classic movie Citizen Kane).
Seeking to make a name for himself, Hearst recruited a stable of star writers like Mark Twain and Jack London. But he considered himself a populist, attacking institutions and politicians he deemed corrupt, even if they crossed paths with the family business. He needed an attack dog columnist, unafraid of the rich and powerful – and found one in Ambrose Bierce.
A Thorn In Their Side
Bierce revived his “Prattle” column for the Examiner, once again angering and amusing San Francisco’s readership in equal measure. As with the San Francisco News Letter years before, Bierce’s corrosive wit boosted sales of the Examiner. Bierce’s journalism and impressive short stories made him a renowned San Francisco literary figure (an alleyway behind the former Examiner site was even named after him).
Ambrose Bierce also wrote about his Civil War experiences, and not always positively. Not even celebrated Union general William Tecumseh Sherman escaped his wrath. Ambrose Bierce wrote a scathing personal account of a lesser known Civil War battle: the Battle of Pickett’s Mill, in Georgia. Entitled “The Crime At Pickett’s Mill,” it was a bitter response to Sherman’s recently-published memoirs. Bierce believed Sherman purposely left this embarrassing Union defeat out. He skewered Sherman for poor military planning that needlessly killed his comrades.
Bierce also continued to be a thorn in the side of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, with Hearst’s support. In 1896, the Examiner learned of efforts by railroad executives to influence Congress to excuse low-interest federal loans they received for construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Bierce travelled to Washington, D.C. to expose this backroom deal, which led to defeat of the bill. Hearst would keep Bierce in Washington, D.C. as a national columnist and literary critic, bringing an end to his journalism career.
While Bierce’s writing career flourished, his family life was in shambles. Bierce separated from Molly in 1888, supposedly after discovering love letters from another man. Molly died a year after their official divorce. His two sons also died tragically – one by suicide from a romantic rejection, the other from alcoholism-related pneumonia.
Death always seemed lurking around the corner for Ambrose Bierce.
Ambrose Bierce Short Stories
Ambrose Bierce wrote many of his most popular and influential short stories in a four year creative burst (1888-1891). His 25 Civil War short stories are recognized as some of the strongest, anti-war writings in American literary history. While Ambrose Bierce’s horror stories are considered in the same league as Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
Many of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories are death obsessed. This was, after all, a man who kept a human skull on his desk. Along with a cigar box he said contained human ashes (either a rival critic or one of his dead sons, depending on the interview).
Ambrose Bierce gathered many of his Civil War and horror short stories in his landmark compilation Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). While these stories shared the same general time period of the American Civil War, the “civilian” stories in particular branched out into mythology, ghost stories and fantasy tales. But horror was a constant on both sides, especially the horror of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War memories.
In most Ambrose Bierce short stories, death is the blunt answer to mankind’s absurd attempts to comprehend a meaningless, uncaring universe. Bierce used black humor and psychological horror to mock our hubris and the failed “civilized” societies we’ve created. Bierce is especially known for using twist endings – so common in mass entertainment now but, back then, a disorienting and often cruel way to drive home his wry outlook on life.
Ambrose Bierce Civil War Stories – Case Studies
Although Ambrose Bierce was a loyal soldier, as a writer he had no reservations exposing the follies and horrors of war.
Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War short stories were not blow-by-blow accounts of particular battles. Rather, Bierce’s canvas was the psychological trauma of war, drawing from his own experiences. His stories were brutally realistic and detailed, while also disorienting and supernatural. Bierce manipulates the reader’s viewpoint through often unreliable perspectives, forcing one to straddle the line between fantasy and reality.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Nowhere is the line between fantasy and realism more blurred than in Ambrose Bierce’s classic Civil War story “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” (read it here), a staple of English literature and American history classes for generations.
As the tale begins, Union troops prepare to hang Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy Alabama planter and politician, off Owl Creek Bridge. Bierce tells the story from Farquhar’s perspective, beginning with the agonizing moments before troops drop him from the bridge, noose around his neck. He uses extreme realism, undoubtedly from his knowledge of military procedures, to slowly drag out Farquhar’s final seconds. Bierce spares no details about the bridge itself, the Union stockade, the soldiers and their weapons, the moving water below, and the execution protocols.
