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.
Those who find “My Favorite Murder” a bit much should turn to Bierce’s more consistent exercises in deadpan humor, where he pulverizes the marvelous into the alarmingly mundane with breathtaking and hilarious aplomb. My favorite is his compact masterpiece “One Summer Night,” which features these brilliant opening paragraphs:
The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture—flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation—the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.
No philosopher was he—just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference: the organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So with no particular apprehension for this immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.
For Poe, premature burial is a fixation that generates psychological panic once nightmare becomes reality. For Bierce, it is a relaxing experience, an invitation to take a nap. How or why did Henry Armstrong end up in a casket under the ground? Bierce offers no explanation, just proffers a tongue-in-cheek gibe at the threat of oblivion. Henry’s “pathological indifference” to ultimate reality burlesques our fear of death as well as American pragmatism: When six-feet-under, you might as well be reasonable, face facts, and not make a fuss. The best thing is to mark time before the end comes, somewhat behind schedule.