Before Clarke and his far-reaching visions, Asimov and his automatons, Lovecraft and his eldritch abominations—before these names and countless other juggernauts of speculative fiction, there was Ambrose Bierce. Regarded in his own lifetime as a master wordsmith and satirist, Bierce’s legacy as a progenitor of “weird fiction” would be cemented through his tales of the fantastical, the unbelievable, the horrific. We’re looking back on some of the strangest aspects of Bierce’s prolific life.
Some Interesting Biercian Factoids
Bierce had a strange start before “strange” was a word in his fathomless vocabulary. He was born on June 24th, 1842, in Meigs County, Ohio, the fourth-to-last of 13 siblings. For reasons his parents took to their graves, Ambrose and all his siblings—Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia—shared the same first letter of their names.
Despite their poverty, young Ambrose’s parents worked to ensure their son had access to literature and educated him on the issues of the time. Following their example, Ambrose took an early career working for abolitionist publications approaching the start of the Civil War. When war broke out, he enlisted on the side of the Union.
Coincidence or Foresight?
Bierce served for years, fighting in several battles, including the infamous Battle of Shiloh, until a traumatic brain injury had him discharged. After his service, Bierce hopped from San Francisco to England, writing humor and satire for different publications before settling back in SF to cement his journalism career.
Bierce’s journalistic exploits could be the stuff of fiction alone. In 1896, he foiled the schemes of railroad companies attempting to avoid paying their amassed loans of $130 million, the equivalent of approximately $4.5 billion today. And in 1901, following the assassination of President William McKinley, Bierce was put on blast for a political poem he’d written the year prior, which may or may not have mentioned the death of McKinley by name. The connection was enough that critics claimed Bierce and his editor, then-presidential candidate William Randolph Hearst, had orchestrated the whole assassination.
Despite these controversies, Bierce was retained by his editor and continued his journalism career. Bierce: 1. Old-timey conspiracy theorists: 0.
The Dictionary Reimagined in Pure Bierce Style
Bierce’s writing exploits didn’t end with humor articles and riotous poetry. He exhaled short stories like carbon dioxide, including several acclaimed tales drawing from his War experiences. In 1906, he published The Devil’s Dictionary, a pseudo-glossary of common words with satirical definitions. Some of our favorites from the collection:
- Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
- Harangue, n. A speech by an opponent, who is known as an harangue-outang.
- Mayonnaise, n. One of the sauces which serve the French in place of a state religion.
- Prejudice, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.
- Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.
The Devil’s Dictionary has gone down as one of the crowning literary achievements of the last century, with Bierce’s wit and wordplay central to any discussion of the work.
He Influenced Lovecraftian Mythos
Over the course of his career, Bierce wrote 247 short stories and over 800 fables. Among Bierce’s many uncanny creations was Hastur, the shepherd god, who made his first appearance in a short story titled “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and again in “Haïta the Shepherd.” The understanding of who and what “Hastur” could represent was largely left a mystery—a perfect vehicle for other authors to interpret.
Five years later, a writer named Robert W. Chambers would reinvent Hastur for his own purposes, publishing a collection of connected horror stories entitled The King in Yellow. Drawing directly from Bierce’s ideas, Chambers imagined a cursed play written by the ruler of the lost realm of Carcosa, the words of which were capable of driving anyone who read it insane.
Two decades after that, Hastur made an appearance in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” a short story by American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Canonized through the venerated “Lovecraftian mythos,” Hastur has gone on to serve as the antagonist in countless adaptations and RPG games, even making an appearance on HBO’s True Detective.
Where Did Ambrose Bierce Go?
Nearly everything about Bierce’s life was uncanny—including his supposed death in 1914. He finished one of his last letters to a childhood friend in 1913 by saying: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination,” and proceeded to do just that. Bierce disappeared while on a trip to Mexico, never to be heard from again.
Speculation about the cause of his death has ranged from execution by firing squad to suicide at the Grand Canyon. Nobody knows for sure, but that hasn’t stopped authors and filmmakers from adapting Bierce into a fiction character time and time again, incorporating the mystery of his disappearance into films like From Dusk Till Dawn 3 and novels like Robert Heinlan’s Lost Legacy.
Bierce left a voluminous and fascinating legacy in his wake. Few authors can claim the depth and the complexity of Bierce’s literary achievements, and like any immortal writer, the strides he made in both fiction and nonfiction have come to influence the world today.
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