Bierce places us into the mind of a condemned man. He absorbs every last detail of life before his is snuffed out. This unbearable tension reaches surreal levels when Farquhar hears a strange, metallic sound he mistakes for a blacksmith’s hammer:
“With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.”Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”
Farquhar reflects back to his plantation life. Due to his status and “circumstances of an imperious nature,” Farquhar avoided military service. But he still longed to contribute to the Confederate cause. One afternoon, a Union spy (dressed as a Confederate soldier) dupes Farquhar into a dangerous mission. The spy tells Farquhar Union troops are repairing the railroads for another attack. And that the railroad bridge over nearby Owl Creek is ripe for sabotage.
Here, Bierce mocks the glorification of war and noble causes which make men, longing for self-worth, do stupid things. Like leaving your comfortable life and loving family to burn a railroad bridge.
Bierce jolts the reader back to reality, as Union soldiers release the execution platform. Farquhar plummets into the river below, then realizes the rope has snapped. We plunge along with Farquhar into the murky depths, feeling his pain as he struggles to free himself. Finally surfacing and disoriented, Farquhar again absorbs every insignificant detail around him, only this time with immense gratitude – the water, the leaves on the trees, and the hum of insects.
Bierce wakes us from this dream as Union troops fire upon Farquhar. Again using realism and weaponry knowledge, Bierce describes in specific detail the guns and cannons trained on Farquhar. Down to the sounds they make, and the smoke they produce. Even Farquhar is impressed with the Union weaponry, thinking after one burst, “that is a good gun.”
We become more disoriented as Farquha spins like a top in the raging currents, gunfire exploding around him. He then washes up on a gravel riverbank. Seemingly safe from harm, he weeps as the familiar surroundings he left behind take on otherworldly significance – and we feel his joy:
“The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Aeolian harps.”Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”
Another burst of gunfire sends Farquhar running into the woods. He finally finds the road to his home, but something seems off. Bierce sends Farquhar into a vivid dreamworld, his surroundings familiar yet eerily altered. The road looks unused, a wall of black trees on either side stretching into the horizon “like a diagram in a lesson in perspective.” Strange voices drift from the woods. Golden stars in strange constellations burn in the sky.
He finally reaches the gate of his plantation home. As he runs to his wife, she “with a smile of ineffable joy,” he feels a blow to the back of his neck, followed by blinding white light. And Ambrose Bierce stuns us with one of the most famous (and imitated) twist endings in American literature:
“Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”
Ambrose Bierce tells his Civil War short story “Chickamauga” from the perspective of a 6-year-old farmboy. Though Bierce named the story after the specific battle he fought in, its Southern setting is ambiguous.
Like a normal child, the boy’s world is one of fantasy and playtime. His head is filled with tales of military bravery and adventure from books and pictures kept by his father, a former soldier (arguably how war is marketed to younger generations, today and in Bierce’s time). With noticeable rancor, Bierce makes clear the child is a descendant of a race of people “born to war and dominion as a heritage” (i.e., white European colonists). The boy builds himself a wooden sword to take into imaginary battle in the surrounding forest, “as became the son of an heroic race.”
While chasing his imaginary enemy into the woods, the boy crosses a wide brook where he suddenly encounters a rabbit. Startled, his pretend bravery vanishes and he runs crying for his mother, but becomes lost. Overcome with exhaustion, he curls up between two rocks and sleeps. The sounds of birds and squirrels above him provide a comforting lullaby, along with “strange, muffled thunder” from partridges “drumming in celebration of nature’s victory over the son of her immemorial enslavers.”
When the boy wakes, Bierce introduces an eerie night time world with mist floating on the water and strange shadows within the trees. Mistaking the shadows for animals, the boy curiously approaches. He then discovers they are not animal shadows but dozens, then hundreds, of men staggering in a zombified daze through the forest. Bierce reveals these are soldiers returning from an awful battle.
