The True Literary Legacy of Bierce

The True Literary Legacy of Bierce



I do not think that Ambrose Bierce is given his proper due for the contribution he has made to the American literary psyche. You might say that he was the first American to scout that special landscape that has come to be known in our times as ‘The Twilight Zone’ or ‘The Outer Limits’. He certainly captured the essence of this thing I call the ‘Empire of the Wheel’.
Though the point of much of this book is to explore a literal association of the legendary author to the San Bernardino mystery milieu, it is the literary trail of Ambrose Bierce along which we find the essence of this territory to where I myself have repeatedly returned. To understand the San Bernardino Valley’s hidden dimension is to understand Carcosa.

Weird Fiction

The history of weird fiction dates back into ancient times, from mythological sagas to medieval fairy tales. The term only became popular relative to early 20th Century pulp literature but weird fiction has been with us since Perseus ventured into Medusa’s chamber and Odysseus went into the Underworld. However, we are concerned with the 19th Century figure, Ambrose Bierce.
Lovecraft wrote: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
This well describes the state of emotion in which he who travels through the mystery of San Bernardino finds himself. Indeed, Lovecraft may have captured this Inland Empire valley itself in those words. He certainly bottled the essence of a journey through Carcosa.
What is this ‘Carcosa’?
To any writer of strange tales, true or imaginative, Carcosa is the measure of all things. It is deeper into the twilight than even Rod Serling ventured. It is the frontier never tamed and Ambrose Bierce was the first in American literary ranks to give it a name. We will return to Carcosa as concept again but for now let’s stay on the present track.
An “Inhabitant of Carcosa” was written by Ambrose Bierce and first published on Christmas Day of 1886 in the San Francisco News Letter, the paper founded by Frederick Marriott, the airship builder. Essentially, it is the story of a man who awakes from a deep slumber induced by an illness to find himself in an odd and unknown landscape. As the man encounters an owl, a lynx and then another man carrying a torch, he adjusts to the reality that he can see everything as though it were daytime yet it is indeed night. With a nod to Dickens, the man finds an abandoned burial ground and there lies his own grave, beyond which lie the ruins of a lost and ancient city – his homeland Carcosa. In the end, we are told that this sojourn was related psychically by a spirit medium named Bayrolles, via the ghost of one ‘Hoseib Alar Robardin’.

A simple enough tale that seems familiar, and certainly must have to readers of the 19th Century classic A Christmas Carol. However, there is more than meets the eye to the Bierce variation. Let’s dissect the elements and see what we find.

Here She Comes…

First, the other inhabitants of this Carcosa. The owl is an obvious symbol of knowledge, long associated with the occult and specifically of interest here because it is a known familiar of Hekate. The owl is a herald of death and certainly represents this in the Bierce tale for we do come to a gravesite.
Then we have a lynx. It is in the lynx that Bierce hints at the main character’s ability to see clearly in the night, for the very name of the animal derives from ‘leuk’, referring to a reflective quality in the eyes of this desert cat. That quality gives the lynx its night vision. But the significance of the lynx here goes further than mere physiology. There is also a mystical essence.
The lynx is considered a keeper of secrets in Native American lore. Its powerful eyes can see through solid objects and peer into the future. As we might have expected, with the lynx comes yet another reference to Hekate for into a lynx is what Demeter transformed King Lyncus when he tried to kill her messenger. Demeter is the mother of Persephone, on whose behalf Hekate searched the Underworld, which brings us to the man with the torch.
With Hekate already in the background in the presences of the owl and the lynx, it should come as no surprise to find the triple-aspect goddess in a third image: the torch. Bierce’s protagonist sees a man with a torch in this otherworldly ‘underworld’ and Hekate carried two torches as she searched the Underworld for Persephone. Hekate is often depicted with a single torch, too.
When the protagonist encounters the barbaric man, and engages him, it is as if the fellow doesn’t even see him. The torch-bearer recites a chant in some unknown language perhaps to ward off unseen spirits. The protagonist asks how to get home to Carcosa but no answer is forthcoming because, of course, he is across the threshold of space and time in the land of the dead, outside the crumbling remnants of his homeland. One might expect Hekate herself to appear and guide him on the remainder of his journey.
Clearly Bierce was up on his ancient Greek mythology, but what else does this story say? What does it portend? An amplitude of death, primarily. When mentioning that he can see the stars even in apparent (though odd) daylight, the stars which Bierce selects are the Hyades and Aldebaran, thus here we find intriguing clues to additional themes Bierce may have alluded.
