Ambrose Bierce was a prolific short-story writer, satirist, editor, and journalist; he remains one of the more important and vivid voices in American literature from the 1870s until his mysterious disappearance in 1913. Bierce’s writings tend to fall into three categories—Civil War stories, tall tales, and supernatural tales—and it’s that group of supernatural works that’s the largest of the three. I was introduced to him in high school and college when I read many of his stories, such as the masterful “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”… though, despite his reputation as an early master of the macabre, I’ve always wanted to read more of his supernatural tales and ghost stories, which is why I picked up this slim Dover edition.
The Moonlit Road contains a number of excellent stories, including several considered Bierce’s best. I have to say, all of them were quite good, and I was impressed at how so many of them are still terrifying and suspenseful over a hundred years after Bierce wrote them. The title tale, for example, is a mind-bender that shows three perspectives of a man’s wife murdered by unknown assailants: three different characters, and each of their perspectives inform the reader a little more about the true cause of death. There’s also little thrillers like “The Man and the Snake,” in which a man finds a snake in his hotel room; hypnotized by its glowing eyes, he struggles in vain to leave the room, but is only capable of crawling closer to it. Hearing a scream, the hotel staff rush to the room and find the man dead… next to a stuffed snake, with shoe-buttons for eyes. That’s the kind of twist Bierce excels at—the horror is palpable, the revelation is even more shocking, and regardless of how crazy the stories’ ideas are… they work.
“The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch” was one of my favorites, an atmospheric little gem about a hunter who finds himself alone in the California wilds at dusk. Seeking refuge, he settles into the remains of an abandoned house for the night; as his fire burns low, his mind is filled with strange dreams… Awakened by wild thrashing in the house, he grips his shotgun tight and keeps his fire well lit for the rest of the night. Some years later, a chance meeting reveals the house’s dark past, a grim explanation of his night-time encounter. It’s a moody, morbid story, with an isolated atmosphere of suspense and unease, that also has a good deal of Bierce’s capable wit.
Another excellent chiller, “A Holy Terror,” sees a man reach the remains of an isolated gold-rush ghost-town, then mark off part of the cemetery as his mining claim. In a flashback, we learn that he’d went adventuring to amass his fortune for his loved one, a woman who has since renounced their love and moved on. It turns out that the cemetery has a cache of gold hidden under one coffin, and the man begins to unearth it… only to find the coffin was buried upside-down, when its contents fall through the rotting wood onto him. This is an excellent example of Bierce’s work: after the mounting sense of dread with the man struggling to exhume a grave, and the sharp terror of the coffin’s contents, the story has not one but two twists as well as an ironic revelation of the hidden cache’s contents.
Bierce uses the isolated American frontier as a backdrop to his tales of horror, a setting just a few generations removed from the world Bierce’s readers knew. “The Eyes of The Panther” has a vivid scene of a hungry mountain lion peering through a log cabin’s open window at a woman and her newborn; it’s not even related to the story’s true terror, of identity and sanity… and possibly, shape-shifters? “The Boarded Window” tells of an abandoned shack “only a few miles away from what is now the great city of Cincinnati,” where a frontiersman and his wife once scraped by. When the wife falls victim to fever, her husband tries to nurse her back to health, but to no avail. With her body lain in state on their table, the grief-stricken man loses his senses; he snaps back to reality to find some savage beast—another panther—coming through his open window. As usual, Bierce’s final twist is the horrifying part.
It helps that Bierce’s prose is so eloquent and captivating; it’s sparse and economical yet erudite, possessing a keen vocabulary and good sense of how to properly pace a short terror tale. Bierce’s horror stories are quiet and detached, but he tells them with a companionable storyteller’s voice. His stories embrace their dark imagery, full of isolated places in the American frontier wilderness—moonlit forests filled with savage panthers, abandoned houses in the rocky California chaparral. The literary devices he uses are chosen to throw the reader off balance and keep them on edge; the stories have abrupt beginnings, and often end with a line just as abrupt; he makes vague references to time, setting his stories in a near but unspecified past; his descriptions are limited, vague but chosen with enough distinction to imprint an idea on your mind.
In my mind, these tales have firmly entrenched Bierce’s status as a master of the weird tale. His influence on H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers is documented, though he never gained the same reputation as Lovecraft or Poe—impacted in no small part by his misanthropic personality, while his strange disappearance left his legacy wide open. Bierce’s tales of the macabre are excellent, some of the best of their kind… I’ve read several similar volumes, and found this one of the better at building suspense and generating surprise. And readers who find older prose styles chafing should find Bierce’s tales a bit more modern and accessible. Anyone attracted to the horror genre ought to read some of them.
- The Eyes of the Panther (1897)
- The Moonlit Road (1907)
- The Boarded Window (1891)
- The Man and the Snake (1890)
- The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch (1891)
- The Middle Toe of the Right Foot (1890)
- A Psychological Shipwreck (1879)
- A Holy Terror (1882)
- John Bartine’s Watch (1893)
- Beyond the Wall (1907)
- A Watcher by the Dead (1889)
- Moxon’s Master (1899)
Title: The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories
Editor: Ambrose Bierce
First Published Date: 1879 – 1907
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley)
MSRP: paperback oop / $3 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-0486400563 / B0188FC1XC