At this point, the boy is not frightened – the soldiers’ jerky movements and bloody faces remind him of circus clowns. He even hops onto one crawling soldier to ride him like a horse, as he apparently did with his father’s slaves. But Bierce then gives horrifying details about this wounded man – details Bierce may have witnessed himself in battle:
“The man…turned upon him a face that lacked a lower jaw—from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone. The unnatural prominence of nose, the absence of chin, the fierce eyes, gave this man the appearance of a great bird of prey crimsoned in throat and breast by the blood of its quarry.”Ambrose Bierce, “Chickamauga”
Nevertheless, Bierce still toys with the reader – is the child dreaming, or still fantasizing? The woods suddenly glow with a strange red light of unknown origin. The boy can now see the details in the soldiers’ uniforms, their belongings, and their ashen, pain-stricken faces. But still living in a war fantasy, the boy steps in front to lead them through the forest, wooden sword in hand.
But the red light begins to reveal more details, and Bierce’s realism takes hold, as if slowly waking the reader from a dream. The boy sees “headless” men beside the stream – exhausted soldiers crawling to the edge for a drink, then drowning when they can’t get back up. Countless men and horses tramp the ground into mud. Obviously a battle took place here – but when? And why didn’t the boy hear it?
Ambrose Bierce’s story then reaches its horrifying climax. The red light comes from a dwelling on fire. At first the boy is mesmerized by the destruction. He throws more wood into the fire to keep it burning, including his sword. But then the boy discovers the awful truth that Bierce, like a demented stage director, suddenly reveals in a shocking twist:
“…The entire plantation, with its inclosing forest, seemed to turn as if upon a pivot. His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed. He recognized the blazing building as his own home!”Ambrose Bierce, “Chickamauga”
Not only is the boy’s home burning, but his mother lies murdered on the ground in gruesome fashion. And before the story ends, Bierce provides one more cruel reveal: the child is a deaf mute, barely able to utter crying sounds for his mother. This is why the child slept through the battle – he didn’t hear it. He never heard his parents’ cries as they searched for him. Only the “muffled thunder” of battle he mistook for partridges.
Many scholars believe the boy being a deaf mute is no accident. That Bierce meant to illustrate how desensitized and ignorant we are to the horrors of war. Until we see war up close, as Ambrose Bierce did in his Civil War service.
Ambrose Bierce Horror Stories – Case Studies
Like his Civil War stories, Ambrose Bierce’s horror stories are centered around death. Some are concerned with death rituals and ceremonies, seen through Bierce’s satirical lens. Others are murder stories, harkening back to his “true crime” reporting. Still others are about the afterlife, in Bierce’s world a terrifying and lonely place. And Bierce being Bierce, there are twist endings and shifting perspectives to keep the reader off balance.
Ambrose Bierce wrote 44 horror stories in all, from traditional ghost stories and haunted house tales to folk horror, black humor and a dash of science fiction. Ambrose Bierce’s horror stories would heavily influence future “Weird Fiction” writers (like H.P. Lovecraft) to the present day, especially the stories mentioned below:
An Inhabitant of Carcosa
One of Ambrose Bierce’s most famous horror stories, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (read it here), places the reader into the delirious mind of a lost traveler. We know he comes from the ancient (fictional) city of Carcosa and was deathly sick with fever at one time. Otherwise, who this man is and the strange land he finds himself in are mysteries slowly revealed in this relatively brief tale.
As in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce vividly describes a purgatorial world similar to everyday life, but altered in significant and creepy ways. The traveler walks through a vast, nighttime plain of withered grass, somber rocks and blasted trees. The air is autumn chilly, the sky filled with “low, lead-colored clouds hung like a visible curse.” Though he spots an owl, a lynx and a strange, prehistoric man, the world is eerily silent.
The traveler stumbles across some weather-worn stones within the tree roots and realizes they are tombstones. Some are broken, covered with moss, or buried in the earth. We then discover along with the traveler that a great deal of time has passed. Or is this a world even measurable in everyday time?
