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AMBROSE BIERCE – REAL LIFE MAN OF MYSTERY

Posted on: July 12, 2011

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Ambrose Bierce, one of my favourite short story writers, in some ways feels to me like an American version of Saki (H H Munro), they both wrote highly original fiction, memorable for its conciseness and brilliant, wickedly dark punchlines. Although he (probably) died nearly a 100 years ago, his fiction is still very accessible today.

He was born in a log-cabin, in Horse Creek, Meigs County, Ohio, in June 1842 to poor but book-ish parents, the 10th of 13 children. (His parents showed a grim sense of humour of their own, in giving each child a name beginning with the letter ‘A’!). Bierce hated his family, and family life seems to get a pretty thorough drubbing in many of his stories. He served in the American Civil War, and by all accounts served well, but war inevitably soured him even further. He became a journalist, and was employed by Randolph Hearst (the real-life ‘Citizen Kane’). His private life was depressing, his wife Mollie filed for divorce, citing “abandonment”, but died before it could be finalised. His son died of alcohol-related pneumonia. The depressive Bierce retreated into himself even more.

He poured his bitterness into ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’, a sort of cynic’s handbook I suppose you might say. ‘Love’ for instance is defined as “a temporary insanity cured by marriage”. ‘Idiot’: “member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling”. His motto was “nothing matters”, and associates nicknamed im “bitter Bierce”.

He went on to leave a real-life mystery of his own, when he disappeared sometime after Boxing Day 1913. Then in his 70s he set off on a tour of Civil War battlefields, and somehow wound up in Mexico, which was in the grip of revolution. No one knows what happened to him, he was never seen again. Wild theories have abounded, that he was shot by firing-squad in a town-square, or that he disappeared into the countryside.

Disappearances dominate Bierce’s fiction too. In ‘The Difficulty Of Crossing A Field’, he relates the tales of a planter called Williamson who sets off to see a colleague about some business:

“Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbour, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjourning plantation. Mr Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of 13. When he had driven some 200 yards from the point of meeting, Mr Wren said to his son: ‘I forgot to tell Mr Williamson about those horses’. Mr Wren had sold to Mr Williamson some horses, which were to have ben sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: ‘Why, father, what has become of Mr Williamson?’ It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question”.

Mr Williamson had vanished into thin air.

Bierce’s short tale of Mr Williamson must have grabbed the public imagination, because soon afterwards people were swearing it had really happened. That a man had walked across a field and vanished in full view of people. The story was embellished with tales of how his disembodied voice could be heard calling from that area for several years afterwards. To this day I still come across it on paranormal forums when people are discussing real-life Vanishings.

In another story, ‘An Unfinished Race’, he recounts the real-life tale of James Burne Worson, a shoemaker from Leamington, Warwickshire, who accepted a bet on 3 September 1873, that he could run all the way to Coventry and back, a distance of some 40 miles or more. For several miles Worson was doing well, and 3 men followed behind him at a short distance in a wagon, sending him words of encouragement.

“Suddenly – in the very middle of the roadway, not a dozen yards from them, and with their eyes full upon him – the man seemed to stumble, pitched headlong forward, uttered a terrible cry and vanished! he did not fall to the earth – he vanished before touching it. No trace of him was ever discovered”.

Was Bierce so fascinated by disappearances that in his old age he decided to tease us all by staging his own? Could be. Dame Agatha Christie once famously disappeared for 10 days, in December 1926, before finally being discovered in a hotel in Harrogate. She is once said to have told someone that she could easily “disappear” if she wished. Unlike Dame Agatha though, Bierce was never found. The big question remains, did he intend it that way?

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