Ambrose Bierce - Thoughts?

Fried Egg

Well-Known Member
Joined
Nov 20, 2006
Messages
3,541
What are people's thoughts about Ambrose Bierce?

What would people recommend reading of his?

There is a book in the Wordsworth "Tales of Mystery and Supernatural" series entitled: "Terror by Night: Classic Ghost and Horror Stories". It appears to contain a large number of his short stories. Maybe that's a good place to start...
 

j d worthington

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 9, 2006
Messages
13,889
It depends largely on what you're after. If you want a view of Bierce's fiction (or his overall work) in general, then I would suggest The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Clifford Fadiman. It is a good selection, but -- aside from The Devil's Dictionary -- it leaves out things such as Bierce's criticism and journalistic pieces, which were often wry, amusing, and frankly acerbic; as well as his verse, which is also well worth looking into.

If you're looking for strictly his horror tales, then go for either In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and especially Can Such Things Be?, or for one of the numerous collections of his horror tales (Dover's Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, edited by the redoubtable E. F. Bleiler, is a good possibility).

Indiviual tales -- well, that depends on the taste of the reader, as he wrote quite a range; but nearly all of Bierce's work is permeated by an intense sense of irony and a very strong moral slant -- usually expressed through the bitterness of the irony -- and it usually carries a very strong bite. My own suggestions would include (but not be limited to): "The Death of Halpin Frayser", "The Damned Thing", "An Inhabitant of Carcosa", "Horseman in the Sky", "Chickamauga", "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", "Some Haunted Houses", "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot", "The Moonlit Road", and the Tales of the Parenticide Club... this last of which may well be unique in literature for Bierce's ability to have his cake and eat it, too... as Joshi put it, "if we are revolted, then he can merely chuckle and heap contempt upon us for our squeamishness; if we laugh, we stand self-condemned as sadists" (The Weird Tale, p. 166).

Bierce is a powerful writer, but don't go looking for the usual things in his stories; his approach often seems rather angular, but it is a very carefully crafted choice, and often the subtlest choice of words makes a very important difference in the reading of the tale; so read carefully. At very least, you may find his pungent view of much of humanity's foibles curiously ahead of its time....
 

GOLLUM

Moderator
Joined
Mar 21, 2005
Messages
9,035
Location
Australia
What about The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Ernest Jerome Hopkins, Nebraska University Press J.D.??

I don't know how that stacks up against those other publications but it covers War, Horror and Tall Tales. It contains 48 (horror) + 25 (war) + 24 (tall tales) = 97 stories, so not sure how complete it is?
 

j d worthington

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 9, 2006
Messages
13,889
Overall, it's a fine collection (I have a copy), but it isn't complete, really. The only complete edition I know of that is currently in print is the three volume The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce: A Comprehensive Collection, ed. by S. T. Joshi, Lawrence I. Berkove, and David E. Schultz. I do not have this edition yet (though I bloody well hope to get it sometime in the next year) but, from my understanding, this contains all of his short fiction, and also includes variant readings and the like.

However, as F.E. was looking for an introduction to Bierce rather than a comprehensive or even fairly hefty selection of his work, I picked the titles above. If anyone is interested in his essays and journalistic pieces and the like -- as I said, many of these are also of considerable interest, and as pungent as anything he put into fictional form -- they might think about looking up The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires.

For those who are interested, here are the links from Amazon on these:

Amazon.com: The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce, Volume I: A Comprehensive Edition (9781572335363): Ambrose Bierce, S. T. Joshi, Lawrence I. Berkove, David E. Schultz: Books

Amazon.com: The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce, Volume II: A Comprehensive Edition (9781572335370): Ambrose Bierce, S. T. Joshi, Lawrence I. Berkove, David E. Schultz: Books

Amazon.com: The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce, Volume III: A Comprehensive Edition (9781572335387): Ambrose Bierce, S. T. Joshi, Lawrence I. Berkove, David E. Schultz: Books

Amazon.com: The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires (9781572330962): Ambrose Bierce, S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz: Books

I could be mistaken about this set being the only complete Bierce -- his own edition may still be in print, but I don't believe that's the case, and I believe even he chose to leave out some things toward his final years.
 

