So I haven’t been this knee-deep into a tv show since The Sopranos ended and believe me you don’t want to know the withdrawals I had from that North Jersey family. Only four episodes into HBO’s new crime series True Detective, and I have regained faith in episodic storytelling. Inspired, I had to post a tribute to one of my personal literary heroes, Ambrose Bierce, the "Devil's Lexicographer," following dialogue I heard from characters in True Detective. Suspects in the juicy crime story, interrogated by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, reference his story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” as well as The King in Yellow, a collection of stories by Robert W. Chambers. This is the perfect segue to highlight these pioneers of early American weird fiction.
For those not familiar with Bierce’s life, he was a versatile man known for a sharp, sarcastic tongue and deadly with the inkwell. He fought for the Union in the Civil War, an experience that generated his Tales of Soldiers, eerie pieces that begin as war stories and end up nails of psychological terror. This all sounds quite gruesome, and much of it is, but another Bierce trademark, black humor, always finds its way into his work. He wrote with this sardonic style and in fine retrospection, it defined him.
During his time in San Francisco William Randolph Hearst gave him his own column, Prattle, which sustained his journalism career and earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” He lived in London briefly with Twain and Bret Harte and his mysterious disappearance in Mexico while chasing Pancho Villa was a fitting ‘end’ to his Wild West, accomplished life. However, it was his stories of horror and the supernatural, many written with different narrative devices unknown in literature at the time, that would establish a diverse legacy of an important American genre initiated by Poe, Hawthorne, Irving, and Charles Brockden Brown. Ghosts, werewolves, Confederates, zombies, the unknown, or agoraphobia, Bierce wrote it all.
“An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and other Bierce stories influenced Robert W. Chambers, a successful romance novelist whose stories in The King in Yellow tell of a cosmic terror controlling our world through an infamous play that spells doom for anyone who reads it. This in turn would eventually inspire H.P. Lovecraft, who called “The Yellow Sign” ‘altogether one of the greatest weird tales ever written,’ in his Cthulhu mythos and dreaded Necronomicon. Each generation inspired the next, but Chambers and especially Bierce were integral to the timeline of American horror fiction. Their stories are still fresh and it’s comforting to see their presence in 2014, even on television. Buy the ticket, take the ride: early American weird fiction.