Bierce, Ambrose

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(1842-circa 1914) US journalist, poet and author of short stories and Satires, deeply affected by his four years in the American Civil War (he enlisted as a private in 1861, was breveted major for bravery, and was wounded twice). Like Bret Harte and Mark Twain, he went to California and became a journalist, and there published his first work of genre interest, "The Haunted Valley" for Overland Monthly in July 1871. Also like Harte he soon went abroad, spending 1872-1875 in the UK, publishing three volumes of sketches there as by Dod Grile, most notably the savage little fables assembled primarily in Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (coll 1873 UK; vt Cobwebs: Being the Fables of Zambri, the Parsee, circa 1873), and his first significant tale of the supernatural, "The Strange Night-Doings at Deadman's" (March 1874 The London Sketch-Book). But afterwards – unlike Harte, who had permanently departed the scanty commercial opportunities there – he returned to California.

Bierce is perhaps best known for a series of sometimes brilliantly and sometimes laboriously cynical mock-definitions of pretentiously or hypocritically used words whose influence as a model for Satire has been wide but subterranean, a good example being The Onion Book of Known Knowledge (anth 2012) by the editors of the Onion, many of whose dictionary definitions patently reflect the tone of (but do not acknowledge) their source. The first definition was published as early as 1867; the series was assembled as The Cynic's Word Book (coll 1906; vt The Devil's Dictionary 1911; exp vt The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary 1967; full version in The Devil's Dictionary 2011) [for details see Checklist below]. His numerous poems, sketches and stories far more closely approach the canons of Fantasy than of sf [the Checklist below is severely restricted]; his single most famous tale, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (13 July 1890 San Francisco Examiner), in which a condemned spy believes he has escaped the rope and returned to his wife the instant after his fall from the bridge and before the noose breaks his neck, should perhaps be read as nonfantastic [though see Posthumous Fantasy in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

At the same time, the speculative environment Bierce creates is often sufficiently displaced to encourage the interest of sf readers, an example being "Charles Ashmore's Trail" (14 October 1888 San Francisco Examiner with other stories as "Whither?: Some Strange Instances of Mysterious Disappearances"), the story of a man who vanishes, much as Bierce seemed to do himself, into another Dimension. "The Suitable Surroundings" (14 July 1889 San Francisco Examiner) features a story so deadly it kills those who read it (see Basilisks). "The Damned Thing" (7 December 1893 Tales from New York Town Topics) is a notable story of monstrous Invisibility which offers a scientific explanation of the phenomenon. In the early Robot tale "Moxon's Master" (16 April 1899 San Francisco Examiner as "A Night at Moxon's"), Bierce's best known sf story, a Scientist's death is apparently caused by a chess-playing automaton. Other tales of sf interest include three examples of the Ruins and Futurity topos published a different points in his career: "John Smith Liberator: (From a Newspaper of the Far Future)" (10 May 1873 Fun as "John Smith"); For the Ahkoond (18 March 1888 San Francisco Examiner; 1980 chap), in which an explorer archaeologist visits ruined sites across the North America of 4591; and "The Ashes of the Beacon: An Historical Monograph Written in 4930" (19 February 1905 New York American), which is a radical revision of "The Fall of the Republic: An Article from a 'Court Journal' of the Thirty-First Century" (25 March 1888 San Francisco Examiner).

Most of these and other tales of sf interest were assembled in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (coll 1891; vt In the Midst of Life 1892) and Can Such Things Be? (coll 1893) [for vts see Checklist]. The first versions of Can Such Things Be? (coll 1893) and Fantastic Fables (coll 1899) were since republished in a number of forms, including their somewhat scattered reassembly in various volumes of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce (1909-1912 12 vols). The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce (coll 1946) is valuable, though not complete; Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce (coll 1964, ed Everett F Bleiler) is probably the best single assemblage of his works of interest to the reader of sf or fantasy, though The Devil's Dictionary, Tales, and Memoirs (omni 2011) edited by S T Joshi assembles the initial title and almost everything else of sf or supernatural significance plus additional material.

Bierce had had before his death some indirect influence on twentieth century authors – his tale, "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (25 December 1886 San Francisco Newsletter) supplied the name of the Lost World city of Carcosa that Robert W Chambers created in The King in Yellow (coll 1895); it was from Chambers's rendering that H P Lovecraft incorporated Carcosa into the Cthulhu Mythos. Posthumously, however, his influence was direct. At the end of 1913, after a hectic career and some notably intemperate journalism, Bierce disappeared into Mexico, then in the middle of its own civil war. Travelling with the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa, he apparently became involved in the Battle of Ojinaga, 11 January 1914, which was savage. His corpse was possibly among the many which were burned to prevent typhus. Charles Fort speculated on the circumstances of his death in Wild Talents (1932). Gerald Kersh's "The Secret of the Bottle" (7 December 1957 Saturday Evening Post; vt "The Oxoxoco Bottle" December 1958 Argosy UK) speculates on how he may have died. His vanishing (as opposed to demise) also intrigued other authors: Robert A Heinlein's "Lost Legacy" (November 1941 Super Science Stories as "Lost Legion" by Lyle Monroe; vt in Assignment in Eternity, coll 1953) and Avram Davidson's Masters of the Maze (1965) both feature Bierce as one of a hidden group of Secret Masters, and Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes fictionalized Bierce's disappearance in Gringo Viejo (1985; trans Margaret Sayers Peden as The Old Gringo 1985). [JC/PN]

see also: Gothic SF; Horror in SF; Humour; Paranoia.

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce

born Horse Cave Creek, Meigs County, Ohio: 24 June 1842

died Ojinaga, Mexico: 11 January 1914 [location and date are speculative]



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