Bierce mocks our vanity, erecting monuments and gravestones to ourselves that, in the end, disappear along with memories of our very existence:
“Scattered here and there, more massive blocks showed where some pompous tomb or ambitious monument had once flung its feeble defiance at oblivion.”Ambrose Bierce, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”
The traveler notices one decomposed tombstone, so old a large tree had grown out of the grave and enveloped it. Drawn to the stone, the traveler is able to read the inscription – and it shows his name, along with his birth and death dates. As the sun rises, we realize this man is dead:
“A level shaft of light illuminated the whole side of the tree as I sprang to my feet in terror. The sun was rising in the rosy east. I stood between the tree and this broad red disk — no shadow darkened the trunk!”Ambrose Bierce, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”
Bierce then piles on the twist endings. Sunlight reveals the traveler is standing within the ruins of Carcosa, his long abandoned hometown. Bierce then tells us the man is a spirit, his account “imparted to the medium Bayrolles by the spirit Hoseib Alar Robardin.”
For such a short horror story, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” has been hugely influential to horror and science fiction writers. It was first to mention the ancient city of Carcosa which, along with other themes, names and concepts, would be picked up by author Robert W. Chambers in his horror anthology, The King In Yellow (1895). A series of horror tales revolving around a play by the same name (rumored to drive unsuspecting readers mad), The King In Yellow spawned an entire Carcosa mythos further developed by writers like H.P. Lovecraft. Modern audiences would discover The King In Yellow and the Carcosa Mythos as the central mythology behind season 1 of the HBO series True Detective.
The Boarded Window
Ambrose Bierce’s horror story “The Boarded Window” (read and listen here) describes another death ritual – preparing a body for burial. Whether the body in question is actually dead is the horrifying reveal in this horror tale.
As the story begins in the 1830s, locals find a hermit named Murlock dead in his log cabin, deep in an untamed forest outside Cincinnati, Ohio. His long hair and beard are white, prematurely aged by something other than time. He was once one of the early pioneers, married to a young woman who apparently died years before.
According to the narrator (an unnamed young boy), the cabin fell into ruin and was rumored to be haunted by Murlock’s ghost. Oddly enough, Murlock boarded up the cabin’s only window before his death. The narrator’s grandfather explains why.
We flash back to Murlock’s younger days building the cabin and farm, and marrying “a young woman in all ways worthy of his honest devotion.” Bierce hints the couple were a mismatch, willing to make compromises, “as was the fashion,” to marry – she willing to live the pioneer life, he willing to tame his “venturesome spirit.”
One day Murlock returns from hunting to find his wife delirious with fever. Miles away from any doctor, Murlock attempts to treat her but she dies. He is then left with the “sacred duty” of preparing her body for burial on the dinner table – washing her, brushing her hair and binding her wrists and ankles. He is clumsy and inexperienced, but duty bound.
It is here in the story’s middle where Bierce offers a profound study on the psychology of grief:
“Grief is an artist of powers as various as the instruments upon which he plays his dirges for the dead, evoking from some the sharpest, shrillest notes, from others the low, grave chords that throb recurrent like the slow beating of a distant drum. Some natures it startles; some it stupefies.”Ambrose Bierce, “The Boarded Window”
Murlock has no experience with grief. He exhausts himself not only from the physical labor, but guilt over his conflicting emotions (maybe even relief?). Murlock constantly questions why he can’t, or won’t, cry over her. He eventually falls asleep on the table.
A dark presence in the room startles him awake. Followed by a violent thump against the table that knocks him to the ground. He reaches for his wife’s body but it’s not there. We believe she has come back from the dead, angered by her husband’s lack of remorse.
Murlock finds his shotgun haphazardly in defense. Its flash reveals a giant panther dragging his wife’s body out the window. Murlock loses consciousness until the next day. Daylight reveals his wife’s bloody corpse still by the window, her wrists unbound – and part of the panther’s ear in her mouth. Turns out she had not died yet from her fever.
Some readers believe the boarded window is a metaphor for the wilder, more independent life outside that Murlock actually desires, but was forced to tame via marriage. His boarding up the window was not just to keep animals out, but to soothe his guilt that, nevertheless, tormented him to an early death. One wonders if the restless Bierce saw himself in Murlock, tied down in his own stifling marriage.
The Moonlit Road
“The Moonlit Road’ (read and listen here) is a horror story built around a murder inquiry, perhaps inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s crime reporting days in San Francisco. Of Ambrose Bierce’s many horror stories, “The Moonlit Road” reads like one of his most personal. Along with his well-established fear of a desolate and doomed afterlife, this story also reflects the difficult life and fractured psyche of its author.
