It is perhaps fitting that a writer of mystery and the uncanny should present a mystery himself in his own final act, Ambrose Bierce a witness and chronicler of the American Civil War who became an essayist, journalist and short story writer whose own lengthy chronicle tailed off in 1914 even as Europe fell to shadow, whereabouts unknown and perhaps finding solace in anonymity rather than facing the thought of another conflict such as had torn his country apart and left him injured.
Comprising thirty-four stories originally published between 1873 and 1908, only six years before the last confirmed sighting and presumed death of the author, The Way of Ghosts and Other Dark Tales can be considered a comprehensive overview of that literary strand of the broad career of Bierce, selected by editor Mike Ashley as another volume in the British Library’s ongoing Tales of the Weird series.
The opening stories concerned specifically with the Civil War, offering insight into operations and tactics as understood by one who was there, A Horseman in the Sky recounts a bizarre but possible event given a macabre twist in the final line, while A Tough Tussle relates that while some can see a beauty in death it something which the narrator cannot comprehend even as he approaches it himself.
The writing maturing rapidly through the early stories and evolving to include the evocation of the uncanny, the closeness of death is a recurring theme, understandable for one shaped in war, as is an awareness of fate, a sense that events are arranged over generations to bring about a preordained outcome, carried forward even when unspoken in the coincidences upon which many of the stories are reliant.
The life of Bierce overlapping with that of his literary predecessor Edgar Allen Poe by seven years, where Poe was obsessed with premature burial Bierce’s recurring premise is the dead who do no not realise or refuse to accept they are such, the themes and ideas of the opening quartet of stories finding their fullest form in 1890’s famous An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the best formed of these yet undeniably more of the same.
Fortunately, Mrs Dennison’s Head could not be more different, a tale half-recounted of an oddity experienced at a remove – literally, as it is a story of decapitation – while the narrative of A Watcher of the Dead is more developed still but the snap ending of Owl Creek is again in evidence, as though having spent all the time to set up his situation Bierce is suddenly distracted and wishes the tale to be over.
A duel with knives in the darkened room of a haunted house intended to settle a dispute between frantic men bearing grudges, The Middle Toe of the Right Foot has a twist which is obvious but having set it up in the preamble the conclusion does not feel so rushed, but it is The Damned Thing which takes the bold step into the subgenre which would now be regarded as the Weird West.
Bierce cognisant of how information captured by the eye can be misinterpreted and the alarm which can be caused by such a discontinuity, the ordinary rendered uncanny, he reflects that “we so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity.”
The nature of any such collection to present excerpts from a larger body of vintage work, the repetition of ideas such as Bodies of the Dead expanding on the final line of The Boarded Window is an accrual which might not have been so pronounced when originally published across many outlets and periodicals over almost four decades, and certainly there is diversity with cursed objects, suspicions of possession, mediumship and animal transformations among the satires of southern manners.
Following a period increasingly abstract and given to dreamlike diversions, the final seven stories are grouped into two themes, The Ways of Ghosts and Mysterious Disappearances, the volume closing with Ashley considering Bierce’s own disappearance, presenting what limited and sometimes contradictory anecdotes are extant and weighing the evidence supporting each theory, the only person who knew the truth the one least likely to be in a position to document it.
The Ways of Ghosts is available now from the British Library