Fried Egg

Well-Known Member
Joined
Nov 20, 2006
Messages
3,541
Thanks J.D. for your informative reply. I am definitely not looking for an overview of his work, only a good sampling of his horror.

I was comparing the contents lists and I noticed that "In the Midst of Life" and "Can Such Things Be?" both have less stories than the wordsworth edition and that most of their stories are contained therein:

Terror by Night: Classic Ghost and Horror Stories (£2.46)

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
The Moonlit Road
Haita the Shepherd
The Secret of Macarger's Gulch
The Eyes of the Panther
The Stranger
An Inhabitant of Carcosa
The Applicant
The Death of Halpin Frayser
A Watcher by the Dead
An Imperfect Conflaguration
The Man and the Snake
John Mortonson's Funeral
Moxon's Master
The Damned Thing
The Realm of the Unreal
Chickamanga
A Fruitless Assignment
A Vine on a House
One of Twins
Present at a Hanging
A Wireless Message
One of the Missing
An Arrest
A Jug of Sirup
The Isle of Pines
An Old Man Eckert's
Three and One are One
The Spook House
The Middle Toe of the Right Foot
The Thing at Nolan
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field
The Affair at Coulter's Notch
An Unfinished Race
Charles Ashmore's Trail
Staley Flemming's Hallucination
The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's'
A Baby Tramp
A Psychological Shipwreck
A Cold Greeting
Beyond the Wall
John Bartine's Watch
The Man out of the Nose
An ADventure at Brownville
The Mocking-Bird
The Suitable Surroundings
The Boarded Window
A Ladt from Redhorse
The Famous Gilson Bequest
A Holy Terror
A Diagnosis of Death

In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (£10.90)

The Suitable Surroundings
A horsman in the Sky
An Occurrence at Own Creek Bridge
Chickamauga
A Son of the Gods
One of the Missing
Killed at Resaca
The Affair at Coulter's Notch
A Tough Tussle
The Coup de Grace
Parker Adderson, Philosopher
A Watcher by the Dead
The Man and the Snake
A Holy Terror
An Inhabitant of Carcosa
The Boarded Window
The Middle Tow of the Right Foot
Haita the Shepherd
An Heiress from Redhorse

Can Such things be? (£15.29)

The Death of Halpin Frayser
The Secret of Macarger's Gulch
One Summer Night
The Moonlit Road
A Diagnosis of Death
Moxon's Master
A Tough Tussle
One of Twins
The Haunted Valley
Jo Dunfer Done For
A Jug of Sirup
Staley Fleming's Hallucination
A Resumed Identity
A Baby Tramp
The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's'
Beyond the Wall
A Psychological Shipwreck
The Middle Toe of the Right Foot
John Mortonson's Funeral
The Realm of the Unreal
John Bartine's Watch
The Damned Thing
Haita the Shepherd
An Inhabitant of Carcosa
The Stranger

As you can see, these are both significantly more expensive than the Wordsworth edition so it is hard to see the benefit of getting these, especially when I don't even know if I'll like his writing at this point. Ghost and Horror Stories was slightly cheaper (£8.09) but I can't see what the contents are for that one.
 

GOLLUM

Moderator
Joined
Mar 21, 2005
Messages
9,035
Location
Australia
Well my collection of Bierce contains almost 100 of his stories, which is why I didn't get that particular Wordsworth. From my count it contains all but 5 stories that would be classed as horror, the others being classed as his "war" stories and it seems to contain most of the horror tales I have....so I think the Wordsworth is a very good starting point for what you would be after F.E.
 

