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The Ways of Ghosts and Other Dark Tales

The Ways of Ghosts and Other Dark Tales by Ambrose Bierce ed by Mike Ashley

The Ways of Ghosts and Other Dark Tales by Ambrose Bierce ed by Mike Ashley

British Library Publishing, pb, £9.19

Reviewed by Pete Sutton

the front cover for The Ways of Ghosts from the British Library Publishing. The front page is black and there are yellow footprintes leading up to a person crouching under a light.

This new collection presents over thirty of Bierce’s most terrifying and unusual stories, from essential classics such as ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ and ‘The Eyes of the Panther’ to the writer’s lesser-known tales recounting macabre local legends of haunted houses, mysterious disappearances and chilling encounters with the dead.

By now, we should know that British Library Tales of the Weird come with the mark of quality, and this doesn’t buck that trend. The cover is nice, the introduction is erudite, and the choice of tales is well-done and mostly balanced. I did find the structure a little odd given that many of the tales are of ghosts or haunted houses, but there is a split with around 50% of the stories in an untitled first section and then three sections of stories under haunted houses, ghosts and mysterious disappearances. I would have either just had no structure or leaned into a structure. But that being said, it did feel like a well-chosen set of tales.

Given that Bierce was writing in the 1800s and drawing upon the horrors of the American Civil War, there’s a timelessness about some of the stories that could fit any period. Any war. However, in the 19th century, authors were allowed to get away with bizarre coincidences apparently – or at least several of the stories hinge on such.

Few of the stories give a genuine chill, supernatural horror that relies upon ‘it was a ghost’ for its scare seldom does to our more jaded palate. But there is an explicit horror to some of these tales and a sense of wrongness and dread in the better tales. Bierce also is the first to use Hastur in a story and obviously influenced both Chambers and Lovecraft.

An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge is a venerable, often anthologised favourite of the horror canon, and rightly so – not only being filmed in its own right but also serving as inspiration for Jacob’s Ladder – among other films.

The mysterious disappearance section seems especially Fortean, ironic as Fort wrote about Bierce’s own disappearance. And it is with this disappearance that the book takes an interesting turn with the biography of the author, who vanished in mysterious circumstances. The end piece does a grand job of covering the basics of the case and the various theories and gives you a bibliography if you are of the mind to explore the story further, which I’m tempted to do.

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