The Hyades are the five daughters of Atlas who are half-sisters to the Pleiades. When their brother dies, the sisters become a cluster of stars, and their tears become the rain. We can confidently say that this is Bierce’s hint to the reader about the man’s fate, obviously. But there is even more to learn from the inclusion of Aldebaran.
Aldebaran is the star that provides light for the Pleiadean sisters as they give birth, which one might interpret as the rebirth of the spirit after death, of course. But even more relative to the tale at hand, and maybe to the author, is what the star means to the aboriginal culture of Australia.
Aldebaran is known as ‘Karambal’, an ancestor who stole another man’s wife and then hid in a tree which the cuckolded husband burned, causing Karambal’s spirit to rise and become the star. The parallel in Bierce’s story is when the frustrated protagonist sits against the trunk of a huge tree and discovers his own headstone in the grip of the roots. Was this an imaginative reflection of some guilt Bierce suffered for having perhaps been unfaithful to the wife he perceived as unfaithful to him?
Bierce’s wife was among the most beautiful women in San Francisco in her day. Bierce was himself quite attractive to the ladies and together he and Mollie made a popular and enviable couple. For a time, their marriage was the ideal of matrimony, two young beautiful people with fame and wealth. But Bierce began to chafe whenever his disapproving mother-in-law entered the picture. The woman was an utterly soul-killing experience for him, as females can be when dark corners of their aging psyches are left unoccupied.
There came the little detailed episode in the marriage when letters from an admirer of Mrs. Bierce caused suspicion in Ambrose’s mind and he became convinced Mollie had betrayed him. Perhaps this was the impetus for any dalliances of Bierce’s own, which left him guilt-ridden regardless of any rationalization he offered himself. Perhaps he was both ‘Karambal’ and the wronged husband of the aboriginal Aldebaran story, at least as he saw it.
Back to Bierce’s story, following the revelation of the protagonist’s fate, howling wolves gather not far off, yet another favored beast for Hekate. We do not know what happens to the man after this, Bierce does not say. But we might rightfully assume that the goddess comes to lead him to that undiscovered country beyond his death. In the end, we are left with our imaginations sparked by the mention of the medium and the identity of the inhabitant of Carcosa, ‘Hoseib Alar Robardin’ – which seemed like an anagram of sorts the first time I read it. What could the name mean?
Consider again the aboriginal version of the story of Aldebaran in which the man who stole another’s wife is the man hiding in the tree where he is killed by the angry husband. If the spirit protagonist of Bierce’s tale is meant to be ‘Karambal’, might Bierce have identified his wife’s suspected suitor in the name of ‘Robardin’? Could ‘Hoseib Alar Robardin’ contain the name of his wife’s suspected lover?
Anything’s possible with anagrams, therefore the man later identified only as a ‘mysterious Danish gentleman’ by Bierce’s daughter could be the ‘Robardin’ of the tale. Whatever the case, with this story Bierce opened the door wider on a strange world where many others have ventured into since.
Carcosa. The name conjures various possibilities meaning different things to different people. For me, it is a place I find during the liminal hours of the day, between dusk and when the stars first twinkle on. Readers of the previous volumes in this series will recognize this as the time of day well associated with Hekate because it is a portal, a gateway that presents itself twice a day: evening and dawn. One can imagine that what comes through at twilight returns just before the sun rises to close the opening between dimensions. This is where you’ll find Carcosa.
Like his life, Bierce’s legacy blends into everything that has come from it.


Most scholars and nerds will tell you that the great Lovecraft was the successor to the master of macabre, Edgar Allen Poe, but I disagree. That honor belongs to Ambrose Bierce and I hope to explain why.
Poe died in 1849 when Bierce was only seven years old. He was the name in strange fiction during Bierce’s childhood. Poe spent his early childhood around the theater, as his mother was a popular actress. He was the first known American writer to have the balls to try making a living through writing alone, which wasn’t easy.
Poe was a melancholy man on his best day and insufferably gloomy on his worst. He especially enjoyed his brandy. When he was 26 years old, Edgar fell in love with his thirteen-year-old cousin, probably because she reminded him of his mother. Her subsequently slow death from consumption inspired much soul-wrenching angst in Poe’s verse and stories. His life and personality were an absolute gothic delight. Even his death continues to mystify nearly 180 years later, which is a major point of congruence between he and Bierce whose disappearance remains unsolved for over 103 years.
