“The author’s main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern”
– Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, 1909, Courtesy: Project Gutenberg
“Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father, an act which had a deep impression on me at the time. This was before my marriage, while I was living with my parents in Wisconsin.”
– “An Imperfect Conflagration,” The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, 1912, Courtesy: Project Gutenberg
Ambrose Gwinett Bierce, sometimes called “Bitter Bierce,” is easily the least appreciated, most misunderstood short story writers of all time. He is the great American master of hilarious horror and brilliant cynicism.
Bierce was born in 1842 in Ohio, worked for William Randolph Hearst and was hated and respected most of his life. There is obviously a lot more that can be said about his 70-plus year life, but what is really cool is how his life ended!
The last that anyone officially knows of the last days of Bierce’s life was a letter that he sent from Mexico. It is believed that he entered Mexico and stayed there, possibly joining up with Pancho Villa in the battles of the Mexican Revolution. Nonetheless, theories abound that he never entered Mexico, entered there and died, or might still be alive in Mexico. The official listing of his death says 1914, but who knows?
From the quotes above, it is clear that Bierce not only had a brilliant imagination, but was a talented and scrupulous writer. As editor the San Francisco Examiner, reporters’ words were read first by him then they were sent out into the entire world.
“An Imperfect Conflagration” is one of the most disturbing and funny stories of parenticide one will ever read. Four of Bierce’s stories are dedicated to this bizarre subject. Not only do they make the reader uncomfortable, but they are actually laugh-out-loud funny.
Bierce’s most famous work, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is one of the most read, most taught short stories. In fact, it is used to test reading comprehension and story analysis on some college English placement exams. This one story in particular is so wickedly crafted that the reader is lead down a charming path of redemption, only to be jarred at the end with a reality that leaves one wondering how anyone could have thought of it.
“Chickamauga” is a work of amazing writing. Bierce writes his story in words that are almost poetic, describing a scene of something as normal as a child in the woods in words that very few American authors have ever accomplished.
Bierce is my favorite short story writer because no author before or since is able to make me laugh and be horrified at the same time. Like Hemingway, every word is chosen to be perfect. Like Poe, he knows how to terrify you, even when the story is not meant to be a horror story. Like Flannery O’Connor, he captures the regions that he is writing about with the power of a movie.
Ambrose Bierce deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest authors the United States has ever seen. He needs to be known for his literary gift, his breath-taking imagination and his cynical point of view that is both hilarious and possibly right.
“As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
— The last line of the last letter from Ambrose Bierce,
December 26, 1913, Courtesy of the Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society.