Terror by Night: Classic Ghost and Horror Stories by Ambrose Bierce

Terror by Night: Classic Ghost & Horror Stories (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural) Kindle Edition by Ambrose Bierce  (Author),‎ David Stuart Davies (Editor, Introduction)Terror by Night: Classic Ghost and Horror Stories by Ambrose BierceTerror by Night: Classic Ghost and Horror Stories by Ambrose Bierce

Wordsworth Editions, published in London, has a wonderful thing going with its current series entitled “Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural,” bringing back into print short story collections and full-length novels from such relatively unknown authors as Gertrude Atherton, Edith Nesbit, D.K. Broster, Marjorie Bowen, May Sinclair and Dennis Wheatley. The imprint’s collection of horror tales from Ohio-born Ambrose Bierce is a very satisfying and generous one, gathering 51 of the author’s more shuddery pieces, out of the 90 or so from his complete oeuvre. (Bierce never wrote any longer pieces, calling the novel, in typically cynical fashion, “a short story padded.”) Bierce, who was born in 1842 and died mysteriously, most likely in Mexico, around 1914, wrote tales that have been elsewhere divided into three categories: tales of horror, tall tales and tales of the Civil War, in which he fought with distinction on the Union side.

But these three loose categories don’t tell the full story; his most famous short piece, for example, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” while certainly being a tale of war, is also undeniably a psychological horror story. Indeed, a reader of this volume will quickly discern at least eight types of Bierce tales therein; more on that in a moment. All the stories in this collection display an extremely fine polish as regards writing technique (some of the tales may even be accused of being overwritten) and a cynical, often merciless worldview. The author was not nicknamed “Bitter Bierce” for nothing, and there is absolutely no way for the reader to predict whether or not any character, be it man, woman or child, will suffer a horrible fate. As no less a critic than H.P. Lovecraft wrote of Bierce’s writing, in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: “[There is in it] a rare strain of sardonic comedy and graveyard humour, and a kind of delight in images of cruelty and tantalising disappointment.” And as David Stuart Davies mentions, in his well-written and informative intro to this edition, “His stories invariably turn on these strange and often heart-stopping twists of fate — twists that are calculated to shock and shake the reader out of a comfortable complacency….”

As to those eight types of tales found in this volume, by far the most commonly encountered is the ghost tale, such as “A Baby Tramp,” in which a mother’s ghost lures its baby son on a cross-country pilgrimage; “The Moonlit Road,” a murderous tale told from three vantages, including the dead wife; “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot,” in which another murdered wife (little love is lost in these grisly Bierce stories!) takes a hideous vengeance; and “Staley Fleming’s Hallucination,” which features what may be literature’s earliest canine ghost. Then there are the purely supernatural tales, such as “The Spook House,” with its unescapable room filled with corpses; “A Wireless Message,” in which a man sees his wife’s flaming doom from 1,000 miles away; and “John Bartine’s Watch,” with its accursed timepiece.

Of course, there are the Civil War tales, and if “Occurrence” is the best-known of the six presented here, it is not alone in quality. “One of the Missing” tells of the terrible plight of a Union soldier who is trapped beneath the wreckage of a bombarded building; “Chickamauga” describes the outcome of that horrible battle through the eyes of a 6-year-old boy; and “Three and One Are One,” “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch” and “The Mocking-Bird” all tell ironic tales of how the war divided families and turned son against father, husband against wife, and brother against brother. And speaking of horrible, what I refer to as Bierce’s purely horrible doings is the fourth category here; tales that tell of characters visited by truly horrendous fates. “The Man Out of the Nose” tells of the tragic end that a married man’s love affair brings about; “The Applicant” tells the sorry story of a poor old man on Christmas Eve; “A Holy Terror” gives us a gold prospector violating the grounds in a deserted cemetery; and “The Eyes of the Panther” tells of how a tragedy involving a wildcat has a far-reaching psychological impact on a woman later on.

Then there are what I suppose one might call strange doings; tales, many of them short shorts, that make you scratch your head and go “Wha?” In “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” “An Unfinished Race” and “Charles Ashmore’s Trail,” men mysteriously vanish without a trace; in “John Mortonson’s Funeral,” a hungry feline interrupts a man’s mourning family; and in “An Adventure at Brownville,” an opera singer seemingly has a murderous effect on women. Bierce also wrote what may be regarded as two science fiction tales, and they are both doozies: “Moxon’s Master,” featuring a nasty-tempered, chess-playing automaton, and “The Damned Thing,” with its invisible, field-dwelling creatures. The seventh category here is tales of murder, of which “An Imperfect Conflagration” is a perfect example; here, a man casually murders both his parents to possess himself of a music box. (Well, at least he had a good reason!)

Finally, there are the unclassifiable tales; stories that are difficult to synopsize, much less describe. In “Haita the Shepherd,” a lad learns a hard lesson about the essence of happiness; in “The Night Doings at ‘Deadman’s’,” a man sits in a shanty waiting for the ghost of a “Chinaman” whose braid he cut off; in “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” a man walks through a forest that is dripping with blood to meet the spirit of his dead mother.

As you can see, a wide assortment of story types, plots and settings. Most of the stories here are concise to the point of terseness; only two stories are longer than 10 pages, and many barely fill two. Elegantly written by a master wordsmith, and filled with concisely etched characters and backdrops, there is certainly not much in the way of padding. Brilliantly cynical, as would be expected from the man who gave the world “The Devil’s Dictionary,” the tales presented here often provoke a guffaw in the middle of a shudder. Bottom line: All readers who have not yet had the pleasure of encountering this true master of the art should certainly pounce!

‘Nothing is so improbable as what is true.’ Of all the writers of ghost and horror stories, Ambrose Bierce is perhaps the most colourful. He was a dark, cynical and pessimistic soul who had a grim vision of fate and the unfairness of life, which he channelled into his fiction. And in his death, or rather his disappearance, he created a mystery as strange and unresolved as any that he penned himself. But more of that later. Ambrose Gwinett Bierce was born in a log cabin on 21st June 1842, in Horse Creek, Meigs County, Ohio, USA. He was the tenth of thirteen children, ten of whom survived infancy. His father, an unsuccessful farmer with an unseemly love of literature, had given all the Bierce children names beginning with ‘A’. There was Abigail, the eldest; then Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius etc. So oddness was a part of Bierce’s life from the beginning. Poverty and religion of the extreme variety were the two chief influences on young Ambrose’s childhood. He not only hated this period of his life, he also developed a deep hatred for his family and this is reflected in some of his stories which depict families preying on and murdering one another. For example the unforgettable opening sentence of ‘An Imperfect Conflagration’ seems to sum up his bitter attitude: ‘Early in 1872 I murdered my father – an act that made a deep impression on me at the time’.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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