Can Such Things Be? by Ambrose Bierce Available January 9

Author: Ambrose Bierce

The work of Ambrose Bierce could sometimes be as mysterious as the author himself, who disappeared at age 71 possibly on a tour of Mexico, and his ultimate fate has been one of the great unsolved mysteries of the literary world. How fitting that the end of his life should mimic that of his characters in this stunning 1893 collection of horror shorts.

“Can Such Things Be” consists of 24 stories with the running theme of mysterious deaths or disappearances, with a few exceptions of course. A Union officer is found hacked to death after having evidently tussled with a Confederate soldier already long since dead. While on a moonlight walk, a man loses his father who is never seen again. A man who has a fear of consulting his pocketwatch at the hour of 11 o’clock drops dead when he accidentally does so. A drifter in Napa Valley settles down in a random churchyard but is later found dead by law enforcement near the tomb of his mother. And so on.

There are a few random stories that don’t fit the theme but still contain supernatural elements, such as a fairy-tale about a boy who receives three fleeting visits by the fickle embodiment of Happiness. One of these could essentially be classified as science fiction, about a man who invents a robot (here called an automaton) with artificial intelligence, but it’s a sore loser at chess.

Also included in this collection is the famous story “The Damned Thing,” which every lover of horror should read at least once.

These stories certainly position Bierce as one of the progenitors of weird fiction. Many of these works have a distinct rural Americana vibe, and he does a great job of capturing the primal psychological awe of what lurks in the woods. He is a satirist so though his stories all have a serious tone, the prose is spiced with whimsy. Bierce is notorious for his “sting” endings, which are mostly effective, but sometimes seem a bit contrived and overly confusing. There were times when I finished a story and had no idea what just happened.

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