Bierce certainly thought very highly of Poe. He once referred to him as the greatest man America had produced. And yet Bierce acknowledged that not even Poe had sprung from a vacuum, that the literature of the strange and bizarre preceded even him. Bierce expressed this in a 1909 piece titled Some Disadvantages of Genius, writing: “Of all these inhibiting censores literarum, the most austere and implacable are those guarding the sovereignty of Poe. They have made his area of activity a veritable mare clausam – as if he were the first that ever burst into that silent sea…”
One might say the same has been done for Lovecraft, of whom I am a fan, for the record. But it isn’t true for Lovecraft, nor was it true for Poe, as Bierce continues: “It was not an unknown sea. It was crisscrossed by the wakes of a thousand ships and charted to the last reef. Tales of the tragic and the supernatural are the earliest utterances in every literature. When the savage begins to talk, he begins to tell wonder tales of death and mystery – of terror and the occult.”
Pointing out The Tales of Arabian Nights as well as authors Maturin, Balzac and Monk Lewis among a few, Bierce acknowledges (and reminds the reader) that even the masterful Poe was of a tradition. What Bierce saw in Poe was that Poe took it to the next level and became the measure of all to come after him. Did Bierce measure up?
In his lifetime, Ambrose Bierce wrote nearly a hundred stories, aside from journalistic pieces, and nearly forty of them are supernatural or horror. Yet for most people he is only remembered for his brilliantly witty “Devil’s Dictionary” and the ghost story masquerading as a grim war tale “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”.
It is this masterpiece of American short fiction where we find a thematic connection to Hekate, specifically the name of the creek being ‘Owl’ and the crossing of the protagonist into the realm of death, or the Underworld. You might say that the creek represents the River Styx by which one crosses into Hades. Poe would have loved it. That Bierce attained the greatness of Poe with this story in particular might come as a surprise to some students of literature but it did not surprise Bierce’s contemporaries.
Ambrose Bierce’s instances of Poe-level greatness are often hidden within his journalistic ‘matter-of-fact’ style. George Sterling, long a Bierce protégé, wrote of Bierce in comparison to Poe: “The tales are told with a calmness and reserve that make most of Poe’s seem somewhat boyish and melodramatic by comparison.”
Sociologist and biographer R. F. Dibble may have been the first to recognize Bierce’s true contribution to American literature, and particularly that of the supernatural: “But it is just here that Ambrose Bierce must be reckoned with as one who accomplished something that Hawthorne and Poe each did in part, though seldom or never wholly: he took the omnipresent but rarely appalling supernaturalism of Hawthorne, combined with it the almost purely physical horrors of Poe, and thus produced what is virtually a new type of fiction – a type which others have occasionally used, but which perhaps no one previously has made specifically his own. In his best stories, he created a world whose beings are absolutely dominated by unreasoning, aboriginal, cosmic fear.”
Surely Dibble is simply casting the light of Lovecraft onto Bierce, right? However, Lovecraft fans, take note: Dibble said this about Bierce in a piece published in The Overland Monthly in November of 1919 – nearly three years before Lovecraft saw his first story published. It would be another seven years before Lovecraft would start writing his masterpiece The Call of Cthulhu and I have already discussed in the previous volume where Lovecraft likely drew much inspiration for the plot of that masterpiece. Where Lovecraft journeyed, Bierce had already tread.
Dibble continues his spot-on assessment of Bierce’s true accomplishment: “It is, however, in those tales which portray the workings of wholly immaterial powers of darkness and evil that Bierce is most original and thrilling, tales in which the usual theme is the return of menacing wraiths for vengeance denied them in the flesh.”
In what can only be described as the source of the stream from which Lovecraft drank years later, Dibble states that Bierce’s creations spring from ‘supernatural malevolences’ that defy the material description that Bierce was forced to put to them, and yet Bierce still succeeds in conveying “a universe shadowed by ‘one primeval mystery of darkness without form or void’ in which there is ‘a portentous conspiracy of night and solitude’”. Again, one today hears such things usually said only about Lovecraft.
Dibble closes his comments with a lengthy parting tour of Bierce’s subtly stated “phantasmagorical world” that “transcends all the properties of physics and chemistry; it cannot be mapped by the aid of compass and surveying instruments…yet it stretches immeasurably beyond the confines of the known universe.” This is Bierce’s liminal world, this is Carcosa!
