Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Ambrose Bierce and Me

Ambrose Bierce is a mystery to me.  I have long known the name but I know almost nothing about him.  He wrote at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th.  Mainly short fiction, I think.  And journalism.  Died mysteriously, walking off into the desert.  I think most of what he wrote was very dark, maybe like a pre-HP Lovecraft.  A cult figure?  Notably obscure?  I know he is considered important and influential but I've never taken the time to properly learn about him and his work, even though he was recently on the cover of The Weekly Standard.

So it has been weird to see him pop up three times in some current TV shows.  I have yet to watch HBO's True Detective but from what I understand, his work is referenced in it (mainly through his influence on The King in Yellow  - the name of a city in a story by Bierce figures prominently in the show).  

Then Ambrose Bierce popped up on The Simpsons (in an episode originally aired in November but one I just caught up with).  Lisa Simpson is running for second grade representative and the debate she is in is interrupted when the school drama teacher rolls a prop (for a hanging) onto the stage, indicating it is for a production of An Occurrence at Owl Creek, which  is a famous Bierce story about a hanging.  It's a funny gag.

The third appearance is the one that has me really thinking about Ambrose Bierce.  Late in season four of ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars, the liars are analyzing the stories in Ali's diary when it is stolen from them and then altered and then planted so they will find it and be misled by the new text.  In one entry, concerning where Ali used to meet Board Shorts (her stalker and maybe the liars' English teacher), a name that sounds just like Ambrose Bierce is changed to make it read Ambrose Pearson, which they think is code for the Ambrose Pavilion at the Norristown zoo.  The liars then set a trap at the zoo hoping to catch their dead friend Ali (whom they have only recently discovered is alive and had somehow faked her own death to escape Board Shorts, by whom she may or may not have been pregnant).  Pretty Little Liars is full of literary references (including to Patricia Highsmith, recent Raymond Chandler references, and a bunch of recent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde material - indicating the Ezra, the their high school English teacher is also their tormentor, even though he his secretly dating one of the girls).  It is because of all this that I am convinced the Ambrose Bierce reference is somehow meaningful.  The problem is that I do not know enough about his work to figure out what the show is trying to tell us by it.  The Ambrose Pavilion houses snakes and Bierce has a famous story about a man scared to death by a snake.  Or maybe this is not significant, just the work of some former English majors getting carried away dropping literary references.  And so far there do not appear to be many people conversant in both Pretty Little Liars and Ambrose Bierce so the internet has yet to provide me with proper answers to my questions.

It seemed to me that three recent television references to Ambrose Bierce was a strange coincidence but in researching this post, I was stunned to learn that for the past 20 something years, Ambrose Bierce has been my neighbor.  He lived in DC from 1899 to 1913 but his last address was just down the street.  I've been past the building a million times but never knew.

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