Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842 – circa 1914) was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist, and satirist, and one of American literature's most intriguing, and most overlooked, luminaries... and a man who scared Lovecraft.
Ambrose Bierce (later nicknamed "Bitter Bierce" and the "Old Gringo") was a journalist and editorialist from Meigs County, Ohio, whose deeply cynical opinions on the world and the people living in it led him to create his now-famous series of short stories and other fiction pieces, most notably An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridgenote . Bitter Bierce never gave anyone a reason to wonder about his nickname: he was aggressive and fond of war (though also an anti-imperialist), fascinated by death, very cynical about love and religion, and perplexed by women. His works are notable for their dark, troubled, and haunting tone and subject matter. He would have made a fine bedfellow for Poe and Lovecraft, but sadly, and certainly not for lack of talent on his part, he never achieved their notoriety.
Later in his life, when The Mexican Revolution was raging down south, Ambrose Bierce decided to leave the United States and contribute to the war effort in Mexico, hoping to meet up with and fight alongside Pancho Villa. After a couple of months (during which time he did indeed meet up with Pancho Villa), his letters to his friends in the States abruptly ceased. He was never heard from again. He may have had something of a death wish; see the Quotes page. The book (and The Film of the Book) Old Gringo speculates on what might have happened to him after his famous disappearance, but no one knows what happened for sure; he openly boasted to one friend that "No one will ever find my bones," and thus far has been proven correct.
Lovecraft enthusiasts should be familiar with An Inhabitant of Carcosa, his contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos.
Works by Ambrose Bierce with their own trope pages include:
Other works by Ambrose Bierce provide examples of:
- Apocalyptic Log: The man whose death is being investigated in "The Damned Thing" is discovered to have kept a running log of his encounters with the creature and his suppositions about it, growing more unnerved as he arrives at the truth about it.
- Black Comedy: "Oil of Dog", "My Favorite Murder", "An Imperfect Conflagration".
- Breakout Character: Haita the Shepherd included a reference to a benevolent deity named Hastur, and An Inhabitant of Carcosa featured the titular city. Later writers borrowed the names.
- Buried Alive: Combined with Grave Robbing in "One Summer Night".
- Deadpan Snarker: Heavy on the deadpan and the snark, and usually in very mean-spirited (but funny) ways.
- Death Equals Redemption: Bierce was a strong proponent of this trope, at least when it came to the deaths of soldiers. This attitude is best demonstrated in essays such as "A Bivouac of the Dead" and the poem "To E. S. Salomon".
- Duel to the Death: "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot" opens with two men preparing to engage in one. It turns out to be ruse by one of the duelists to trap the other inside the house where the other duelist murdered his own family.
- Eek, a Mouse!!: In "The Cat and the Youth", one of the retellings in Aesopus Emendatus, a cat transformed into a human woman proves the success of the transformation by doing this. She also ticks off the man she was trying to woo.
- The Ending Changes Everything: "A Horseman in the Sky" spends a lot of time on a Union soldier agonizing before he shoots and kills a Confederate soldier. We don't find out until the end of the story that the man was his father.
- Evil Laugh: The antagonist in "The Death of Halpin Frayser" announces their presence with one of these.
- Exact Words
- In "One Kind of Officer", a captain tells a lieutenant "it is not permitted to you to know anything," having received a similar insulting order from his general and wanting to take it out on a subordinate. He comes to regret this.
- In "A Horseman in the Sky," a young man enlisting in the Union is told "whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty" by his father. When he finds out his father has also enlisted — in the Confederacy — those words give him the resolve to shoot him.
- Excuse Boomerang:"There's no free will," says the philosopher;
"To hang is most unjust."
"There is no free will," assents the officer;
"We hang because we must."
- Fictional Color: The story "The Damned Thing" features a monster that is invisible because it is a color that humans can't see.
- Fractured Fairy Tales: Aesopus Emendatus.