“The Moonlit Road” is structured like a police investigation, with three witness statements. But these are very different, often unreliable, narrators – the son of the murder victim, a strange homeless man named Caspar Grattan, and the murder victim herself, speaking through a medium.
Statement number one is from Joel Hetman, Jr., the son of well-to-do parents outside of Nashville, Tennessee. His father is described as a “country gentleman,” his mother a beautiful and accomplished woman “to whom (his father) was passionately attached with what (the son) now knows to have been a jealous and exacting devotion.”
His is the most straightforward account. At age 19, he receives an urgent telegram during his studies at Yale, calling him home. Arriving at the house, he learns his mother has been brutally murdered.
As his father tells it, he left for Nashville on business but finished early and returned that evening. Trying not to awaken his wife, he snuck to the rear of the house. He then spotted a shadowy figure exiting the rear door, who disappeared into the woods. Suspecting one of his servants had a forbidden guest, he searches the house. He then finds his wife strangled to death in her chamber. Authorities never found her murderer.
We then flash forward to father and son walking along a moonlit road toward the house one night – a pivotal location mentioned in all three statements. The father spots something as they near the front gate, freezing in terror. He points at something along the road, imploring his son to see, but he can’t. Then a house servant lights a lamp in the upper window, and the father disappears into the forest. He is never seen again.
Statement number two comes from the mysterious Caspar Grattan. He is writing what appears to be a suicide note from an undisclosed room. His memories come to us in jumbled fragments, some of them untrustworthy. Bierce immerses the reader in the scattered mind of a madman, seemingly disconnected from the central murder story.
Caspar vaguely remembers the last “twenty years of a life of unknown length,” when he emerged from a forest half-naked and hungry. We theorize he might be Joel Hetman, Sr. But he also mentions unformed officers identifying him on a city street as “767.” This generates other shards or memory like “the clang of iron doors.” Whether this man was once (or is currently) in jail or a mental hospital is never answered.
One thing is clear – Caspar has wandered the earth burdened by immense guilt, or as he puts it, “an overmastering sense of crime in punishment of wrong and of terror in punishment of crime.” He then tells a story that sounds familiar to the first witness statement, but with crucial details changed. Like much of his life, he is unsure if it is a memory or a dream. Whatever it is, it cruelly repeats itself in his mind.
In Caspar’s version (and with names withheld), he was once married to a woman he “loved and distrusted.” He devised the trip to the city as a ruse to catch his wife cheating with another man. Sure enough, sneaking back to the house at night he spots a shadowy figure leaving by the rear door. Consumed with rage, he storms into the house and strangles his wife.
We are then back on the moonlit road in Caspar’s second dream. Here, he encounters the ghost of his dead wife, wordlessly acknowledging his mortal sin:
“There is death in the face; there are marks upon the throat. The eyes are fixed on mine with an infinite gravity which is not reproach, nor hate, nor menace, nor anything less terrible than recognition.”Ambrose Bierce, “The Moonlit Road”
With that, Caspar Grattan finishes his note and, we assume, takes his own life. Or is he actually in a jail cell, waiting to be executed? Is he a mentally disturbed outsider, creating his identity around details he heard about the crime? Bierce leaves the reader to decide.
Statement number three is from the murder victim, Julia Hetman. Told through the medium Bayrolles, we can’t be sure if we are actually hearing Julia’s voice, or Bayrolles’ interpretation of the story.
Julia’s account may be the most frightening, but not because of the murder itself. Like Ambrose Bierce’s other horror stories, it describes the afterlife as a place of despair, confusion and torment. Death does not bring Julia the heavenly paradise organized religion promises. Instead, she wanders eternally through a cold, dark and silent inversion of the world she was ripped away from. Unable to warn her loved ones in a language they would understand, she must settle for the crude and imperfect translation of Bayrolles.
In Julia’s story, she sleeps alone in her chamber, her husband away on business. She becomes frightened by a “indefinable sense of peril” never felt before. She hears soft footsteps climbing the stairs toward her chamber door, more hesitant and fearful than threatening. They drift away, only to be followed by heavier, angrier footfalls that shake the house. An unseen figure bursts into her room and violently strangles her to death.
