The problem is that Bierce’s unyielding use of shock and insult as a tool for humorous enlightenment tends to obliterate every convention in its path. Just about everything his 19th-century readership valued—religion, government, the press, corporations, literature—Bierce did not. (A typical Bierce aphorism: “The greatest good to the greatest number: Death.”) He expresses his anger through an anarchistic joy that’s so over-the-top, the satiric point is often lost. The teasing fluctuation and bewildering uncertainty of tone in Bierce’s work have contributed to his shaky critical reputation. When is he in earnest and when is he pulling our leg? At times it is hard to tell.
Bierce’s free-floating tragicomic response to America, however, is one of his enduring gifts to journalism. It inspired Mencken’s horselaughs at the expense of what Mencken called the “carnival of buncombe,” and lives on in the raucous overkill of Pauline Kael, Tom Wolfe, and the flamethrowers of today. His bedeviling ferocity, born of an excess of satiric disdain, is also the key to Bierce’s continuing appeal as a writer. The author’s reputation as a misanthrope obscures how the gauche energy of his allegories are actually their strength: His heavy hand penned wholly original stories that avoid staid moral messages or conventional intimations of the supernatural. The Civil War stories, for instance, are admired for more than just their documentary value: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” with its death’s head japes and narrative somersaults, is considered by critics to be one of the finest “experimental” American stories of the period. The contrariness of The Devil’s Dictionary, which celebrated its centennial last year, is often dismissed as skepticism gone rancid (“Cynic, n. a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be”). But those criticisms overlook the honest illumination that Bierce’s pitiless definitions supply.
Told in a lean, tongue-in-cheek style, Bierce’s wised-up supernatural and horror stories are head-scratching hybrids, twisted bridges between Poe’s Gothic scarefests and the overripe monster mashes of H. P. Lovecraft. As a satirist, Bierce is not interested in depicting the inner lives of his characters or exploring primal spiritual conundrums. A Gilded-Age compilation of these stories sold poorly, suggesting that readers at the time didn’t know what to make of them. Many critics today dismiss them as nothing but pint-sized potboilers of the otherworldly or grisly variety.
For me, the sadistic satire of the Civil War stories is pumped up into full-blown comic hysteria in these strange and fascinating tales. The use of scathing exaggeration to expose corruption and hubris becomes a muckraking weapon that forces the reader to confront the randomness of existence. In all of his writing—fiction and nonfiction—Bierce wants to wise us up (there is the implication that we are all dupes, in one way or another). His supernatural tales are part of his battle against optimism, the great American con game, with religion being among the most damaging of the country’s major swindles. Our self-serving images of war, politics, and commerce were fair game for his lampooning—why not our metaphysics?
In the stories Bierce draws on his favorite stylistic device: He artfully overplays or underplays his zesty parodic tone, often alternating between high and low registers in the same piece. The marvelously curdled fairy tale “My Favorite Murder” is told from the point of view of an unrepentant maniac. A man from an unsavory family defends murdering his mother by proudly explaining to a judge how he committed a far more heinous crime: the premeditated slaying of his uncle. The final blow is delivered to the mutilated but breathing victim while he hangs, trussed up in a sack, from the branch of a tree. His unusual executioner is an enthused ram who, to deliver the coup de grâce, leaps high into the air:
At the height of forty or fifty feet, as fond recollection presents it to view, it attained its zenith and appeared to remain an instant stationary; then, titling suddenly forward without altering the relative position of its parts, it shot downward on a steeper and steeper course with augmenting velocity, passed immediately above me with a noise like a rush of a cannon shot and struck my uncle almost squarely on the top of the head! So frightful was the impact that not only the man’s neck was broken, but the rope too; and the body of the deceased, forced against the earth, was crushed to a pulp beneath the awful front of that meteoric sheep!
Note the image of the cannon shot: For Bierce, violence is inevitably a form of combat. This story is among his most outrageous, but it is typical of the grotesque ways he battles against American expectations of good taste, ethical rectitude, prosaic reality, and the ethos of success.