Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was a dark and pessimistic writer with a cynical nature which was reflected in his work. Elements of horror and the grotesque were present in many of his short stories, and the following are examples where he has used the uncanny as a device in order to evoke a strange and unsettling mood within his stories:

‘I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down – crushed it so that it did not rise; and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly towards us.

‘Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this unfamiliar and unaccountable phenonemon, yet I am unable to recall any sense of fear. I remember – and tell it here because, singularly enough, I recollected it then – that once in looking carelessly out of an open window I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety , a warning of unthinkable calamity.’ (102, The Damned Thing)

‘The superstitious awe with which the living regard the dead,’ said Dr Helbertson, ‘is hereditary and incurable. One needs no more be ashamed of it than of the fact that he inherits, for example, an incapacity for mathematics, or a tendancy to lie.’…

‘But do you think,’ said the third man, ‘that this superstitious feeling, this fear of the dead, reasonless as we may know it to be, is universal? I am myself not conscious of it.’

‘Oh, but it is “in your system” for all that,’ replied Helberson; ‘it needs only the right conditions – what Shakespeare calls the “confederate season” – to manifest itself in some very disagreeable way that will open your eyes.’…

Mr Jarette was not at his ease; he was distinctly dissatisfied with his surroundings, and with himself for being so. ‘What have I to fear?’ he thought. ‘This is ridiculous and disgraceful; I will not be so great a fool.’ But courage does not come of saying, ‘I will be courageous,’ nor of recognising its appropriateness to the occassion. The more Jarette condemned himself, the more reason he gave himself for condemnation; the greater the number of variations which he played upon the simple theme of the harmlessness of the dead, the more insupportable grew the discord of his emotions. ‘What! Shall I, who have not a shade of superstition in my nature – I, who know (and never more clearly than now) that the afterlife is the dream of a desire – shall I lose at once my bet, my honour and my self-respect, because certain savage anscestors dwelling in caves and burrows conceived the monsterous notion that the dead walk by night? – that – ‘ Distinctly, unmistakably, Mr Jarette heard behind him a light, soft sound of footfalls, deliberate, regular, successively nearer!’ (70-73, A Watcher by the Dead)

Bierce also incorporates the Abject (often connected to the uncanny) in his work; dealing with that which is cast out of the symbolic order or which confronts our safe and accepted sense of reality, leading to outright rejection and repulsion: 

‘A snake in a bedroom of a modern city dwelling of the better sort is, happily, not so common a phenomenon as to make explanation altogether needless…Beyond a smart shock of surprise and a shudder of mere loathing, Mr Brayton was not greatly affected…If not dangerous, the creature was at least offensive. It was de trop – ‘matter out of place’ – an impertinence. The gem was unworthy of the setting. Even the barbarous taste of our time and country, which had loaded the walls of the room with pictures, the floor with furniture, and the furniture with bric-a-brac, had not quite fitted the place for this bit of the savage life of the jungle. Besides – insupportable thought! – the exhalations of its breath mingled with the atmosphere which he himself was breathing!’ (82-84, The Man and the Snake)           

The following link is a site devoted to Ambrose Bierce and includes work by contemporary artists who have made installations based upon his work:


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