Julia returns to the home as a ghost. Like other spirits, she is damned to a world of eternal night, the moon always overhead. Her futile attempts to reveal herself or communicate with her loved ones are heartbreaking. So when Julia encounters father and son on the same moonlit road. She is suddenly seen by the father, and reacts with unfathomable joy. She had never seen her killer after all – all she wishes is to comfort them.
But from Caspar’s account, we know what the father sees. To her shock, his face turns white, his eyes “those of a hunted animal.” He flees into the woods, while her poor son is oblivious to what is happening. And she then laments the eternal doom that awaits her son:
“Soon he, too, must pass to this Life Invisible and be lost to me forever.”Ambrose Bierce, “The Moonlit Road”
“The Moonlit Road” became the inspiration for Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In The Grove.” Which, in turn, inspired the classic movie that became synonymous with multi-perspective storytelling – Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950).
But “The Moonlit Road” is more than standard Ambrose Bierce horror story sleight-of-hand. Bierce’s own troubled marriage and the death of his sons haunt this tale throughout. Like Joel Hetman, Sr., Bierce had once suspected his wife of infidelity, and it’s hard not to read this into the anger and brutality behind Julia’s killing. At the same time, Ambrose Bierce deeply mourned his ex-wife, who died mere months before this horror story’s publication.
The Devil’s Dictionary
Among Bierce’s most famous books is the oft-quoted The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of satirical definitions of common English words. Originating as a column in The Wasp back in 1881, they were later republished in the compilation The Cynic’s Work Book (1906) – a title Bierce claimed was forced upon him due to the “religious scruples” of The Wasp. It was later renamed The Devil’s Dictionary as part of the 12-volume The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce (1909-1912).
Long before the advent of Twitter, The Devil’s Dictionary delivered concise bursts of Bierce’s cynicism and wit in the guise of a helpful dictionary. Among the many classic definitions include:
|CHURCH, n.||A place where the parson worships God and the women worship the parson.|
|DENTIST, n.||A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.|
|GHOST, n.||The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.|
|LAWYER, n.||One skilled in circumvention of the law.|
|LOTTERY, n.||A tax on people who are bad at math.|
|LOVE, n.||A temporary insanity curable by marriage.|
|TELEPHONE, n.||An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.|
|YEAR, n.||A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.|
Disappearance Of Ambrose Bierce
Like one of his patented trick endings, the life of Ambrose Bierce would come to a shocking yet mysterious end, bedeviling writers, historians and investigators to this day.
In October 1913, Bierce, then 71, left Washington, D.C. on an apparent expedition to Mexico, then one of the world’s most dangerous places. For at that time, the violent Mexican Revolution was tearing the country apart.
Why would an anti-war writer like Bierce willingly plunge into such chaos? Some believe he supported revolutionary general Pancho Villa, answering Villa’s call for “gringos” to join his fight against Mexican president Victoriano Huerta, who came to power in a coup. Others believe Bierce was writing a short story or book, wanting to be in the center of the action. Perhaps the old man just needed one last adventure.
But considering Bierce’s troubled mind, some wonder if it was a death wish. One of Bierce’s last known letters was to his niece Lorna, which included this strange farewell:
“Good-bye—if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”Ambrose Bierce
Along the way, Ambrose Bierce planned to visit the Civil War battlefields where he once fought. He spent a significant amount of time in Shiloh, likely absorbing the horrors that took place there as a young man. He then moved south through Tennessee and Georgia, before arriving in New Orleans for a scheduled interview with a newspaper reporter. During this interview, Bierce confirmed he was headed to Mexico because, as he put it, “I like the game.” The reporter noted Bierce was dressed head-to-toe in black, as if in mourning.
Bierce wrote regular letters to his daughter Helen, secretary Carrie Christiansen and several friends. By November 1913, Bierce had arrived in Texas and eventually crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. He wrote his last known letter to Christiansen from Chihuahua City, Mexico on December 26th, 1913. In it, he said he was leaving the next day for Ojinaga, a “city under siege,” with Pancho Villa’s army.
He was never heard from again.
How Did Ambrose Bierce Die?