Fried Egg

Well-Known Member
Joined
Nov 20, 2006
Messages
3,541
Gollum, ah yes I see The Complete Short Stories on Amazon for £10.56

It's obviously far more comprehensive than the Wordsworth edition but, given the price, probably only worth investining in once I've confirmed that I actually like his work.

I know I must sound like a skinflint, always bemoaning the price, but unfortunately it is an issue and when you're comparing such differences in price, there has to be a very good reason to justify paying more. Unless there are serious problems with the text of a Wordsworth edition (which would appear to sometimes be the case) then I think they are a good place to start exploring a new author.
 

GOLLUM

Moderator
Joined
Mar 21, 2005
Messages
9,035
Location
Australia
No...I think you're making a good choice with the Wordsworth and I'm pretty confident Mr. Worthington won't lash me with flames of fire for making this statement.... ;)

Let us know how you fare and good night, I've posted something for you over in the Fantasy Outside of Genre thread now.... more to follow.
 

j d worthington

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 9, 2006
Messages
13,889
Thanks J.D. for your informative reply. I am definitely not looking for an overview of his work, only a good sampling of his horror.

I was comparing the contents lists and I noticed that "In the Midst of Life" and "Can Such Things Be?" both have less stories than the wordsworth edition and that most of their stories are contained therein[....]

As you can see, these are both significantly more expensive than the Wordsworth edition so it is hard to see the benefit of getting these, especially when I don't even know if I'll like his writing at this point. Ghost and Horror Stories was slightly cheaper (£8.09) but I can't see what the contents are for that one.

Yes, at that rate, I'd definitely suggest going for the Wordsworth edition. Over here, you can find earlier paperback copies (and sometimes hardbound editions) of them for much less if you look... apparently such is not the case in your neck-o'-the-woods. So I'd certainly recommend going for that volume instead, at very least as an introduction to his work. Here's hoping you'll like it....

Oh, and just FYI, the contents of the Dover volume can be found here, when you use the "Look Inside" option:

Amazon.com: Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce (9780486207674): Ambrose Bierce: Books
 

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

Knivesout no more
Joined
Nov 11, 2003
Messages
4,043
Location
Bangalore, India
I have the Dover collection and a nice early 20th century hardback of Can Such Things Be. I would second all of Mr. Worthington's story suggestions, with a very strong inclination towards The Damned Thing. This is an absolute masterpiece of cosmic horror and a superb story for reading aloud. The section headings, as with some of the Bierce's other fiction are an added treat, adding a layer of macabre humour that should be familiar to devotees of The Devil's Dictionary. The Death Of Halpin Frayser and An Inhabitant Of Carcosa also stand out as especially eerie pieces.

Satire was perhaps Bierce's chief stock-in-trade and I've sampled some of his work in this direction, so I'm sure to track down The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires.

Bierce died mysteriously in Mexico at the time of the Villa uprising. The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has written an interesting, if ultimately disappointing novel imagining his last days, entitled The Old Gringo.
 

Connavar

Well-Known Member
Joined
Apr 1, 2007
Messages
8,411
I wish the guy didnt write so many types of stories. The library has like 5-10 books,colelctions of him.

All are comic stories from magazines i think.
 

GOLLUM

Moderator
Joined
Mar 21, 2005
Messages
9,035
Location
Australia
Bierce died mysteriously in Mexico at the time of the Villa uprising. The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has written an interesting, if ultimately disappointing novel imagining his last days, entitled The Old Gringo.
I quite enjoyed that book despite its flaws...BUT I'm hoping for better things from his magnus opus Terra Nostra.

@Conn: One of the things that appeals to me about Bierce the writer and the person is the variety of Genre he wrote in, admittedly with varying success.
 

j d worthington

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 9, 2006
Messages
13,889
I wish the guy didnt write so many types of stories. The library has like 5-10 books,colelctions of him.

All are comic stories from magazines i think.

