Monday, October 6, 2008
Graphic Classics: Ambrose "Bitter" Bierce
There are cynics, and there are cynics. And then there's Bierce.
Ambrose Bierce is probably best known today for "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," which everyone eventually encounters in high school English class. And it's a good snapshot of what Bierce does best: a story of a single event, filled with snapshot detail, set in the Civil War and ending with a bitter, cynical twist. But it's only the tip of the Bierceberg.
Bierce served in Union Army during the Civil War until he was wounded in Georgia. His stories set during the conflict, sprinkled with details from his own experiences, make Shelby Foote look like Nicholas Sparks. In this excerpt from the short story "Chickamauga," a six-year-old child encounters a retreating soldier:
He now approached one of these crawling figures from behind and with an agile movement mounted it astride. The man sank upon his breast, recovered, flung the small boy fiercely to the ground as an unbroken colt might have done, then turned upon him a face that lacked a lower jaw--from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone. The unnatural prominence of nose, the absence of chin, the fierce eyes, gave this man the appearance of a great bird of prey crimsoned in throat and breast by the blood of its quarry. The man rose to his knees, the child to his feet. The man shook his fist at the child; the child, terrified at last, ran to a tree near by, got upon the farther side of it and took a more serious view of the situation.
(Unfortunately this story is not included in the Graphic Classics, but those interested can read it online here. It contains a typical Bierce twist at the end.)
Or consider this entry from his "Devil's Dictionary," included in the Graphic Classics edition with full-page illustrations by Steven Cerio (one is also used for the cover):
OCEAN: A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man--who has no gills.
or this one:
BAIT: A preparation that renders the hook more palatable. The best kind is beauty.
Graphic Classics has re-issued their original Bierce collection with 70 pages of new material, including adaptations of "The Damned Thing" (a personal favorite), "Moxon's Master" (true science fiction, although the illustrations by Stan Shaw seem to work against the story's intent) and a long, beautifully drawn (by Carlo Vergara) take on "The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter," which Bierce translated from the original German. There's also a rib-tickling bio of Bierce, illustrated with irreverence by Dan E. Burr (look for the cameo characters in some of the crowd scenes).
Most importantly, the adaptations retain the bitter heart of their source. Some of the prose may be a bit dated to a modern teen reader, but such archness was often deliberate, a way to mock the seriousness of "literary" writing. Bierce had see the worst humanity had to offer and, when faced with the choice to laugh or cry, chose instead to snort derisively. Time cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite misanthropy.