The Horror Fiction and Satire of Ambrose Bierce, With a Selection of Quotes

Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, however, for the purposes of this post I will be focusing on his work as a horror short story writer, and as a satirist.

In his fiction, Bierce played freely with concepts such as perspective and reality. Several stories leave the reader questioning not only which parts of the story were delusions of the characters, and which actually occurred, but also the nature of their own reality.

Bierce employed techniques such as unreliable narrators and other deceptive/untrustworthy characters, time skips, the blending of realism and surrealism, and smooth segues from story events into character delusions or hallucinations. For an example, consider The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. This story is an excellent example of some of the narrative techniques employed by Bierce, and is considered a classic for good reason.

In other stories, such as The Damned Thing, Bierce focused on extraordinary or supernatural events happening within mundane, everyday settings. In emphasising the mundane setting and also providing a quasi-scientific explanation for the supernatural phenomena occurring in the story, Bierce leaves the reader with the unsettling feeling that maybe the impossible is not so impossible after all.

In both his fiction and satire, Bierce played with conventions, both literary and societal. Particularly in terms of satire, Bierce did not shy away from making potentially unpopular observations, with his wicked sense of humour most evident in The Devil’s Dictionary (if you can excuse the bad pun).

Bierce’s writing, both in terms of fiction and satire, most certainly had the potential to make others think something else.

For free access to the complete works of Ambrose Bierce, go to The Ambrose Bierce Project website, at:

Bierce’s works are also available for free download from most eBook sites such as iBooks, etc.


Quotes from the Fiction and Other Writings of Ambrose Bierce:

“There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don’t know.”
― Ambrose Bierce

“Patriotism is as fierce as a fever, pitiless as the grave, blind as a stone, and irrational as a headless hen.”  ― Ambrose Bierce

“As a means of dispensing formulated ignorance our boasted public school system is not without merit; it spreads out education sufficiently thin to give everyone enough to make him a more competent fool than he would have been without it…”
― Ambrose Bierce

“Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories 

“They were obviously headstones of graves, though the graves themselves no longer existed as either mounds or depressions; the years had leveled all. Scattered here and there, more massive blocks showed where some pompous or ambitious monument had once flung its feeble defiance at oblivion.”
― Ambrose Bierce, An Inhabitant of Carcosa 

“Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.”
― Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge  

“His act was rather that of a harmless lunatic than an enemy. We were not so new to the country as not to know that the solitary life of many a plainsman had a tendency to develop eccentricities of conduct and character not always easily distinguishable from mental aberration. A man is like a tree: in a forest of his fellows he will grow as straight as his generic and individual nature permits; alone, in the open, he yields to the deforming stresses and tortions that environ him.”
― Ambrose Bierce, Ghost Stories 

“This is only a record of broken and apparently unrelated memories, some of them as distinct and sequent as brilliant beads upon a thread, others remote and strange, having the character of crimson dreams with interspaces blank and black — witch-fires glowing still and red in a great desolation.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories 

“O God! what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair!”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Moonlit Road and Other Ghost and Horror Stories 

“He thought he was walking along a dusty road that showed white in the gathering darkness of a summer night. Whence and whither it led, and why he traveled it, he did not know, though all seemed simple and natural, as is the way in dreams; for in the Land Beyond the Bed surprises cease from troubling and the judgment is at rest.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Death of Halpin Frayser 


Quotes from The Devil’s Dictionary:

“Birth, n.: The first and direst of all disasters.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Dawn, n. The time when men of reason go to bed.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Future, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Idiot – A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot’s activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but “pervades and regulates the whole.” He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions and opinion of taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Inhumanity, n. One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Man, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Mind, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavour to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Novel, n. A short story padded. A species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As it is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before. To the romance the novel is what photography is to painting. Its distinguishing principle, probability, corresponds to the literal actuality of the photograph and puts it distinctly into the category of reporting; whereas the free wing of the romancer enables him to mount to such altitudes of imagination as he may be fitted to attain; and the first three essentials of the literary art are imagination, imagination and imagination. The art of writing novels, such as it was, is long dead everywhere except in Russia, where it is new. Peace to its ashes — some of which have a large sale.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary  

“Ocean, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”  ― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Reality, n. The dream of a mad philosopher.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 

“Revolution – In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 


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