The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, Part 1

The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press; Reprint edition (January 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 0803260717

Brett’s Horror Book Collection

Last Sunday, I mentioned that I would be going through this short story collection of writer Ambrose Bierce, a Civil War veteran. Bierce was an uncompromising man with a “rapier” sharp wit, and he was a master of satire. His Devil’s Dictionary is a master work of cynicism and satire. Bierce was deeply affected by the war, and he became disillusioned with the Gilded Age society of his day. Bierce’s stories can be (and are for the purposes of this work) roughly divided into three categories: horror, war, and “tall tales”, in that order. For that reason, most of the stories you will see here for the first several blog entries in this series will be horror. If these are uninteresting to some or many of you, I apologize in advance. However, I hope to both introduce some of you to Bierce’s work and change up my usual posting habits with this series. I want to mention that the “rankings” below are my own personal feelings about a given story. Critics may have loved it, but if I do not I will definitely say so. If you have read these stories, let me know what you personally think of them as well. And finally, I’d love to hear from you on whether or not you want this series to continue.

Note: In the forward to the horror section of Bierce’s stories, the compiler notes that “Haita The Shepherd” is not a horror story, but that he placed it at the front of the book because it could not be classified as horror, war or a tall tale. I have placed it above the horror section for this reason.

“Haita The Shepherd”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “Unfortunate youth! But for thine indiscretion thou mightst have had her for two.”

Comments: Haita the Shepherd finds happiness to be fleeting, especially when he seeks it out with a purpose. This one is more of a fable than anything else, though it seems a little tough to classify. Interestingly, this is the first mention of the god Hastur, who later was to become a staple in H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. I also happen to be a fan of Lovecraft, so this was a surprisingly recognizable name to see, given that Bierce stopped writing several decades before HPL and his friends began writing mythos stories.

Part I: The World of Horror

“The Secrets of Macarger’s Gulch”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 8/10
Quote: “By the way, the name of the gulch is a corruption; it should have been called ‘MacGregor’s.’”

Comments: I enjoyed this short little ghost story. Bierce’s wry humor comes through as the host of dinner describes certain key facts, upsetting the protagonist and causing him to drop his wine, insert a chicken bone into a finger dish, and pepper his coffee!

“The Eyes of the Panther”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 9/10
Quote: “Very well, you shall know: I am insane.”

Comments: Who (or maybe more accurately WHAT) was Irene’s father? I loved the way Bierce didn’t just come out and reveal the ending of this story with a direct description of events.

“The Stranger”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 9/10
Quote: “There were four. Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw, George W. Kent, and Berry Davis.”

Comments: A camp of “gentlemen adventurers” is confronted by a stranger out in the desert, and he tells them an interesting story. The last line of this story (I don’t want to give it away) will make you laugh out loud, more than likely.

“An Inhabitant of Carcosa”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 5/10
Quote: “Good stranger, I am ill and lost. Direct me, I beseech you, to Carcosa.”

Comments: This is a ghost story with a twist, but I didn’t particularly care for it. The first paragraph or so give away the ending if you are an attentive reader. Yes, I am aware that this is considered one of Bierce’s best stories, in case you were wondering.

“The Applicant”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 10/10
Quote: “Under the circumstances, the decision–”

Comments: This is irony at its finest. Bierce’s description of Christmas Day as “that blessed 365th part of the year that all Christian souls set apart for mighty feats of goodness and joy” and Santa’s visits as “the annual falsehood about the hunch-bellied saint who frequents the chimneys to reward little boys and girls who are good, and especially truthful” show in a small way some of the author’s cynical, satiric nature. This is a very short story, but the last sentence is the key.

“The Death of Halpin Frayser”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 8/10
Quote: “That sounds like Bayne.”

Comments: Halpin Frayser dreams he is murdered by a most unlikely source. But does he dream? And is he murdered? And who is Larue? I found this one interesting for its early mention of the term “lich”.

“A Watcher by the Dead”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “It strikes me, youngster, that you and I have been having too much of the morning air lately. It is unwholesome; we need a change. What do you say to a tour in Europe?”

Comments: Two doctors make a bet regarding the possibility of a man surviving a night alone in a room with only a corpse for company. A third doctor, their friend, decides to play the “corpse”, with some rather interesting results.

“The Man and the Snake”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 10/10
Quote: “Good God! How did this thing get in here?”

Comments: This is another Bierce story whose ending changes your whole perception of what you’ve just read. That’s all I’ll say, as I don’t want to give too much away.

“John Mortonson’s Funeral”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “She threw up her arms with a shriek and afterwards fell back insensible.”

Comments: This one is a VERY short story of a man’s funeral and the chaos that ensues. Bierce again delivers something completely against the reader’s expectation with the very last sentence of the story.

Although I had heard a lot about Bierce’s short stories, especially “The Damned Thing” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, I had no idea he wrote this many horror stories, and he is rapidly moving up the list of my personal favorite authors of horror. He sounds like Edgar Allan Poe in some cases, but Bierce stands well on his own. You can almost see him smiling as he writes these stories. Look for more of Bierce’s horror stories over the next two or three weeks. After that we’ll move into his war stories and his tall tales. In all, the book contains around 90 stories, so I envision this series going for 9 or so weeks.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 – Part 6


4 responses to “The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, Part 1”

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