I was directed to the work of Ambrose Bierce (1942 – 1913) after hearing Roald Dahl praise his short stories.
Both Dahl and Bierce are known for twisted tales with a thinly disguised bitterness towards straight society.
Bierce compiles a satirical lexicon The Devil’s Dictionary which is also known as The Cynic’s Word Book. In this he defines a novel as “a short story padded” which is presumably why he wrote only nonfiction and short stories.
The dictionary exposes Bierce as a politically incorrect misogynist. ‘Woman’ is defined as “An animal usually living in the vicinity of Man, and having a rudimentary susceptibility to domestication…………. is omnivorous and can be taught not to talk”
An African is “a nigger that votes our way” while Aborigines are “persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber, they fertilise”.
His best known short story is An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge published in 1890 and set during the American Civil War. This describes the fate of a confederate sympathizer Peyton Farquhar a 35 year man “who was engaged in being hanged”.
Since the story that is over hundred years old I won’t feel bad about ‘spoiling’ the ending. The story contrives to describe a miraculous escape through a broken noose when all the while what we are in fact reading are the final fantasies of dying man.
It’s a clever piece of writing, often using an elaborate style with distinctive adjectives and decorous prose. The water below the bridge is “swift”, “swirling” and “smitten” while death is personified as “a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect”.
I can see why Dahl admired his work although, while I like this story, I don’t envisage seeking out more of his work.