I don't know if I'd call anything Bierce wrote "comic", unless one means the blackest, bitterest sort of comedy one can imagine. As I said above, all of his work is powered by irony, but it is most often a very savage irony of a particularly grim or almost misanthropic sort... in a sense. (It isn't entirely misanthropic, but it is very much a death's-head grin at our stupidities, hypocrisies, and venalities, as well as so many other frailties to which we give the excuse of "human nature".)
 

Connavar

Well-Known Member
Joined
Apr 1, 2007
Messages
8,411
Black humour or not it was a bit annoying to me they didnt have any of the kind of stories he is famous for.

I thought i was lucky with the library for once.
 

Sparrow

Science fiction fantasy
Joined
Aug 13, 2009
Messages
350
http://www.thedevilsdictionary.com/


I don't see mention of it so I'll give it a plug, to some of us, Ambrose is best known for his Devil's Dictionary.





Lawyer; (noun) One skilled in circumvention of the law

Conservative; (noun) A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

Dentist; (noun) A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.




... there has been many a comedian who has included some of these definitions in their act and never given credit to the writer.
 

j d worthington

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 9, 2006
Messages
13,889
Black humour or not it was a bit annoying to me they didnt have any of the kind of stories he is famous for.

I thought i was lucky with the library for once.

You've got me curious now, Connavar. When you say "the kind of stories he is famous for", to what do you refer? The reason I ask is that, as far as I know, this sort of thing was what he was most famous for (including The Devil's Dictionary, which is one of the most mordant bits of humor I've ever encountered). This includes his Civil War tales, of course, which were quite savage ("Chickamauga" was my first encounter with Bierce, at the age of about 10 -- it made one heck of an impression, believe me) and, for a long time, often labeled as among the more realistic handlings of that particular conflict ever written -- which they really weren't, nor were they intended to be. But they did draw on Bierce's own experiences in it to inform their harsh view of humanity. Hence his long-standing sobriquet, "Bitter Bierce". His horror tales are a subset of this sort of thing.

However, from what you're saying, I'm gathering that these days (outside the U.S., at any rate), Bierce is known more for the latter rather than the former. Is this correct? Could you supply some titles as examples, so I know to what sort of tales you refer? It would be very much appreciated....

Sparrow: I've always had a fondness for his definition of "Patriotism", including his response to Dr. Johnson's own comments on the subject:

Patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.
In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

Of course, that also entails his definition of "Patriot" as well:

Patriot, n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.

Having lived through the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and (both) Bush regimes, and seen the the b.s. divisiveness of the "My Country, Love It or Leave It", Watergate, Iran-Contra, and similar damnfoolishness, I am afraid I very much agree....
 

HoopyFrood

It's me! Hurrah!
Joined
Jul 13, 2006
Messages
5,524
Location
The Cloud
Just about to pop in here and mention his Devil's Dictionary, but I see it's already being done.

So I'll just say that I really enjoyed it. I've had the definition for "Egotist" (A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me) as my MSN name for quite some time now.
 

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

Knivesout no more
Joined
Nov 11, 2003
Messages
4,043
Location
Bangalore, India
I quite enjoyed that book despite its flaws...BUT I'm hoping for better things from his magnus opus Terra Nostra.

Ultimately, it was as much a failure of this reader, who wanted to read a book more about Bierce and less about Mexico, and the American woman (whose name I forget). I've enjoyed several of his other books more, although I'm yet to read one that I think is an out-and-out masterpiece.
 

GOLLUM

Moderator
Joined
Mar 21, 2005
Messages
9,035
Location
Australia
Ultimately, it was as much a failure of this reader, who wanted to read a book more about Bierce and less about Mexico, and the American woman (whose name I forget). I've enjoyed several of his other books more, although I'm yet to read one that I think is an out-and-out masterpiece.
So far.....I agree with your assessment of Fuentes. A very good and highly influential Latin American author and Mexico's most revered contemporary writer but not an out and out Great. I take it you haven't read his so-called masterpiece Terra Nostra then? I'll post my thoughts after I have read it in January.
 
Top