Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bierce comes up with cool stuff - flying men and killer chess robots

Ambrose Bierce’s stories are the traditional link between the weird tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft and his successors and imitators.  Bierce is a better prose writer than either Lovecraft or Poe, but I doubt many readers carry away from Bierce any images or scenes as striking as the collapse of the House of Usher or the climax of the masque of the Red Death.  I would give Poe the prize for imaginative power, meaning Poe came up with more cool stuff.  Lovecraft survives almost entirely as a creator of cool stuff.

Not that Bierce lacked imaginative power.  Today I will not worry about Bierce’s best writing so much as linger over some of his cool stuff.  Like flying men:

He passed above [the branch], and from my point of view was sharply outlined against the blue.  At this distance of many years I can distinctly recall that image of a man in the sky, its head erect, its feet close together, its hands – I do not see its hands.  All at once, with astonishing suddenness and rapidity, it turns clear over and pitches downward.  (“George Thurston”)

The description of the Union officer who has launched himself into the air is much longer than this, as is the explanation of how he ended up where he did, and the story as a whole has a good psychological answer to why.  But I suspect Bierce was most interested in the image itself, the strange imaginative power of this impossible event and impossible death (“Death has taken an unfair advantage; he has struck with an unfamiliar weapon; he has executed a new and disquieting stratagem”).

George Thurston is the second flying man to be found in the war stories of In the Midst of Life.  The other is the title character in the first story in the book, “A Horseman in the Sky”:

Straight upright sat the rider, in military fashion, with a firm seat in the saddle, a strong clutch upon the rein to hold his charger from too impetuous a plunge.  From his bare head his long hair streamed upward, waving like a plume.  His hands were concealed in the cloud of the horse's lifted mane.  The animal's body was as level as if every hoof-stroke encountered the resistant earth.

The horse and rider have gone off a cliff; the view is from below.  In both stories, the reactions of the observers are as interesting as the apparition.  True for many of Bierce’s ghost stories, too, come to think of it.  The image is so strange that Bierce gives the reader company, someone else who can confirm that you really saw what you think you saw.

Another example, one that requires some background.  Poe’s 1836 “Maelzel’s Chess Player” is a brilliantly observed and argued debunking and dismantling of a supposed chess-playing automaton.  Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master” is a Poe parody that begins with several pages of argument about thinking plants and thinking crystals.  The important thing is that the inventor Moxon has built a genuine chess-playing robot.  Watch the inventor and robot play chess:

I observed a shrug of the thing's great shoulders, as if it were irritated:  and so natural was this – so entirely human – that in my new view of the matter it startled me.   Nor was that all, for a moment later it struck the table sharply with its clenched hand.   At that gesture Moxon seemed even more startled than I:  he pushed his chair a little backward, as in alarm.

The robot, defeated at chess, grinds itself into a killing rage.  Bierce in this story created a murderous chess-playing robot whose grievance against his creator and the world is that it is bad at chess.  This concept is not, on its own, a significant contribution to civilization, but it is hilarious, and imaginative, and something I had not seen before. Pretty cool.


  1. The flying ram in "My Favorite Murder" is memorable, too: Bierce at his most outrageous and most pictorial.

    "The Damned Thing" is a pretty potent invention, too. Maupassant's "Horla" came first (had Bierce read it?), but Bierce ran with it in his own way.

  2. Lest the reader think "What are these crazy people talking about?":

    "Onward and upward the noble animal sailed, its head bent down almost between its knees, its fore-feet thrown back, its hinder legs trailing to rear like the legs of a soaring heron."

    Bierce's variation is more of a true science fiction concept - the physical phenomenon itself is interesting. "The Horla" is more about the mental state of the narrator - so I suppose the last part of "The Damned Thing" is derivative of M. The page or so with the action scene - the rustling in the oats - is fantastic.

    If I were more interested in the Lovecraft connection, I would write more about "The Damned Thing": "I am not mad; there are colors that we cannot see."

  3. The next sentence is good too; the curious reader can easily find it online...

    "The Horla" is also different in being, apparently, a record of Maupassant's own descent into insanity. I don't know if Bierce is derivative; he may not have read it. Of course, invisible beings have a long history in folklore (and in insanity).

  4. No, here's the best bit in "The Damned Thing":

    "...I sometimes write stories."

    "I sometimes read them."

    "Thank you."

    "Stories in general — not yours."

  5. Ha ha ha ! Point conceded!

    Yes, any reader whose curiosity is piqued by the ram should track down exactly why he has launched himself like that. The answer will be a fine surprise.