Book 5 of the ‘Penguin 6o’s collection’ comprises a half dozen short stories by Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914). For the uninitiated (among whom I include myself), the author was apparently “America’s foremost nineteenth-century satirist”, which explains his inclusion in the series celebrating the publisher’s sixtieth anniversary. Bierce is best known for “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1906), but he also published two poetry books and many short stories. The cluster of stories in this short anthology surely stand testament to his qualities as a talented writer. However, Bierce also fought with distinction in an Indiana regiment during the American civil war and this may help explain the authentic undertone detectable in a couple of the stories. Moreover, the common theme, albeit sombre, repeated across these tales, relates to the dark, mysterious nature of death and echoes macabre exploits of the living, unwittingly touched by the gossamer veil masking the beyond.
Certainly these ‘taster reads’ have perked the reader’s curiosity and the knowledge that Bierce was a contemporary and friend of Mark Twain only inflames the interest further. Indeed, the notion that ‘art imitates life’ may even seem prescient. In 1913 Bierce openly shared his intention to travel to Mexico and join Pancho Villa’s forces as an observer of that country’s civil war. That he was never heard from again and the circumstances of his death are obscure feels like a fittingly mysterious and intriguing end.