Ambrose Bierce was not a writer of detective fiction by intent, and he did not write mysteries in the modern sense of the word. The common denominator of his short stories is that they all deal with death—death caused by war, humans, or the supernatural. The presentation of death, however, often follows the methods one would expect in detective fiction, a genre nascent in the days of Bierce. There is the attempt to discover the cause of death through rational cogitation, and perhaps the most important figure in the aftermath of the death is that of the coroner. Although a minor character, Bierce’s coroner succeeds in reinstating order and reining in the chaos that has crept into the narrative through what has often been a true tour de force of the imagination. Certainty is reestablished but at a price: Somebody is irrefutably dead.
“The Haunted Valley”
Bierce’s first short story, “The Haunted Valley” (it first appeared in Overland Monthly, 1871, and was revised for Can Such Things Be?), anticipated the themes and devices of much of his later work. As in most of his stories, the setting is Bierce’s contemporary American West, a land and a people he knew exceptionally well and to which he brought his own particular brand of the gothic. In exchange, he received initiation to the tall tale, a form that thrived at the campfires of the pioneers, and a subgenre that Bierce would cultivate to perfection. At the core of “The Haunted Valley” is the mystery surrounding the death of the “Chinaman” and the role of his white employer-tormentor, a roguish innkeeper. The narrator, a nameless traveler, discovers the enigma surrounding the fate of the two. Yet, typical for Bierce, this knowledge cannot serve to bring forth temporal punishment of the villain. An all-white jury has acquitted the innkeeper in a fashion typical of the corruptness of the courts of Bierce’s fiction and his contemporary surroundings.
Retribution is meted out in a careful and deliberate manner, however, and the denouement of his earliest story proves exemplary of the way in which, in Bierce’s work, victims entangle themselves in webs of their own making. Here, the innkeeper insists on the almost abnormal power with which looks are charged. Sensing his master’s special susceptibility to the supernatural, his hired hand tricks him into believing that he sees the Asian’s eye. The villain is so shocked that he dies, and a certain black sense of retribution prevails, made absolute by the fact that the trickster goes mad as a result of his action.
“A Watcher by the Dead”
The use of the supernatural is a hallmark of Bierce’s fiction; unfortunately, he has been mistaken for a writer who relies on sheer horror to enhance otherwise undistinguished writing. Therefore it is important to see that often the horror of Bierce’s stories, which inevitably end in one or more violent deaths, comes from within the human mind rather than from any outside source. As such, Bierce’s mystery stories explore the realm and the abyss of the human imagination and its susceptibility to primal beliefs. Any rejection of this aspect of the human condition will lead to the destruction of doubters, whose pride or simple insistence on their powers of reason will be shattered after they have met one of Bierce’s fiendish tempters.
“A Watcher by the Dead” (in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians) is a great illumination of that. Here, a doctor declares categorically:The superstitious awe with which the living regard the dead . . . 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 tendency to lie.
Thus, decades before Carl Jung and Northrop Frye, the question of humanity’s collective memory is raised. Bierce’s stay in Great Britain may have...
(The entire section contains 1872 words.)
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- Critical Essays