Showing posts with label Ambrose Bierce. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ambrose Bierce. Show all posts

25 October 2019

Spooky Writers, Forgotten Graves, and Vengeance from Beyond the Tomb

It's that time of year, when Pumpkin Spice becomes a thing, and sketchy Halloween costume shops take over even sketchier strip malls.  As the fall chill settles, one starts to wonder: Are those spookiest of writers, Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Biercetruly in their final resting places? Like, tucked away, with at least six feet of hallowed earth separating them (the dead) from us (the living)?

I can offer you no such surcease of sorrow.

In this corner, the friendly,
Jack O'Lantern...
...and in this corner, a
Samhain-era Jack O'Lantern.
It's made from a turnip, and it
will swallow your soul.
Halloween, based on the Celtic Samhain (which itself comes from Chthulu-era pagan rituals), is the night when the dead come knocking. Some for treats, some for tricks, and some for righteous beyond-the-tomb payback.

Edgar Allan Poe. I dare you to photo shop
a straw hat onto this.
Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce specialized in tales where death wasn't always a sure bet. Both left this mortal coil with scores to settle. And there is grave uncertainty as to where either is interred.  These are three good motives for any unrestful spirit to don a hockey mask (or William Shatner mask, or fedora and sweater combo or, ok, there are a lot of costume options), grab a machete (again, options), and come calling this Halloween. One would hope that enough post-mortem praise has been heaped on Poe and Bierce to put contented smiles on their rotting faces; to sway them to let bygones be bygones.

Don't count on it.

If there's anyone who'd warrant vengeance from beyond the grave, its Edgar Allan Poe. The means are questionable, but the motives are as clear as a gold bug on a black cat.

First, Poe's death is shrouded in mystery. I don't believe he ended up in that Baltimore gutter wearing someone else's clothes just because he was at the tell-tail end of a bender. I like the cooping theory. In those days of rampant voter fraud (not to diminish our own era of Russian meddling), travelers were kidnapped, cooped up in rooms (hence "cooping"), and force-fed booze and drugs. A pretty sweet deal for some, but deadly for others. The blitzed-out saps were coerced into voting repeatedly at different polling stations. Their clothes were switched so they wouldn't be recognized.

Poe was found near a polling station, out of his head. He was wearing farmer's clothes, including a straw hat. There's no way that The Godfather of Goth cavorted amongst the literati of Virginia and New York in a straw hat like some Leatherstocking Tales reject. This man was cooped.

Rufus Griswold wrote a scathing
review of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
(pictured here). Whitman mockingly included
the review in later editions.
Second, Poe's reputation was sunk by Rufus (rhymes with doofus) Griswold, a third-rate literary rival. In popular culture Poe is often seen as a drug addicted outsider who mirrored the creepiness he wrote. Actually, Poe was a respected writer and editor, a literary celebrity who made a lot of his money in live appearances. He is probably the first American writer to live solely off his writing. Rufus Griswold was a hacky "anthologist" and the target of one of Poe's biting you'll-never-live-this-down criticisms. When Poe kicked off, punk Griswold saw his chance for cowardly payback.

Griswold wrote a scathing obit of Poe for the NewYork Tribune that was widely reprinted. Next, Griswold conned his way into being Poe's literary executor. He wrote a fake biography of Poe that appeared in Poe's anthologies.  It portrayed Poe as an addict, gambler and army deserter. This false image of Poe as an evil, pathetic genius stuck.

Edgar Allan Poe's grave marker.
It's likely that Poe is nearby.
Lastly, in 1849, Poe was dumped into an unmarked grave in the Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore. It wasn't until decades later when a succession of grand headstones attempted to mark the great man's final resting place. In a scene reminiscent of Poe's fiction, the city of Baltimore repatriated Poe's corpse to a more scenic view. The sloppy handling of Poe's remains gave rise to conspiracy theories.

In 1978, the Maryland Historical Magazine published Charles Scarlett, Jr's "A Tale of Ratiocination: The Death and Burial of Edgar Allan Poe." Scarlett proposes that through a series of grave-marker mix-ups, Baltimore botched Poe's reburial. Instead of digging up Poe, Baltimore disinterred the remains of Phillip Mosher, a young fallen soldier from the War of 1812.  Scarlett presents a pretty interesting theory.

George W. Spence, a sexton who oversaw the first exhumation of Poe, said that he lifted up Poe's skull, and "his brain rattled around inside just like a lump of mud." Brains rot pretty quickly. Bullets don't. If Phillip Mosher was killed in the War of 1812 by a shot to the head, the hunt for Poe's corpse continues.

Ambrose Bierce and skull.
Around the time when the search for Poe's grave began, a young soldier and Poe fan was facing real-life horrors that rivaled those that Poe wrote about.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez
put their own twist on the Ambrose Bierce
legend. Edited by yours truly.
I'm a film and TV editor, and I cut a horror flick that stars Michael Parks (lead on the ultra-cool TV series Then Came Bronson) as cantankerous author Ambrose Bierce. In it, Bierce falls in with outlaws, battles vampires, and eventually joins the ranks of the undead. That's one way to explain Bierce's mysterious disappearance.

