‘Civilians’ Review

Michael Parke, Staff Writer

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For those unaware of Ambrose Bierce, he was by most accounts a cynical and misanthropic man who lived in America from 1842 to 1913, when he disappeared during a trip in Mexico. He was an author of many short stories, poems, and columns for various newspapers; Civilians is the second of two volumes from In the Midst of Life, a collection of short stories. The subject matter is death. The people affected are from the general populace.

First off I’d like to state what this is not. It is not a group of stories set during the Civil War from the point of view of the people at home as readers may expect after reading the first half. Instead they’re psychological tales that lend themselves over to horror. An Adventure at Brownville, for example, gives off vibes of The Dain Curse, by Dashiell Hammett; A Watcher by the Dead feels as though it could’ve been a detective story, perhaps in the vein of Sherlock Holmes if fleshed out correctly. There are eleven short stories in all, and all but one have a death or two. Instead of suicide or a Confederate soldier, it’s fear that kills most of these people.

I thought this collection of short stories was good. There are a couple that leave a sobering aftertaste and refuse to crawl out of the mind. A Holy Terror and A Man out of the Nose, for example, are just plain depressing due to the hopeless nature of some of the characters (a man and a woman respectively). An Adventure at Brownville is not a pleasant time for those involved and is a tale about what probably is a cult and a lady’s weird relationship between the narrator and what is said to be her godfather. Bierce’s writing makes the stories pleasant to read through, and I enjoyed every line.

In terms of what I’d recommend to read, I think Soldiers is a logical step in the right direction, as it is the first half. Perhaps I’d also recommend reading some Sherlock Holmes stories—authored by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—if the reader likes mystery because there are some elements of suspense in Bierce’s writing, an example being in The Suitable Surroundings. (Doyle’s writing may be too English though.) The aforementioned story written by Dashiell Hammett would probably be good also.

Ambrose Bierce kept his theme of death alive in this half of In the Midst of Life and it’s great. There were different situations presented here than in Soldiers, and it worked well because it was engaging and refreshing—that’s not to say that the first volume should be skipped. I know not whether any of these stories made it to television or no, but they all have the potential to be like the classic episode of Tales of the Unexpected called The Landlady (an adaptation of a story by Roald Dahl). All in all Bierce did well and I can happily recommend readers to give Civilians a try.

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‘Civilians’ Review