Thus, do we have in this Carcosa a mythos of the psyche from which was borne the Cthulhu mythos itself. Thus, do we have Ambrose Bierce’s truest literary accomplishment and legacy for, were it not for him, there would be no Howard Phillips Lovecraft. On the road to R’lyeh, one must pass through Carcosa.
I wonder if ‘Carcosa’ is a real place in the geography of secret or revealed knowledge. If so, what in the life of Ambrose Bierce provided him with the keys to its invisible doors?
Much biographical material written on Bierce discusses that cynical outlook taken root in his youth and certainly further tempered by war. There is a reason he was known as ‘Bitter Bierce’, after all. He could be a biting critic of the elite and famous, and yet he was kind and generous to common folk. Bitter Bierce was known to lacerate bad poets and yet spend much time in sincere tutoring of aspiring writers who contacted him for simple advice. My personal impression of the man is that he was an honest broker.
Ambrose Bierce, for all the world, displayed the personality and attitude of a modern skeptic of our times and would be a darling of that sub-culture today – if it were not for his earnest and deep interest in things occult and otherworldly.
With nearly half of the man’s catalog consisting of supernatural fiction and essays, what was going on with Bierce, a man who might otherwise have been a Snopian Randiesque Jason Colavito of his day? Had Bierce experienced anything paranormal? We don’t know. If he did, he wasn’t talking, and that is why I became suspicious that there was something about this that went unsaid by Bierce in his lifetime, not the least of which was his disappearance.
I know that some people hate a book of questions but with Bierce these questions must be asked, whether there are answers to them or not. Two points of his life demand such examination: his output of supernatural literature and his mysterious disappearance. I’ll venture into his disappearance in the next chapter so we’ll continue with the literary question for now. I ask again: Was there anything in Bierce’s life to ignite this interest in the paranormal?
The obvious possibility that comes to mind is that Bierce encountered something strange during the Civil War. He was around a lot of death, specifically gruesome and violent death. Might he have seen a ghost? If not during the war, what about in later years when he visited battlefields? We hear ghost stories all the time about Gettysburg and other places. But this battlefield tour was late in Bierce’s life and he had already produced his work so such an event must have preceded this period, whatever the experience was.
I think Bierce’s interest in the paranormal and occult sprang primarily from his inquisitive mind. He was a reader, of course. His interests and works could very well have been only the product of academic study and supposition, speculations on the nature of reality. But might this academic pursuit have opened Bierce to actual experiences with the supernatural? It might indeed have but we don’t know from his words.
However, if Bierce had been recruited to work on the Aeron project proposed in Origin, we may have a field of play in which to speculate.
Let us suppose that Ambrose Bierce indeed was read into the equally speculative Aeron black project. In this case, he would have witnessed the anti-gravity flight of a solid object, for starters. Now consider that, as proposed in the previously identified book, that the operative mechanism was a form of the Bell which suggests marginal effects that supposedly affect time and space. What manner of weirdness could have manifested during such demonstrations witnessed by Bierce. What might he have seen?
Bierce was fascinated by mysterious disappearances. Did he witness something like the lore built up around the legend of the Philadelphia Experiment? Did personnel succumb to some sort of field radiation that melted them before his eyes? Did men disappear into another dimension?
Remember that the Sonora Aero Club was supposed to have worked with rudimentary small contraptions. The project I propose in the years after the Civil War would have involved bigger craft and an attempt to power up the propulsion technology. What the Aeron project personnel would have encountered might not have even been imagined by Dellschau’s associates in the decade prior. Bierce might have witnessed a technology-induced phenomenon that no one expected. A breakdown of human tissue in short and ghastly order would have left a distinct impression on anyone.
But again, the issue is Bierce’s fascination with disappearances. Watching a man disfigured or even melted by radiation isn’t a disappearance. We must consider whether the experimental propulsion technology altered or shifted the physical plane and caused some personnel to literally disappear from the view of astonished witnesses. Did Bierce witness or even merely learn of any sort of shifting veils of physical dimensions? Was a portal opened, perhaps as result of the firing up of the Aeron torsion bell engine?
Such a possibility – or even the circumstances in which the possibility was seriously considered – would have been enough to fuel a lifetime of writing, in my opinion, and especially the subject of mysterious disappearances.
This matter of Bierce’s personal experiences with the paranormal is discussed here only in attempt to determine what might have inspired his interest in the strange and bizarre, beyond the purely intellectual, where his writings are concerned. Whatever motivated Bierce in the supernatural direction, his work and vision resonated. The first writer to really sense Bierce was onto something in this regard was obviously Robert W. Chambers.