Bierce, most famous for The Devil's Dictionary and his short story "An Occurence at Owl's Creek Bridge," was a Civil War vet who saw the bloody horrors of war up close. Bierce hilariously said war was "God's way of teaching American's geography," but he found little humor on the battlefield. He fought on the Union side in hellish battles at Shiloh and Kennesaw Mountain. His writing is imbued with those experiences.  Bierce suffered a head wound at Kennesaw Mountain, which some claim was the cause of his bouts of booziness and unmatched orneriness.

Bierce's most famous story collection, which
includes "An Occurrence at Owl's Creek Bridge."
In his lifetime Bierce was known as a San Francisco journalist, but his lit legend is based on his short horror stories with surprise endings. "An Occurrence at Owl's Creek Bridge" is one of those works of fiction that has been repeated so often, and in so many mediums, that many are unaware of it as the source. It's the story of a Civil War Southerner about to be hung from a bridge. He is dropped off the side, but the rope breaks. The Southerner escapes to his home. As he's running into the arms of his wife he's stopped by a heavy blow to his neck. In the most famous of Bierce's twist endings, we learn the man imagined the escape during the time between his fall from the bridge and the rope breaking his neck.

Pancho Villa: General, Mexican revolutionary,
and maybe one of the last people to see
Ambrose Bierce alive.
In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, Bierce travelled by horseback, first to visit Civil War battle sites, then to Mexico. His stated aim was to report on Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Many claim Bierce was running away from old age, seeking a one-way ticket to an adventure that would carry on into the after life. His last postcard was mailed from Chihuahua City, Mexico. Bierce was intending to ride out with Pancho Villa. What happened next is shrouded in mystery, but according to numerous eyewitnesses, Bierce died many deaths.

Bierce was killed at the Battle of Ojinaga, fighting the Federales alongside Villa.

Bierce was only wounded at Ojinaga, but eventually succumbed to his injuries at the Marfa refugee camp.

Bierce was executed by a Federale firing squad at the desert village of Icamole.

Bierce was executed by a Federale firing squad at the desert village of Sierra Mojada.

Others believe Bierce offed himself somewhere in the Grand Canyon, one of his favorite hangouts. There are no eyewitnesses, reliable or otherwise, to support this claim.

At least Poe got a coffin and a handful of mourners. If Bierce died in battle, he was likely dumped in a mass grave and burned. Death by firing squad meant he got his own hole in the ground but none of the other trimmings. There's a small monument for him at Sierra Mojada, but the remains of Bierce are nowhere to be found.

I'd say the best way to placate Poe and Bierce this Halloween is to read their works. You don't even have to read the scary stuff. Poe's tales of ratiocination starring amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin are a must for any fan of crime fiction. Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary holds up as a manual of biting-though-meaningful sarcasm.

You may want to read some Shakespeare, too. In 2016, archaeologists examined Shakespeare's grave using GPR scanning. The study showed that the grave was disturbed after Shakespeare was buried. GPR images also revealed that Shakespeare's skull is missing.

Happy Halloween!

I'm Lawrence Maddox. My latest novel Fast Bang Booze is available from Down and Out Books ( You can contact me at

08 May 2012

The Devil's Dictionary

Ambrose Gwinett Bierce
    In 1913 noted columnist and short story author Ambrose Gwinett Bierce, then 71 years old, rode his horse across the Rio Grande River into the Mexican town of Ciudad Juarez and from there into oblivion.  Bierce’s intention was to observe first-hand the Mexican revolution, which at the time was well underway.  Bierce managed to track down the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez and then reportedly tagged along with Villa’s ragtag army of revolutionaries at least as far as the Mexican city of Chihuahua.  While there is some argument among historians, apparently the last communication from Bierce was a letter written to a close friend, Blanche Partintron, on December 26, 1913.  Only notes concerning the letter, safeguarded by Bierce’s secretary, survive, but according to those notes the letter closed with the following: 

    “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination."  

    Thereafter Ambrose Bierce disappeared without a trace. 

Pancho Villa

   There are many theories concerning what eventually happened to Bierce.  In The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes, the author speculates that Bierce was eventually shot in the back while serving with Pancho Villa’s band of desperados.  The1998 film version of Fuentes’ book, featuring Gregory Peck (in one of his last roles) as Bierce, opts for the same ending.  Local legends in the Mexican Sierras hold that Bierce, who had reportedly become somewhat critical of Pancho Villa toward the end, was executed on Villa’s orders before a firing squad.

    Bierce was always a dark fellow who marched to a different drummer.  The essayist Clifton Fadiman has argued that "Bierce was never a great writer. He has painful faults of vulgarity and cheapness of imagination.”  However, Fadiman also notes that Bierce’s “style, for one thing, will preserve him; and the purity of his misanthropy, too, will help to keep him alive."  Fadiman’s criticism of Bierce may be unfounded – Bierce wrote many columns and short stories, and his stand-out short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, to single out one, has likely been the basis of more television and radio dramas – most recently an episode of Lost – than almost any other short story.  But Fadiman is unarguably correct in his observation that Bierce’s work, and his dark streak, have kept him alive.

