Underground Reading: In the Midst of Life by Ambrose Bierce
Saturday, January 03, 2009
Ambrose Bierce (1842 - ?) was one of the great American satirists. After taking part in the Civil War, he went out to California to become a journalist, critic and author.
Now best known for his encyclopedia of venom, The Devil's Dictionary, Bierce was also a talented horror author - an inspiration to H.P. Lovecraft and others.
In the Midst of Life is a collection of some of Bierce's supernatural fiction. The bulk of the stories are also focused on the Civil War. The stories - including Bierce's most famous, The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge - are universally good and, without exception, depressing. The Civil War, much to the chagrin of separatists and re-enactionists everywhere, was a pretty miserable time.
Bierce uses the supernatural merely as a means to an end - he's not interested in telling ghost stories, he's out to use whatever he can to paint a miserable and macabre picture of the realities of war. He combines the satiric voice of Mark Twain with the free-wheeling use of the macabre as a story-telling tool.
Although each story alone is very good, they lose a bit in the collection. The tragic climax varies between 'BUT HE WAS ALREADY DEAD' or 'BUT THE DEAD SOLDIER WAS HIS OWN FATHER!'. Individually, powerful and depressing. One after another, unfortunately predictable.
One of the few exceptions is one of the shorter stories, Chickamauga. A boy is out playing in the field, lost in his fantasy world, bravely fighting the forces of evil with his wooden sword. Getting lost, he stumbles into the path of the walking (or crawling) wounded from a nearby battlefield. In one of the most morbid scenes I've ever read, the naive little boy frolics alongside the shambling, dying men - even taking the opportunity to play 'horsie' on the shoulders of a crawling, leg-less man. Bierce unfortunately pushes the ending a little too far with the unnecessary addition of the "BUT THE DEAD SOLDIER WAS HIS OWN FATHER!" style climaxes. But before that point, he's treated the reader to a half-dozen pages of true horror.
Another odd inclusion in the collection is An Inhabitant of Carcosa, as, unlike the the other stories, it is not based (or trying to reflect) gritty reality. It does, however, feature a happy shepherd's god named Hastur. Hastur (and Carcosa) served as inspiration for Robert Chambers' The King in Yellow, which was in turn pirated by H.P. Lovecraft for his own mythos. The story is an allegorical fantasy in the style of Lord Dunsany, and seems out of place.
Ambrose Bierce belongs on the top shelf with the other early masters of the horror tale. In the Midst of Life is a collection of strong stories, showcasing the writer's ability to use the macabre to drive home his message. As a single, 'sit-down' read, Bierce's strength ultimately undermines the collection as a whole - although the individual stories are brilliant, In the Midst of Life is too morbid to be consumed as a book.
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