Robert Chambers was born in New York in 1865. He was an artist whose spot in history is perhaps most cited as the inspiration for much of early to mid-20th Century supernatural horror fiction. He is the author of the legendary book The King In Yellow, a collection of short stories, most of which allude in some degree to a dreaded figure so powerful that to encounter him means madness and damnation. It is as equally effective as Stoker’s use of Dracula as a background character through much of his masterpiece, a device through which much tension and curiosity are built to allow the reader to invoke a vision of horror borne of their own imagination. What makes it pertinent here is that Chambers’ Yellow King comes from the mysterious land of Carcosa.
It is indeed through Chambers’ use of Carcosa that most people are familiar with it. Taking it farther than Bierce did, Chambers expressed Carcosa in a song:

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa

Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed,
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa

Chambers wrote the above ‘Cassilda’s Song’ and it is featured in a play mentioned in a handful of the stories. It is a play which to see in its entirety drives one insane, as the second act reputedly reveals truths that the human mind cannot handle . These include the secrets of the dynasty of Carcosa and its last king, along with the mysteries of the Hyades and the lake of Hali. If you ever wondered about the potential of Bierce’s city of Carcosa, With The King In Yellow, Chambers capitalized on it exponentially.
Not only did Chambers inspire generations of writers to use the highly effective device of the Unseen Villain, he immortalized the concept of a land beyond the veil, in the minds of 20th Century writers, in a way that fantasy had not exactly achieved before that time. Interestingly, it is only in recent years that the concept of Carcosa has come the masses, mostly having been in the domain of supernatural horror authors, goth nerds and Lovecraft fanboys, until now.
Most aficionados of supernatural literature credit Lovecraft as the direct recipient of Poe’s torch, with a nod to influences from Chambers, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. This is perhaps appropriate because of the subsequent influence of Lovecraft himself, for his works do indeed provide a masterful condensation of the works of these men. To his credit, Lovecraft gives them their due. But what of Bierce?
Lovecraft recognizes Bierce’s place in the development of weird fiction in Supernatural Horror In Literature. Most people, having not read Lovecraft’s essay, may assume that Bierce contributed little beyond the mere name ‘Carcosa’, for it is honestly Chambers’ Yellow King from which modern writers draw it, the most intriguing of late being the very popular HBO 2014 television series, True Detective. However, Bierce makes use of a fictional book device in two of his stories – and this is done by both Chambers and Lovecraft after him providing even further evidence of Bierce’s true influence on these masters of the weird genre.

True Detective

I find that a discussion of True Detective fits so well within the greater thesis here for, not only does it display a clear reference to Chambers’ classic, you might say it could be its modern sequel – and it is, so far, the closest thing to a dramatization of the Empire of the Wheel experience that I have seen.
When speaking of this masterpiece of serial drama, I refer to the first season of True Detective in which our duo, police detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle, find themselves assigned to enigmatic occult murders in a drearily gothic Louisiana landscape haunted by an unseen nemesis. Though they dispatch with a few perpetrators, Marty and Rust leave the stage having never fully exposed all the members of a shadowy ring of archaic child molesters. The viewer comes away with the dreaded realization that some bigger, darker thing is happening and our two detective heroes have merely scratched the surface. Ultimately, it is the ambiguity, despite a touch of respite in their final scene, where we experience one of the best applications of The Yellow King in this series: He is still out there.
True Detective (Season 1) offers direct allusions to Chambers’ expansion of Bierce’s Carcosa. The first victim we see has been bound to a tree in ritual fashion, and marked on her back with a spiral symbol. Is this the Yellow Sign from Chambers’ 1895 work?
Some critics have expressed disappointment that the sign depicted in the series was not a sign many have accepted as ‘the one’. They suggest that copyright issues prevented its use . However, the particular ‘Yellow Sign’ they refer to wasn’t created until nearly a century after the publication of Chambers’ King In Yellow and is by no means official in any way. The popular sigil was created by Kevin Ross in 1989 for ‘Call of Cthulhu’, the Lovecraft themed role-playing game. The producers of the show elected to use something far more troubling.
The sign shown on the girl’s back in True Detective has truly nefarious implications in the actual world, where you and I live: the spiral used in the series is nearly identical to that used by real world pedophiles who have organized themselves into a network that communicates via coded symbols and phrases.
