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The Enduring Influence of Ambrose Bierce

October 10th, 2021

Earlier this year, after turning in the manuscript for a new collection of Ambrose Bierce stories, I was watching The Criterion Channel and engaging in an activity that screenwriter Josh Olson calls “eating your vegetables.” In other words, I was finally watching some of those classic movies I’d heard about but had never got around to actually watching.

I had just finished Carnival of Souls (1962), a stylish, low-budget horror flick that seemed to be a retelling of Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”; and next up was The Hit (1984), a British gangster flick in which Terence Stamp plays an informer abducted by a couple of hitmen played by John Hurt and a very young Tim Roth. The cast alone makes it a must-see, but as I watched this story of a man awaiting what is certain to be his execution, I realized I was in the midst of yet another Bierce retelling. This time, the uncredited source was “Parker Adderson, Philosopher.”

What are the chances? Two in a row. But it’s not surprising, given the way Bierce’s stories tend to take root in the unconscious. Read one, and it becomes part of you forever.

Thus, I suppose it’s possible that unconscious influence played a part in the writing of the screenplays, with each writer inadvertently tapping into the memory of a Bierce tale and mistaking its plot for an original idea. But both films seem more like uncredited homages — particularly The Hit, whose main character, Willie Parker, is likely a reference to the Bierce protagonist Parker Adderson.

Also this past year, I caught up with Richard Christian Matheson’s “The Damned Thing” (2006), which originally aired in Season Two of Mick Garris’s groundbreaking series Masters of Horror. As I wasn’t a Showtime subscriber when the series first aired, it took availability on streaming for me to see Matheson’s reworking of Bierce’s classic — an adaptation that moves the action to the present day and effectively amps up the tale’s horror. And, yes, this reworking gives credit to Bierce, as does the classic Robert Enrico adaptation of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1962) that aired as part of Season Five of the original Twilight Zone TV series. It may be one of the best film adaptations ever made of a short story.

All three tales — “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Parker Adderson, Philosopher,” and “The Damned Thing” — are included in A Little Blue Book of Civil War Horror, where you’ll also find nine more tales and vignettes by Ambrose Bierce.

You can read more about the collection here. Copies are available from Borderlands Press. Check it out, and please let me know if you come across any other films based on Bierce’s tales. It’s always good to have a portion of vegetables to go with a hefty serving of meat.

New From Borderlands Press:
Past Masters of Horror and Dark Fantasy

July 9th, 2021

Scholars, critics, and even psychologists have long touted the therapeutic benefits of vicarious horror. See, for example Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films? (from Psychology Today) or my previous post Horror Films are Good for You. And of course, there were the ancient Greeks, who some 7,000 years ago recognized the importance of purging intense emotion through the process of catharsis.

Why watch a play in which a murderous, incestuous king gouges out his own eyes? Because it allows us to experience the unspeakable and walk away unscathed.

That may be one of the reasons Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion became the second most-watched film in the Warner Bros. catalogue during the early days of Covid. Watching the film gave viewers a chance to face the monster without risking exposure to the disease.

In the process, those viewers may have gained a degree of understanding that prepared them for the real-word dangers of 2020 — all by watching a film written and produced years before those involved had ever faced a real pandemic.

Likewise, as far as we know, Sophocles didn’t murder his father. Nor was Stephen King ever kidnapped by a deranged fan or Edgar Allan Poe buried alive. But there are exceptions – writers and filmmakers who have actually faced the monsters they write about.

Case in point: Last year, while viewers were streaming Soderberg’s contagion, I began spending time with Ambrose Bierce, researching his life and works for A Little Blue Book of Civil War Horrors, scheduled for release this fall from Borderlands Press.

Bierce is an exception among horror writers. He didn’t simply imagine the horrors he wrote about. He lived them, experiencing them first-hand on the frontlines of the American Civil War. Afterward, he spent the rest of his life coming to terms with what he had seen by giving us some of the most harrowing horror tales ever written.

One of the fascinating qualities of Bierce’s tales is the way he peppers his fictional accounts with historical references that makes it possible to arrange the narratives into a semblance of chronological order. Thus – unlike the works of many of his literary peers – Bierce’s stories can be ordered to show the progression of a life galvanized by real-world horror. That’s what I have attempted to do in this new edition.

Here’s the announcement from the Borderlands Press website:

This fall, Borderlands Press is scheduled to release the first volume of the 4th Series of their popular Little Book series — Past Masters of Horror and Dark Fantasy.

Series IV will feature the seminal works of many of the progenitors of the horror and dark fantasy genres.

Each volume will be edited and signed by a contemporary writer or editor in the field.

The first title will honor the work of Ambrose Bierce, who wrote some of the most memorable stories of the American Civil War.

A Little Blue Book of Civil War Horrors is the first of a 15-book series, all edited by award-winning writers and editors. Here’s the complete list of titles:

  • A Little Blue Book of Civil War Horrors: Ambrose Bierce – edited by Lawrence Connolly
  • A Little Jasmine Book: M R James – edited by Stephen Jones
  • A Little Brown Book of Unnatural Narratives: Arthur Machen – edited by Bentley Little
  • A Little Yellow Book of Carcosa and Kings: Robert W Chambers – edited by Lisa Morton
  • A Little Purple Book of Sharp Wit: Charlotte Riddell – edited by Meghan Arcuri
  • A Little Aquamarine Book of Agitated Water: William Hope Hodgson – edited by Michael Bailey
  • A Little Black Book: Algernon Blackwood – edited by Mark Sieber
  • A Little Fuschia Book of Fearful Tales: Sheridan LeFanu – edited by Eric Guignard
  • A Little Orange Book of Outre Tales: M P Shiel – edited by James Moore
  • A Little Green Book: Edward Lucas White – edited by Mary Sangiovanni
  • A Little Red Book: H H Munro (Saki) – edited by Stuart Schiff
  • A Little Gray Book of Gloom: Mary Wilkins Freeman – edited by Grady Hendrix
  • A Little Bronze Book of Weird Tales: Robert E Howard – edited by Michael Knost
  • A Little Silver Book of the Strange: H P Lovecraft – edited by S T Joshi
  • A Little Gold Book of Gothic Horror: Edgar Allan Poe – edited by Philip Fracassi

Civil War Horrors is currently available for pre-order at the Borderlands Press website, where they still have some open slots and numbers for anyone who wants to subscribe to the whole series. (You can reach them via their Contact Page for more details.)

Be advised, as writer Blu Gilliand points out in a review of Little Books Series III, Borderland’s Little Books tend to sell out quickly. With that in mind, it’s best to place an order now and get on the Borderlands Press mailing list so you can start grabbing future titles when they are announced. And for collectors and bibliophiles, Borderlands offers distinctive display cases (see photo above) for storing and preserving these distinctive, limited editions.

The Bierce book is one of a number of new releases I have coming out this fall. Others include the US edition of Sandra Becerril’s Nightmares (featuring stories by four of the writers of Mick Garris’s Nightmare Cinema), the third season of the fiction podcast Prime Stage Mystery Theatre, a new audio novelette for the eleventh season of The Wicked Library, a stage adaptation of Frankenstein, and a few more very cool things that I can’t share just yet. But soon!

Stop back next week for more details.

Until then, scop on!