- Greater-Scope Villain: In "The Death of Halpin Frayser" it's the killer who is responsible for Catherine, Mrs. Frayser, and (indirectly) Halpin's deaths. The story ends with him still out there, the two investigators who were closing in on him now distracted by the discovery of Halpin's corpse and the seemingly supernatural means of his death.
- Humanity Ensues: In "The Cat and the Youth", one of the retellings in Aesopus Emendatus, a cat becomes a human woman after falling in love with a young man.
- Humans are Flawed
- Humans are Morons
- Hurricane of Puns: His poems take the cake.
- Invisible Monsters: The eponymous creature in "The Damned Thing".
- Mercy Kill: A particularly horrid (and ultimately futile) version takes place in "The Coup de Grace".
- Momma's Boy: The title character of "The Death of Halpin Frayser" is such an advanced case that people regularly mistake him and his mother for lovers. It does not save him, however, when his mother's ghost turns evil and hunts him down.
- Our Ghosts Are Different: "The Death of Halpin Frayser" .
- "Rashomon"-Style: "The Moonlit Road" is an early example.
- Robot Rebellion / Turned Against Their Masters: "Moxon's Master"
- Self-Made Orphan: In "A Horseman in the Sky", a young Union soldier kills his Confederate father. (His mother is implied to have died before the beginning of the story.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: "Chickamauga".
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Overwhelmingly on the cynical side.
- Spoof Aesop: Fantastic Fables.
- Uncertain Doom: As stated by the blurb above, Bierce disappeared while aiding Pancho Villa in The Mexican Revolution. While the most likely scenario is that he died in war-torn Mexico, his last whereabouts remains unknown to this very day.
- Undead Author: In "The Stranger", a troop of Union soldiers on an exploration quest through Arizona is approached by a mysterious man who narrates the story of four previous explorers who died nearby. When one of the soldiers challenges him on how he knows the story when he claims there were no survivors, he disappears into thin air.
- War Is Hell: Bierce was 19 when he enlisted in the Union Army and many people claim that this is what inspired the more nightmarish images in his stories. This trope features quite frequently in his Civil War stories.
Appearances in fiction:
- Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes
- In Robert Bloch's story "I Like Blondes" (originally published in Playboy, 1956), the alien tells Shirley that "the body I'm using right now. Its name was Ambrose Beers, I believe. [Ril] picked it up in Mexico a long time ago..."
- It's hinted that Bierce was a patron at the very exclusive restaurant in Stanley Ellin's "Specialty of the House". And eventually the title dish.
- Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots claims that he became a book-jumping agent of Jurisfiction.
- Phil Foglio's Stanley and His Monster miniseries claims that his horror stories were based on truth, and he staged his own disappearance to avoid an Eldritch Abomination that was coming to complain about his depiction of it. Oddly enough, it also used him as an expy of John Constantine.
- Robert A. Heinlein's Lost Legacy has him going underground and working for a benevolent Ancient Tradition.
- Roger Zelazny's Roadmarks concerns a Road that stretches from the past into the future, and the people who travel along it; Bierce is mentioned in passing as one of those who, having found the Road, settled farther along it and never returned to his own time.
- Shows up as an old fangless vampire who aids the protagonist in Dance in the Vampire Bund.
- From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter. Ambrose is on his way to join Pancho Villa's army when he's waylaid by the protagonists. The Stinger has him relating the entire story in the modern day, as he's become a vampire.
- Back in the USSA depicts the death of Bierce, at least as it occurred in that particular Alternate History.
- In Illuminatus!-trilogy, although he isn't directly named, it is easy to figure out from the context that he is one of the people that Fission Chips sees when St. Toad throws him between dimensions.
- Serves as a Genius Bonus for SCP-1084. We are never actually told who is buried in the damaged mausoleum, but "the body belongs to the American author DATA REDACTED, who disappeared in Mexico in late December 1913."