According to Wikileaks, an FBI memo dated 31 January 2007 provides details on the spiral logos used by pedophiles to identify themselves to one another. There is an image in this memo that is virtually identical to that one used in True Detective. It is a blue spiral in a rounded triangular pattern. That series creator Nic Pizzolatto and its first season director Cary Joji Fukunaga elected to use this symbol instead of bothering with the fanboy popular image speaks to what is the real world inspiration for the series plot, the Ponchatoula child molestation case.
Ponchatoula, Louisiana, was the home of the Hosanna Church where between 1999-2003 members of a Satanic cult had been sexually assaulting children in ritualistic activity. This was confessed to police by the church’s pastor, who was the leader of the activities. They wore robes and they painted pentagrams on the church, where cats were sacrificed, children (including infants) were raped anally, orally and vaginally, and the cult had sex with dogs. The children were taught to participate, with each other and the animals. The pastor, Louis Lamonica, and another member of the cult, Austin Bernard III, received multiple life sentences for their crimes which included sexual acts with their own young children.
Naturally, the criminal defenders in the case were not pleased with the outcome in court and thus arguments that the ritual abuse didn’t happen have been made. According to expert witness Dr. Richard Ofshe, a sociology professor from the University of California at Berkeley, the confession of Lamonica may have been either false or induced by ‘a high-control group’, insinuating that the police detectives had forced the pastor into it . This was considered moot because – as the court reminded all parties – Lamonica had voluntarily walked into the police station and offered up the information which the police had absolutely no idea to expect of anyone in their community. Case closed.
Or is it? Dr. Ofshe’s claim that the pastor’s confession may have been the product of pressure from a ‘high-control group’ may have revealed something unintended: The possibility that a bigger group of perpetrators was involved. Was Louis Lamonica’s confession at the behest of a hidden ‘high-control group’ of a widespread ritualistic cult?
Just as in True Detective where we are left with a nagging suspicion that the horrors did not truly end with the resolution of the final episode, we must wonder if Pastor Lamonica had masters who are still at large like the Yellow King himself. Pizzolatto and Fukunaga pulled off the most brilliant nod to Chambers’ King In Yellow legacy since Lovecraft and thus also owe a debt to Ambrose Bierce, for their allusions work perfectly.
The use of the spiral symbol on the first victim’s back and the subsequent discovery of mad scrawling references to ‘Carcosa’ on the walls of a disintegrating church are but a prelude to the interrogation scene in which the prisoner attempts to make a deal with Rust by offering what he might know: “I know who you are,” he says, “I’ll tell you about The Yellow King…”.
There are but few moments in a season full of great moments as full of chilling implication as that one. It says what we are thinking, but don’t really want to believe, that such atrocities are guided from powerful shadows . Is it what Pizzolatto suspected of the Ponchatoula case, that it’s not over?
Now you can understand why I personally found True Detective to be one of the most compelling dramatic series I have ever seen. Detectives sorting through bizarre clues leading to disturbing revelations with an ending suggestive that it has only begun, or is at the very least the unveiling of a much bigger problem that has been hiding just at the edge of the shadows of the case. This is exactly what investigating this Empire of the Wheel has been like for me and my associates for a decade now. The spirit of Bierce is there, too: Not only does Rust Cohle’s cynicism reflect Ambrose Bierce in spades, it forces me to ask the question: What of the black magic mysteries behind the San Bernardino Working of 1915 might Bierce have seen or learned in a previous era?
Within the context here – and I emphasize within the context of this book and the Empire of the Wheel thing in general – there is much we don’t know about Ambrose Bierce but some that we can safely speculate. The man was, in fact, fascinated with the supernatural, the paranormal, the occult, if only from a scholarly perspective. Nearly half of what he wrote and published is, in fact, evidence of that. The issue some readers will insist upon is the apparent lack of a definitive statement of this interest. I propose that his work on these themes is that statement and based upon this will I continue. In his lifetime, Ambrose Bierce could have been privy to the forces in the culture at the time which was heavily into Spiritualism and there is our thread.
For those who need to be told, I do not claim that Bierce was personally aware of the specific activities of the perpetrators of the acts in San Bernardino in 1915. That would be absurd. What we are talking about here is the greater milieu that would place Spiritualist operatives within NYMZA’s sphere of influence.
