I’m hardly surprised that horror is associated with various locales and settings. Some places simply
scare u
s more than others. But I’m intrigued by the geographical pattern of these settings. One might
imagine that horror knows no boundaries, but in practice it tends to observe them with scrupulous

The European horror story usually finds its home at an ancient castle.
The Castle of Otranto,
Horace Walpole’s clumsy (but influential) novel published in 1764, set the tone for countless
subsequent gothic horror stories. We find
another such a castle at both the opening
and conclusion of Bram Stoker’s
and even though Mary Shelley neglected to
include one in her novel
Hollywood stepped in to rectify the omission
—indeed, many will go further and claim
that an
actual Frankenstein castle near
Darmstadt in Germany inspired her 1818

In the United States, we have no cursed
castles. But horror novels set in the South
or Northeast invariably involved a haunted
house or mansion. Maine stands out as an
especially popular setting for this kind of books, most famously in novels by Stephen King, but
also in stories by Richard Matheson, Jack Ketchum and others. Perhaps the state should consider
changing its Latin motto from
Dirigo (I lead) to Deterreo (I frighten).

But out West a different
type of horror was required—the kind that takes place outdoors, perhaps
around the campfire, in a secluded gulch or ravine, or at a deserted cemetery. No author did more
to define and refine this archetypal scary story of the Far West than Ambrose Bierce. As even the
titles of his horror stories indicate—tales such as "The Haunted Valley," "The Moonlit Road," "The
Secret of Macarger’s Gulch," "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field"—Bierce may even have suffered
from agoraphobia.

In the latter story, a man disappears suddenly from view while crossing a large open space. Bierce
uses this exact same plot device in "An Unfinished Race." And he returns to it once more in
"Charles Ashmore’s Trail." The nature of the 'horror' in these tales corresponds with exactitude to
the clinical accounts of agoraphobics, who often describe their anxiety in crossing an open space
as a fear that they won’t reach the other side. This is the precise fate of Bierce’s disappearing

Bierce, too, could write a classic haunted house story, but it is striking how often, even in these
cases, that the haunting takes place outside of the house. In "At Old Man Eckert’s," the horror
assails visitors the moment they walk out the front door. In another story, Bierce reflects on the
apprehension of spending the night in a house with an open doorway. The epicenter of fear is
located not inside the house, but in the empty landscape that surrounds it.

Even Freud, the connoisseur of irrational neuroses, admitted that he suffered from a fear of open
spaces.  Robert Burton had described this phenomenon as early as 1621, but medical science didn’t
accept the clinical diagnosis of agoraphobia until the 1860s. Some have seen it as a kind of
existential displacement, others as a response to consumerist society, or as a manifestation of a
displaced Oedipal complex. But in assessing Bierce, I
prefer to draw on the concepts of scholar Paul Carter,
who sees it as an aesthetic stance, a kind of poetics of
rebellion against the dehumanization of modern urban
life.  Carter doesn’t cite Ambrose Bierce in his book
Repressed Spaces: The Poetics of Agoraphobia, but
this acerbic critic of American manners—whose telling
nickname was "Bitter Bierce"—practiced precisely that
kind of rebellion in his life and works.  For my part, I
find it revealing that Bierce, in his famous
Dictionary, defines the word ghost as "the outward
and visible sign of an inward fear."

Yet perhaps a different explanation, biographical rather
than psychological, underlies Bierce
's aversion to open
spaces. Around a third of this author’s published short stories deal with war, and draw on Bierce’s
experiences on the battlefield. He served in the infantry for the North, and fought at the battle of
Shiloh, where Ulysses Grant secured a victory but at the cost of more than 10,000 Union
casualties. Here Bierce led his soldiers into an ambush and watched a dozen of them fall in the
ensuing gunfire. During Sherman’s march to Atlanta, Bierce was involved in a disastrous attack on
Pickett’s Mill that led to the death of almost a third of the men in his brigade in less than an hour.
A few days later, at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Bierce got shot in the head. He survived—
although the bullet was permanently embedded behind his left ear. Who can be surprised that
Bierce, in later life, wrote about the anxieties of standing exposed in an open space?  We need no
Freudian schemas to explain this phobia.   

The editors of Bierce’s short fiction tend to combine them into three broad categories: horror stories,
war stories and tall tales. But these writings are more diverse than such a categorization might
suggest. For example, Bierce anticipates many of the themes of 20th century science fiction in his
tales. "Moxon’s Master" deals with the provocative question of whether machines can think.
Published in 1893, it predates the Turing test by more than a half century.  The story also represents
one of the first appearances of a robot (although that term didn’t exist at the time) in literature.  In
"The Damned Thing," first published in that same year, Bierce introduces an invisible creature,
and instead of relying on magical or whimsical explanation for the phenomenon, he suggests a
scientific theory based on the existence of colors beyond the capacity of the human eye to perceive.
H.G. Wells would not publish his
The Invisible Man for another four years.

And how should we classify Bierce’s most famous story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?
The editor of Bierce’s collected tales classifies it as a war story, but the suspense and terror infused
into this narrative have no relationship to battlefield heroics or the dangers of combat. Instead,
Bierce mixes quasi-magical fantasy, beguiling memory, and intense realism into a new formula,
more akin to Borges and Kafka than to anything in nineteenth century American literature.

But Bierce’s most provocative story was his first, "The Haunted
Valley," published in 1871.  This tale demands attention as one
of the most significant works of nineteenth century West Coast
fiction—and perhaps the most prescient. It includes a searing
critique of racism, exploring the hostility towards immigrants
at a time when almost every resident of California had been born
somewhere else. The story also involves cross-dressing and a
complex love story involving ambiguous gender roles—which
are described with remarkable sensitivity given the attitudes of
the time.  And the story is sufficiently open-ended as to invite
multiple interpretations, some of  them very rich in psychological

Bierce’s own story is as mysterious as any of those he left behind
in his books. And readers of his tales may find unintended irony
in them when compared with the concluding chapter of the writer
biography. Indeed, his fictions foreshadow Bierce’s own death. In late 1913, the author traveled
to Mexico, where he accompanied Pancho Villa's army as an observer. His last letter talks about an
imminent departure to an unknown destination. He was never heard from again, and rumors and
conflicting theories still circulate about the reasons for his disappearance.  

Yet how strange that the author who documented, in numerous stories, the dangers of traversing
open spaces should vanish while doing just that! In this spirit, allow me suggest an epitaph for the
grave that Ambrose Bierce never had. It is drawn from his influential story "An Inhabitant of
Carcosa":  "For there be diverse sorts of death," Bierce writes, "some wherein the body remaineth;
and in some it quite vanisheth away with the spirit."

But though the body vanisheth, the work remains, and if anything it grows stronger.  In the
century after Bierce’s death, the West Coast of the United States would come to dominate the
world of genre fiction. Anyone tracing the lineage of this marvelous blossoming of horror, fantasy
and suspense would find almost every path links back to the originator of West Coast genre fiction
and still one of its greatest masters, the estimable Ambrose Bierce.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from Basic Books.

Publication Date: July 18, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Were Ambrose Bierce's Ghost Stories
nspired by Undiagnosed Agoraphobia?
To purchase, click on image
By Ted Gioia
The nature of the
'horror' in these

tales corresponds
with exactitude
to the clinical
accounts of
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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An author's fears may have spurred a major innovation in
horror fiction...and anticipated his own later disappearance
Ambrose Bierce