Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
OK Back to Bierce. Even though our friends at Black Clock Audio Tales have moved on from Bierce July to August Derleth August (Next month hear me defend both Derleth and the French) I am finial finishing this up now, because I am well running late.
So, let’s see if we can figure out who Bierce was with more of his stories.
Again, there will be spoilers, so you have been warning.
Horseman in the Sky. I first read this story in my 10th grade English textbook. I fell in love with the way Bierce describes things and the twist ending. (If I read it for the first time now, I probably wouldn’t think it was so twisty.) A lone union guard must decide if he is going to kill a Confederate scout. He asks himself is it his duty to kill this scout or stop him. He is basically looking for a way to have his cake and eat it too. He tries to find a way to prevent his unit form being found and not kill someone one he has no personal grudge against. (OK that sentence isn’t completely true, I am just trying to keep the surprise ending a surprise.)
In true Bierce fashion his plan backfires and it starts a series of events lead to the absurd action that gives the story its title. Bierce, (a combat veteran of the Civil war) is showing us how things could easily reach a level of absurdity in wartime. In ways this is Bierce’s Catch-22. Like his story The Mockingbird, Bierce is saying the civil wars literally and figuratively tore the American family apart.
Charles Ashmore’s Trail: This is a very short story. Its brevity is due to the fact it takes the form of a newspaper article. In ways this is going to be the grandfather of horror stories written in the style of prima facia documents, such as Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu or Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It is basically how a boy went out to get a bucket of water and seemed to float away.
This tale is very likely influenced Algernon Blackwood’s which influence Derleth’s Ithaqua mythos. (Yeah, I included a Derleth reference) But it also probably influences the folklore story of Oliver Learch. In fact, the first ever non-fiction post on DCotU basically argued that CAT was the origin for that story.
Here is the link. to my post Oliver Learch the Boy who Fell up.
The Devi’s Dictionary: Though Bierce is best known now for An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, this was his most famous writing during his lifetime. It is basically what we called daffy-nitions as a kid. Funny quotes done like they are a dictionary definition. These capture Bierce’s dark sense of humor, and his irreverent opinions on religions and politics.
“Bacchus, n. A convenient deity invented by the ancients as an excuse for getting drunk.”
“Diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.”
“CONSOLATION, n. The knowledge that a better man is more unfortunate than yourself.”
“Politician, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles, he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of an edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.”
“APPEAL, v.t. In law, to put the dice into the box for another throw.”
The Damn Thing: Confession time this is my favorite Bierce short story, ever. Despite his morbid dark humor where he compares a man’s body to torn up clothes and a dinner in the chapter’s names. The monster is basically a mountain lion that is invisible because its body is a color that is not in the human visible spectrum. I understand that is not how physics works, but I love this story.
It obviously influenced Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space and though I have no reason to believe that HG Wells read this short story it is four years before his Invisible Man. Sure it is old hat now, but when he wrote it Bierce with his pseudo-science explanations was breaking new ground. Off all his non-war stories this tale best demonstrates his dark macabre sense of humor. I love how the protagonist Hugh Morgan is more than willing to risk his life and the life of his friend just to prove he is right, and how equally willing local authorities are willing to cover up the incident.