A great movie could be made of Bierce’s life – born in a log cabin, fought bravely for the Union Army in the American Civil War where he was badly wounded, became a notorious journalist who battled corruption and gained a reputation as a ruthless satirist (‘Bitter Bierce’ was his nickname), suffered family tragedy and ended his days with the words “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination” before disappearing over the border and into the chaos of the Mexican Revolution, never to be heard from again. Along the way, he managed to create one of the most innovative bodies of work. Yet he remains a curiously overlooked figure. Part of the problem is that the plot twists and turns that he pioneered, the end of ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ for example or the multiplicity of views in ‘The Moonlit Road’ (which inspired Akutagawa’s ‘In a Bamboo Grove’), are now so ubiquitous in books, films and games, that they seem like they’ve always been with us.
Over the past few years, I’ve been taking long walks around different neglected parts of London. Often I’ll take photographs, write notes and record the sounds of the places but other times, I’ll find myself trudging through endless suburban streets to get to somewhere remote. So I started listening, along the way to pass the time, to podcasts about books, particularly Sherds Podcast and the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, and I found myself being further and further drawn into what I guess is called Weird Fiction and a childhood fascination with creepy Victorian stories became reanimated in me. For a year or two, I immersed myself in M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, The King in Yellow, The Turn of the Screw, The Yellow Wallpaper and so on. It’s a deep dark rabbit hole you can easily lose yourself in. There’s been a real revival of interest in these circles and their origins but even now Bierce is overlooked as a crucial forefather and a link between ancient myths, the dark side of the Romantics, orientalism and medievalism, and modernity. I suspect because of the things he saw growing up and especially while fighting in the Civil War, Bierce could not adequately settle in a world of sanitised lies and so he acts like a kind of psychopomp in his short fiction, taking us to places beyond the comforts of Reason.
First published in the San Francisco Newsletter, 1886, and collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, ELG Steele, 1891