The question of where, and how, Ambrose Bierce died is one of literature’s greatest mysteries. Theories range from the plausible to wild archeological adventures worthy of Indiana Jones.
When her father went silent, Helen requested a missing citizen investigation from the U.S. government. Despite repeated inquiries by consular officials, including interviews with Pancho Villa himself, Bierce was never found.
Bierce enthusiasts tend to fall into two camps: those who believe Ambrose Bierce was killed in Mexico, or the trip was an elaborate misdirection worthy of one of his short stories.
Believers in the latter theory point to Bierce’s obsession with suicide. Ambrose Bierce never mentally recovered from the Civil War, not to mention the tragic deaths of his sons and loss of his ex-wife. Before his trip, Bierce relinquished his cemetery plot, telling a friend he had a secret purpose in leaving. Some believe Bierce killed himself in the Grand Canyon (one of his favorite sites) and had the Mexican letters sent to cover his tracks. Others believe he died anonymously in a mental asylum.
But the most plausible explanation is that Bierce met his fate in Mexico. There are, of course, endless theories, the most common being:
- Taking Bierce at his word (his letter to Christiansen), he accompanied Pancho Villa’s army as an observer into the Battle of Ojinaga. Huerta’s Federales killed him in the battle, his body burned with other enemy soldiers. But one of Villa’s biographers claimed Bierce was an active participant, impressing Villa’s soldiers with his marksmanship – and being awarded a sombrero.
- Pancho Villa ordered Bierce’s execution, either because he suspected Bierce was a Federale spy, or Bierce had insulted him one drunken evening.
- Federal soldiers executed Bierce in Sierra Mojada, a small mining town nearly 300 miles southeast of Chihuahua City (in the opposite direction of Ojinaga). Why he would travel to such a desolate outpost is debatable. But local memories of a famous “gringo” publicly executed by firing squad were so vivid that the local priest erected a gravestone over Bierce’s presumed burial spot – the only such marker for Ambrose Bierce in existence.
- Bierce was gravely wounded at Ojinaga and tried to make his way back to the United States. A young Federale, also fleeing the battle, spotted him. This soldier believed he had a better chance crossing the border with the old “gringo” and floated him across the Rio Grande. U.S. authorities captured them and sent both to Marfa, Texas for processing. Bierce died in Marfa of pneumonia and is buried in an unmarked grave. This account came from a hitchhiker and former Federale in the 1950s, claiming the old man called himself “Ambrosia” and had written many stories with “devil” in the title.
Ambrose Bierce In Popular Culture
Ambrose Bierce’s influential horror and Civil War short stories, colorful life and mysterious disappearance reverberate throughout countless books, radio programs, TV shows, movies and comic books to this day.
“An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” has been adapted for film several times, starting with the silent film The Bridge (1929). But the most famous version was La Rivière du Hibou (1962), a French adaptation directed by Robert Enrico. Enrico’s loyal adaptation would win the 1963 Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. This eerie film found new audiences on TV show The Twilight Zone – a rare episode not produced by the show’s creators, save some re-editing with host Rod Serling’s opening and closing.
Other notable Bierce-inspired productions include:
- Gregory Peck played Ambrose Bierce in the film Old Gringo (1989), adapted from Carlos Fuentes’s novel about Bierce’s adventures in Mexico.
- Bierce’s disappearance factors into vampire horror movie From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (1999). The film includes a horrific explanation for where he’s been all these years.
- American novelist Oakley Hall wrote a series of mystery novels with Bierce the central character.
- Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, adapted one of Ambrose Bierce’s horror stories, “The Damned Thing,” for the TV show Masters of Horror in 2006.
- The San Francisco American Conservatory Theatre adapted Bierce’s short story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” as an opera, composed by David Lang.
For a complete list, check Ambrose Bierce’s entry in Wikipedia.
Ambrose Bierce’s horror and Civil War short stories have inspired countless genre writers, filmmakers and other artists. His literary influence, adventurous life and mysterious death continue to intrigue a worldwide audience. And Bierce’s take-no-prisoners, satirical writing echoes throughout the social media-dominated newsrooms of today. Although his talent developed from great personal anguish, Ambrose Bierce exposed the horrors, and follies, of modern society across generations.