Some names simply scream nominative determinism. Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce has such a name. A descendant of the Mayflower through his mother, Laura Sherwood Bierce. With a dad named Marcus Aurelius Bierce, you just know things are going to happen. Ambrose was the tenth of thirteen children. All of their names started with the letter A. We know what vowel his dad would have purchased if he’d been a contestant on the Wheel of Fortune.
Back to Ambrose. He left home at the age of 15 to become a printer’s devil. A fancy name for performing all the menial tasks of printing a newspaper. Three years later he enlisted in the Union Army as a drummer boy in the American Civil War. Over the next four years he rose through the ranks to brevet major. Twice wounded, he fought at the Battle of Shiloh. The terror of that experience became the material of several of his short stories and a memoir.
His short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is credited as one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature. I have a short story anthology on my bookshelf. I checked, it’s in there. Bierce realistically wrote about the awful things he witnessed during the war. He also perfected the twist ending.
During his lifetime he was better known as one of the most influential journalist in the U.S. He worked for William Randolph Hearst. Created controversy. Cost Hearst his run for the U.S. Presidency, but Bierce was never fired for his writings.
But it is his foray into fiction for which he was accorded the moniker of the pioneer of the psychological horror story. His stories are ranked alongside H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. His war stories influenced Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Crane among others. His poetry is even making a comeback.
But it was his disappearance in 1914 at the age of 71 which flummoxed historians. Some say he traveled to Mexico and followed the exploits of Poncho Villa, where he was allegedly executed in a graveyard in Chihauhau, Mexico. Others declare that he couldn’t have gone to Mexico because of his outspoken views against Villa. Still others guess he passed by his own hand.
The last line of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, “Payton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge.” Perhaps it was his love of twist endings.
Whatever the truth, Bierce was never seen again, but his legacy continues.