    While there is uncertainty as to how Ambrose Bierce met his end, what is certain is that at least one great, albeit brooding, work that he left behind vigorously survives:  The Devil’s Dictionary.   Since 1911 The Devil’s Dictionary, originally titled The Cynic’s Word Book, has never been out of print.  Thanks to the expiring nature of copyrights and the wonders of Project Gutenberg it is also currently available on line and for free.

    The Devil’s Dictionary, for those unfamiliar with the work, is comprised of tongue-in-cheek definitions for common English words.  The definitions were written by Bierce during the period from 1881 through 1906, and were originally offered up in his newspaper columns.  They derive from the commonly understood meaning of each of the defined words, but then tilt that meaning on its axis in a manner that reveals a darker underlying truth.  The definitions, therefore, are not unlike paraprosdokia, the subject of a previous article, but they differ in that they are uniformly (not just occasionally) dark, and are unsparingly cynical. 

    But enough of introductions.  Let’s dive in and examine some prime examples, still relevant after over one hundred years:
  • ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.
  • ACCORDION, n. An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin.  (A little close to home, but I will address that in a subsequent column!)
  • APOLOGIZE, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offence.
  • ARDOR, n. The quality that distinguishes love without knowledge.
  • BAIT, n. A preparation that renders the hook more palatable. The best kind is beauty.
  • BAROMETER, n. An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.
  • BEFRIEND, v.t. To make an ingrate.
  • BIGOT, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.
  • BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
  • BOUNDARY, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.
  • CANNON, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.
  • CHILDHOOD, n. The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth -- two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age.
  • CLAIRVOYANT, n. A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.
  • COMFORT, n. A state of mind produced by contemplation of a neighbor's uneasiness.
  • CONGRATULATION, n. The civility of envy.
  • CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
  • CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.
  • CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.
  • DEFENCELESS, adj. Unable to attack.
  • DESTINY, n. A tyrant's authority for crime and fool's excuse for failure.
  • DIPLOMACY, n. The patriotic art of lying for one's country.
  • DISCUSSION, n. A method of confirming others in their errors.
  • EGOTIST, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
  • FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
  • FIDELITY, n. A virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.
  • GENEROUS, adj. Originally this word meant noble by birth and was rightly applied to a great multitude of persons. It now means noble by nature and is taking a bit of a rest.
  • HASH, x. There is no definition for this word -- nobody knows what hash is.
  • HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
  • HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homocide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another -- the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.
  • IGNORAMUS, n. A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.
  • INCUMBENT, n. A person of the liveliest interest to the outcumbents.
  • INFANCY, n. The period of our lives when, according to Wordsworth, "Heaven lies about us." The world begins lying about us pretty soon afterward.
  • INJURY, n. An offense next in degree of enormity to a slight.
  • JUSTICE, n. A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.
  • KILT, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.
  • LAWFUL, adj. Compatible with the will of a judge having jurisdiction.
  • LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.
  • LOQUACITY, n. A disorder which renders the sufferer unable to curb his tongue when you wish to talk.
  • MAGNIFICENT, adj. Having a grandeur or splendor superior to that to which the spectator is accustomed, as the ears of an ass, to a rabbit, or the glory of a glowworm, to a maggot.
  • MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
  • MONKEY, n. An arboreal animal which makes itself at home in genealogical trees.
  • NIHILIST, n. A Russian who denies the existence of anything but Tolstoy. The leader of the school is Tolstoy.
  • NON-COMBATANT, n. A dead Quaker.
  • OATH, n. In law, a solemn appeal to the Deity, made binding upon the conscience by a penalty for perjury.
  • OUTDO, v.t. To make an enemy.
  • PATIENCE, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
  • PEACE, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
  • PIETY, n. Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.
  • PLEASE, v. To lay the foundation for a superstructure of imposition.
  • POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
  • PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
  • PREROGATIVE, n. A sovereign's right to do wrong
  • REALLY, adv. Apparently.
  • RESIDENT, adj. Unable to leave.
  • RESOLUTE, adj. Obstinate in a course that we approve.
  • REVERENCE, n. The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.
  • RUM, n. Generically, fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers.
  • SAINT, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.
  • SELF-EVIDENT, adj. Evident to one's self and to nobody else.
  • TWICE, adv. Once too often.
  • ULTIMATUM, n. In diplomacy, a last demand before resorting to concessions.
  • UN-AMERICAN, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.
  • VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.
    Some months back the Washington Post ran a contest in its weekly Style Invitational to come up with additional definitions in the manner of Bierce.  Herewith, the top four entries and winners:
  •  HERO, n.  Someone who, in a crisis, exceeds our lowest expectation.  (Melissa Balmain, Rochester New York)
  •  MUSIC, n. Songs you listened to in college (Kevin Dopart, Washington, D.C.)
  • GRAMMAR, n.  The rules of language as spoken by the generation immediately preceding one's own. (Robert Schechter, Dix Hills, New York)
  • SUPERCOMMITTEE, n. A committee designed by a committee (Gary Crockett, Chevy Chase Maryland)
See you in two weeks!