More clearly laid out, the Prussian element of NYMZA(NJMZa) would have been of keen interest to the security agents of the Aeron project because their activities would have put the United States into the airship game that NYMZA(specifically NJMZa here) considered their own. If my wild ass guess is right and Bierce was a security agent for the Aeron black project office, then NYMZA(NJMZa) would be his target of interest – and thus any associate of NYMZA(NJMZa) would be an agent’s bailiwick. In the mid to late 19th Century, we know that Spiritualists in the US were enamored of the airship mystery and its players. Thus have we established why Bierce, as an Aeron black project agent, could have been privy to general activities leading to the 1915 events in San Bernardino: Keeping an eye on NYMZA/NJMZa.
So again, we return to Bierce’s literary product, for surely if he was an agent briefed into and collecting upon nefarious Spiritualists, the opportunity to learn arcane secrets and perhaps even witness extraordinary phenomena would be as possible as any of the mentioned side effects of rudimentary vimanic Bell technology of the Aeron project. I suggest that his artistic and journalistic expressions on mysterious and supernatural topics would have been fed by such experiences and personal knowledge of real world examples.
But again, why not a definitive statement from him?
The answer to that question is to be found in the man’s character. It is a fact that Ambrose Bierce did not say much, and wrote even less, about his personal exploits during the war. He was a ballsy, cool-headed sonofabitch who risked his ass to get the job done and rescue fellow soldiers in peril.
Bierce was a decorated officer and in an era when nearly all veterans of the Civil War – including general officers in great standing – were being downgraded in rank with the postwar reduction in force while he was retroactively promoted (as discussed in detail in a previous chapter). Ambrose Bierce did not talk out of school. Whatever he was into as a federal agent – and he was a federal agent, only the details of his status over the years are debatable – Bierce would not have discussed it with unauthorized personnel and sure as hell would not have written about it in specifics.
I propose that only through his writing does Ambrose Bierce provide hints of what he witnessed and learned about the supernatural and occult. Where the specific circumstances were classified, he would not reveal how he knew, but the generalities of the phenomena were fair game. As long as he couched it in a way not associated with his duty as an agent, Bierce could write about it all day long. It is honestly this possibility that intrigues me most about the man, as much as his disappearance – which fascinates me indeed.
So, in Ambrose Bierce, we have a man who I sincerely suspect was personally knowledgeable on matters of the paranormal and the occult and whose literary accomplishments wield a major impact on several great and celebrated authors to follow him, including Charles Fort and his legacy of paranormal research investigators, to some extent.
The great writers of weird fiction who made their mark in a genre for whom Bierce was the bridge between them and Poe include the following: Robert W. Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, A. Merritt, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith (whom we’ll discuss shortly) and Bierce protégé George Sterling among many others. It should interest readers here that also included on the list are two authors previously connected to the Empire of the Wheel as discussed in Volume 3: The Nameless Ones: Clifford M. Eddy Jr. and Henry S. Whitehead, both personal associates of Lovecraft.
Which brings me to Clark Ashton Smith. Born in 1893, young Smith’s poetry caught the eye of George Sterling whose mentor Bierce also found it quite praiseworthy. This was just two years before Bierce disappeared, so unfortunately Sterling was never able to make an introduction between the two. Smith wouldn’t start writing his weird fiction until 1926 but his early poetry is within the genre. He would become a corner of the legendary triangle with Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Though he missed his chance to meet Bierce, might Smith have ever learned the truth about the author’s fate?
Since I consider the possibility that Clark Ashton Smith could have heard of the 1915 events in San Bernardino through various other players, it is now intriguing to me that through Sterling he might have been privy to details in the mystery of Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance. But is there any evidence of it?
It is interesting that among Smith’s works are stories suggestive of Ambrose Bierce. One of them is ‘Checkmate’, an amusing story about a married woman whose husband has apparently discovered amorous letters that she received from her lover. This is the exact scenario that caused the serious estrangement between Bierce and Molly; letters which Ambrose discovered written to her from the mysterious enchanted Dutchman discussed earlier in this book. It’s reasonable to consider that perhaps Bierce’s marriage inspired the situation in this story.
Another is ‘The City of the Singing Flame’ in which the narrator’s author friend disappears through a portal between two boulders on a volcanic ridge in the mountains and finds himself in a city of giants from which flows enchanting music, drawing him ever deeper. There the man encounters various beings from yet other worlds and ultimately returns with another colleague and they disappear without a trace. Intrigued by his friends’ disappearance, the narrator finds the portal and goes to the other dimension himself, finding his lost associates. Following the destructive events of an internal conflict in the strange dimension, the narrator and his friend return to the portal – but the story ends without them passing through to return to this world.
