When one is confronted with the “desert island” choice of one book, one musical record or one film to take with them, it is obviously difficult on many levels, not the least because that “choice” may depend one’s current psychological state, or if they are enamored with a certain personality at a particular time. It might not take long before you rue your choice out of sheer boredom, but that cycle would simply repeat itself over and over again. The best “choice” would have to be something that encompasses a range of emotional, visual and sonic necessities. Would that be the Beatles’ “White Album” or Elvis’ complete Memphis Sessions for music? John Boorman’s 1981 take on the Arthurian legend, Excalibur, for a film?
What about a book? There are many authors whose work I find “vital” as inspirations for my own worldview; they would include Mark Twain and Voltaire for political and social commentary. But I also enjoy reading stories of the macabre where the guilty receive their due, and although neither of these two authors wrote such works, they may have looked at the world through eyes similar to those who did. Naturally, I enjoy the works of Poe and Lovecraft, but they were not in any way political or social commentators, save in rare instances (I’m thinking Poe’s "Masque of the Red Death," “William Wilson” and “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”).
I haven’t made-up my mind what book I would like to take to my desert island, but for someone of my way of thinking, a case could be made for The Library of America’s collected works of Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales and Memoirs. Bierce is not a well-known name among those who don’t have the patience to read or only read the rudimentary details of the latest goings on of pointless celebrities, or haven’t taken American Literature courses in college, or simply have no appreciation of what is really “good.” Back in the day before television, computers and “smart” phones, people with the “creative impulse” had nothing but time to pass deep in thought about what they wanted to “say.” There were only limited means to reach a mass audience and become “famous” in the process, and perhaps make a little money too. For some great artists in the pre-mass media era, fame and money would only occur after they passed from the living, and appreciation for what their single-minded labor wrought would eventually be discovered.
Bierce is recognized as an important writer for his time. His moniker, not always used affectionately, was “Bitter Bierce,” and he had little positive to say about the human race, even less than Twain. Perhaps it is for this reason that he is best known for two short stories, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—which was adapted into an Oscar-winning French short film that was subsequently shortened even more and used as a Twilight Zone episode—and his oft-anthologized horror story “The Damned Thing.”
Bierce’s other claim to “fame” is the fact that the place, time and circumstances of his death remain a mystery to this day. One day he just decided he was going to out into the Mexican countryside and follow revolutionary leader Pancho Villa around, and claiming that he hoped to die like a soldier. Bierce was a veteran of many bloody Civil War battles, and having survived that war, perhaps he just wanted to end his life like a soldier. But Bierce simply disappeared. He may have been killed during a siege, shot as a “spy,” or got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time, like while driving a mule train of guns. Bierce didn’t speak a word of Spanish, and it was suggested that his inability to “explain” himself to the natives likely made survival difficult for him. Others claim that he just wandered off into the wilderness and committed suicide, with his Mexican adventure just another “tall tale” of his.
To be honest, like many “artists” whose interests cover a wide area, Bierce wasn’t “great” at any one genre of writing. He wasn’t the entirely the perceptive social critic that Voltaire or Twain were, but he was close enough not to be ignored. He wasn’t the dedicated storyteller of the macabre that Poe and Lovecraft were; most of his stories in that vein are only a few pages long and hinge on a “twist” that after several readings are still hard to completely recognize or interpret. But Bierce is nonetheless recognized as the most successful writer in the genre in the period between Poe and Lovecraft, and his output is sufficient enough to merit a book-length volume.
Bierce was also something those other writers were not: a former soldier whose Civil War tales provided insight into the insanity of war which is unrivaled, a writer of “fables” that exposed the failings of human nature (like “Oil of Dog,” which savagely satirizes American “ingenuity” and “entrepreneurial” spirit, and the author of a “dictionary” both humorous and cutting: Flag, n. A colored rag borne above troops and hoisted on forts and ships. It appears to serve the same purpose as certain signs that one sees in London—“Rubbish may be shot here” and Folly, n. That “gift and faculty divine” whose creative and controlling energy inspires Man’s mind, guides his actions, and adorns his life.
As mentioned, many of Bierce’s stories are difficult to discern their meaning. Quite often his Civil War tales, such as “A Horseman in the Sky” leave us wondering too hard if something real or imagined is being told. In that story, did the soldier on watch shoot a horse that caused both horse and rider to fall off the cliff—and is this the “apparition” the officer imagined he saw “flying” in the air? Or was it the other way around? Other war tales mock the supposed heroism of the self-important, like the officer in “Killed at Resaca,” where the officer in a “heroic” pose is killed not by enemy fire, but by a poisonous snake; yet other stories, like “One of the Missing,” gives voice to real heroes in the battlefield, those who are simply numbers to their commanders. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is probably the best known of these stories in this genre because of its seemingly straightforward tale of a Confederate civilian about to be hanged by the Yankees as a saboteur, somehow escapes back to his plantation and beautiful wife—or so it seems.
Bierce’s stories of the macabre are not typical fare for anyone who considers Poe and Lovecraft the “masters” of the art. Bierce had a preoccupation with death in virtually all of his stories in this genre, and many, like “A Holy Terror” and “The Haunted Valley” require a great deal of examination to interpret what exactly one just read, and not always to one’s satisfaction. Other stories, like “The Stranger,” have “twists” that are easily understood but not particularly sufficient for the effort in reading it, while the “The Boarded Window” and “Watcher of the Dead” do have denouements that are sufficiently “creepy.” “The Damned Thing” is one of the few stories in his canon that qualifies as “science fiction,” about an apparently invisible creature that terrorizes a man and obliges him to attempt to kill it, which his “hunting” companion is at a loss to explain. Another story, “Mysterious Disappearances,” is plainly a trilogy of tales of the supernatural, and science’s inability to explain them.
Perhaps it is the “faults” of some of Bierce’s stories that still make them fascinating reading, and worth re-reading, just to figure out the “mystery.” Is this volume my “desert island” book? I haven’t decided, but it is surely in the mix for the sheer range of Bierce’s concerns.