The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce
Citadel Press – 1994 (Originally Published in 1946)
I bought this book for 2-3 stories in 2012, and only got around to reading it cover to cover within the last 6 months. This ‘collected works’ is not a ‘complete works’ as I had hoped for when I bought it. (There was a 12 volume edition of his works printed about 100 years ago, but I don’t know how complete that is either.) I found the first collection of short stories in here to be the least enjoyable by far. I spent more time getting through that first 100 pages than all of the rest put together. I found that all of the short story collections, aside from Negligible Tales, are available on Librivox as audiobooks, and so I loaded these onto my phone and listened to them whilst cooking dinner every day.
Bierce was a rather interesting man. I first heard of him in the third From Dusk Till Dawn movie. (The third film was way better than the second one, but nowhere near as good as the first. I haven’t watched the TV series.) I’ve also had to teach his short stories to high-school students on a few different occasions. There’s an essay in the introduction to this book that makes him out as a very cranky man, but I didn’t really get that impression from his stories. He definitely had a dark sense of humour, and he could be very, very funny. His wife and children all died before him, and at age 72 he moved to Mexico by himself and disappeared. In one of his last letters to his family, he wrote “Goodbye — 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 was fucking cool.
I looked online for a comprehensive list of his short stories, but every list that I found omitted a bunch or contained the names of poems, essay and fables. In this post I have listed all of the stories in the editions of the texts that I read. (I will also list all of other known independent stories/collections at the bottom.)
In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians)
(“A Horseman in the Sky”, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, “Chickamauga”, “A Son of the Gods”, “One of the Missing”, “Killed at Resaca”, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch”, “The Coup de Grâce”, “Parker Adderson, Philosopher”, “An Affair of Outposts”, “The Story of A Conscience”, “One Kind of Officer”, “One Officer, One Man”, “George Thurston”, “The Mocking-Bird”, “The Man Out of the Nose”, “An Adventure at Brownville”, “The Famous Gilson Bequest”, “The Applicant”, “A Watcher by the Dead”, “The Man and the Snake”, “A Holy Terror”, “The Suitable Surroundings”, “The Boarded Window”, “A Lady from Redhorse”, “The Eyes of the Panther”)
This collection is split into two sections. The first is Tales of Soldiers. Although this contains some of Bierce’s more popular stories (An Occurrence at Owl Creek Ridge, Chickamauga…), it’s by far the hardest section to get through. Some of these stories are really dull, and almost every one of them features a twist ending. That said, this collection contains George Thurston, one of my all time favourite stories. (Imagine Hemingway crossed with Monty Python.)
The second section, Tales of Civilians, is where things get more interesting. I think it’s appropriate to refer to Bierce’s work as ‘weird fiction’, but it’s not quite weird in the same way that Lovecraft is weird. His stories often deal with the supernatural, but they’re rarely scary.
Different editions of this collection contain different stories.
Can Such Things Be?
(“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”, “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”, “Haïta the shepherd”, “An inhabitant of Carcosa”, “The Stranger”)
These are best of Bierce’s darker, spookier tales. Again, none of these stories are terribly scary. It feels like they were written to make you think rather than to make you scream. I liked this collection though. This is the one you want if you’re a fan of Robert W. Chambers or the first season of True Detective. (See Haïta the Shepherd and An Inhabitant of Carcosa)
Different editions of this collection contain different stories.
(“A Bottomless Grave”, “Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General”, “The Widower Turmore”, “The City of the Gone Away”, “The Major’s Tale”, “Curried Cow”, “, “A Revolt of the Gods”, “The Baptism of Dobsho”, “The Race at Left Bower”, “The Failure of Hope & Wandel”, “Perry Chumly’s Eclipse”, “A Providential Intimation”, “Mr. Swiddler’s Flip-Flap”, “The Little Story”)
Fairly negligible alright. There’s a few funny ones, a few very weird ones, and one (Jupiter Doke) that I don’t get at all. City of the Gone Away is definitely worth a read.
The Parenticide Club
(“My Favourite Murder”, “Oil of Dog”, “An Imperfect Conflagration”, “The Hypnotist”)
Without doubt, my favourite section/collection. These four tales are narrated by individuals who have killed their parents (and others). There’s a thoroughly enjoyable nastiness to these characters. The third story, An Imperfect Conflagration, contains what may be the single greatest opening line in the canon of English literature. Here is a text version, and here is an audiobook version. These stories are not scary in the least, but they are truly vile. Do yourself a favour and read them. Honestly. This is the good stuff.
The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter
This is a novella. Apparently it’s Bierce’s retelling of a German Gothic novel. I didn’t know that when I read it back in early 2012. To tell the truth, it wasn’t shit or good enough to remember.
The following collections were not included in the book pictured above.
Present at a Hanging
(“Present at a Hanging”, “A Cold Greeting”, “A Wireless Message”, “An Arrest”, “A Man with Two Lives”, “Three and One are One”, “A Baffled Ambuscade”, “Two Military Executions”, “The Isle of Pines”, “A Fruitless Assignment”, “A Vine on a House”, “At Old Man Eckert’s”, “The Spook House”, “The Other Lodgers”, “The Thing at Nolan”, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, “An Unfinished Race”, “Charles Ashmore’s Trail”, “Science to the Front”)
This collection is pretty good. The stories are mostly standard ghosty Bierce. Not hugely memorable, but still fun. The Librivox version was perfect for my bus ride into school. Link to Audiobook version here.
Bodies of the Dead
(“That of Granny Magone”, “A Ligh Sleeper”, “The Mystery of John Farquharson”, “Dead and ‘Gone'”, “A Cold Night”, “A Creature of Habit” )
This is quite similar to Present at a Hanging. These stories are all very short and about corpses. The first tale, That of Granny Magone, is very obviously an earlier draft of The Boarded Window. I found this collection in an online edition of Can Such Things Be? that also includes most of Present at a Hanging.
The Ocean Wave
(“A Shipwreckollection”, “The Captain of “The Camel””, “The Man Overboard”, “A Cargo of Cat”)
This is a short collection of stories about lads on a ship. Not great. Link here.
The Fourth Estate
(“Mr. Masthead, Journalist”, “Why I Am Not Editing “The Stinger””, “Corrupting the Press”, “The Bubble Reputation”)
Another collection of stories on a particular topic. This time it’s journalism. I read these stories out of order because I didn’t know there was a sequence. They didn’t make much sense to me at the time, and they weren’t interesting enough to reread. Link here.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading Bierce recently, and while I really enjoyed some of it, a lot of it I could have done without. There are collections out there of just his ghost stories, so if you’re interested in checking him out, I’d recommend picking one of those up and downloading the audiobook version of the Parenticide Club. If you are a fan, the book that I have is actually pretty good. All of his good stories are in there, and anything else you can find online if you really want it. I didn’t review his fables or the Devil’s Dictionary because I haven’t read them start to finish, but they are hilarious. They’re the kind of thing that you’ll flick through for a chuckle now and then.
I did not read or review The Land Beyond the Blow, The Fiend’s Delight, or Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. Also, I have seen several references to a story named “The Time the Moon Fought Back” from 1911, but I can’t find it anywhere. I don’t know whether it really exists or not. Some lists of Bierce’s short stories contain one or more of the following: Hazen’s brigade, The Ingenious Patriot, Tale of the Sphinx, Revenge, and Visions of the Night. These are not short stories; they are fables, poems or essays. If you notice that I have missed any actual short stories, or know where I can read “The Time the Moon Fought Back“, please let me know.