With the element of a missing author whose disappearance is unexplained, we see the obvious resonance with Bierce in the story. There are other thematic reminders of Bierce in Smith’s short stories and several are quite reminiscent of Bierce’s matter of fact journalistic style. But since Clark Ashton Smith never got to meet Ambrose Bierce, we can only surmise the true extent of his personal knowledge, which presumably had to come mostly from George Sterling, though he had committed suicide by 1926. Could Smith have had another source on Bierce in this cadre of literary friends?
It could possibly have been Robert Hayward Barlow, whom readers will remember from the previous volume in EOTW3: The Nameless Ones.
R.H.Barlow, as he was better known, was the archeologist whose friendship with Lovecraft, when Barlow was a teenaged boy, ultimately resulted in his being named executor of Lovecraft’s literary estate. Of all the people in this little group of curious characters, Barlow is the one who might have learned bits of the private life and even more of the true fate of Ambrose Bierce.
Robert Barlow was born in the spring of 1918, just a little more than four years after the last anyone heard from Bierce. His father was a US Army officer serving in France during the First World War at the time of his son’s birth. Fourteen years later, Lt Colonel Barlow received a medical discharge and retired from service. By this time, young Robert had been corresponding with Lovecraft and soon the author would make his first visit to the Barlow homestead in Florida.
There isn’t much on Lt Col Barlow but he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery and from this we know his date of birth, 1881. Not quite 37 years old when Robert was born, the elder Barlow was about 51 when he was medically retired. A lieutenant colonel at the time of his discharge, we don’t know if that rank was the father’s last earned rank during service or a bump upon retirement. Barlow senior was at least a second lieutenant during the war, but he could have been a senior NCO while in France. This latter possibility may indeed be the case when you consider his age during the war. If a career military man, it’s likely that Lt Col Barlow enlisted as early as 18 years old, maybe even 17, and that puts him in the army in 1898-99 which suggests service in the Spanish-American War.
With Lt Col Barlow probably a private during the Cuban ‘hostilities’ with Spain, we can have lots of fun with speculation, for this places him within the context of Hearst’s infamous involvement in that business and the related possibilities already discussed. Most delightful is the fodder for speculation on whether ‘Private’ Barlow might have ever been acquainted with, or learned sometime during his career of the fate of, Ambrose Bierce.
With what little there is on the senior Barlow, we have absolutely no evidence that he ever met Bierce. Neither do we know what Barlow pere’s specialty was in the army, so we can’t do anything but imagine an association with the proposed secret Aeron airship project. According to my theory, there would have been a mere four years or so from the spawning of The 1903 breakaway group at the time Barlow would have entered military service. The best chance of anything Barlow the father would have had to learn of Bierce’s fate might have come from two possibilities I can think of off-hand: If he had been an intelligence officer or if he had served under General Pershing in the Mexican Expedition of 1916-1917.
On December 20, 1913, six days prior to the date of Ambrose Bierce’s reported last known letter, John J. Pershing was put in command of the US Army’s 8th Brigade at the Presidio in San Francisco but was soon deployed to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, due to escalation of issues south of the border . In the summer of 1914, Pershing was photographed beside Pancho Villa, smiles all around . By this time Bierce had been missing for several months and was believed by some to be riding with Villa’s army. If that was true, might not Pershing have heard something about the missing American author from Villa directly?
I think so, but Pershing never said he did. I’m more curious if Robert Barlow’s father could have learned about Bierce’s fate while in the army. I say it’s a worthy suggestion especially if the elder Barlow did indeed serve with Pershing’s 8th Brigade. Why do I think so? Because of Mexico.
Robert H. Barlow became a recognized expert on ancient Mexican cultures. In the previous volume, I surmise that this interest possibly sprung from Lovecraft’s influence, but I also consider John Peabody Harrington’s reputable work on native cultures of the Americas. With the very real possibility that Barlow’s father could have served in Mexico, his experiences there might have been the primary influence on his son’s subsequent fascination. Now let’s have some real fun and go way out on this limb: imagine Barlow’s father having been involved with the search for Bierce.
It wasn’t until late 1914, going on a year after he was last heard from, that an official inquiry was made about Bierce. This was from US Army Chief of Staff, General Hugh L. Scott to Felix Sommerfeld, associate of Pancho Villa and a German intelligence agent who ran the Mexican Secret Service . