“Indiana wants me, Lord I can’t go back there.”

That may not be true. I have a tendency to rub most of my fellow Hoosiers the wrong way with my political views, but I wouldn’t be the first, and certainly not the most famous one to have ever done that.

His name was Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce.

Born in 1842, the tenth of thirteen children, he grew up around Warsaw, Indiana in a poor but literate, Christian family.

He left home at 15 and began his first foray into publishing, but long before becoming a distinguished author he was a military hero. He was the 2nd man in Elkhart County to sign up for Indiana’s 9th regiment after Lincoln’s call to arms. At the Battle of Rich Mountain he earned praise in the media for his heroic rescue of a fellow soldier. He rose quickly in the ranks until he was commissioned First Lieutenant and served as a topographical engineer making maps of battlefields. At the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain he was shot in the head and survived. In fact, he returned to active duty less than six months later.

It would be easy to see why the man had developed a sardonic view on human nature.

In 1867 Bierce arrived in San Francisco and began writing for several local papers where he began one of his most famous works The Devil’s Dictionary. He traveled to England, where he lived and wrote from 1872 to 1875, then returned to San Francisco to become a regular columnist and editorialist for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. He found himself in the midst of a few controversies of political matter while working with Hearst.

He is best known for his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”  and his strange disappearance where, in 1913, he was rumored to have run off to join Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution.

I’ve read a few of the biographies written about “Bitter” Bierce and would love to one day make a biopic of this great author. In the meantime, I hope to adapt several of his short stories next year for both class projects and my personal portfolio. One of my favorites, and most likely the first story I will adapt is the “The Death of Halpin Frayser.”

The story, in a nutshell, is about a man lost in the woods, who falls asleep and has a mortal encounter with a malevolent spirit. However, Bierce’s prose and description, the subtle tools of a well practiced author, elevate the story to something more then mere spookery despite its contrived ending. Many of Bierce’s stories have characters whose undoing is due  to the lack of recognition of some flaw in themselves, their past or their peers (often lunatics in disguise), in this case it is the former.

Halpin Frayser claims he is ” a helpless mortal, a penitent, an unoffending poet,” but Bierce goes to great lengths to show that “Halpin was pretty generally deprecated as an intellectual black sheep who was likely at any moment to disgrace the flock by bleating in metre.” This is a great of example by Bierce where, how the character sees himself versus how the author sees him, combined with how the world of the character see him, presents a vivid, three-dimensional picture for the audience on a limited two-dimensional medium; leaving them with a subtle change in their own perspective on their own perception (i.e. it changes the way they think they think) all delivered under the guise of a mere ghost story. It is this type of a subtle social commentary that attracts me to horror and humor and authors like Ambrose Bierce.

He then continues to describe the lost fool as a bit of a momma’s boy with a bit of the Oedipus in him:

Between him and his mother was the most perfect sympathy, for secretly the lady was herself a devout disciple of the late and great Myron Bayne, though with the tact so generally and justly admired in her sex (despite the hardy calumniators who insist that it is essentially the same thing as cunning) she had always taken care to conceal her weakness from all eyes but those of him who shared it. Their common guilt in respect of that was an added tie between them. If in Halpin’s youth his mother had ‘spoiled’ him he had assuredly done his part toward being spoiled. As he grew to such manhood as is attainable by a Southerner who does not care which way elections go, the attachment between him and his beautiful mother — whom from early childhood he had called Katy — became yearly stronger and more tender. In these two romantic natures was manifest in a signal way that neglected phenomenon, the dominance of the sexual element in all the relations of life, strengthening, softening, and beautifying even those of consanguinity. The two were nearly inseparable, and by strangers observing their manners were not infrequently mistaken for lovers.

This all ties in to the character’s demise in some bit of an unfortunate, serendipitous encounter; for as I said, Bierce’s characters often have a hand in their own ending and this is no different. However, if you’re looking for more scares than backstory, then I suggest this passage from the story:

But what mortal can cope with a creature of his dream? The imagination creating the enemy is already vanquished; the combat’s result is the combat’s cause. Despite his struggles — despite his strength and activity, which seemed wasted in a void, he felt the cold fingers close upon his throat. Borne backward to the earth, he saw above him the dead and drawn face within a hand’s-breadth of his own, and then all was black.

Even in his day Ambrose Bierce was accused of overwriting, and surely in today’s immediate access world he would find it difficult to play in the sandboxes of Twitter. But he was an artist and his written words nearly beg to be read aloud to enjoy them to their full extent. This is just one examples of his great talent. I would suggest some of the following:

You can find these stories and many of his other works here at the Ambrose Bierce Project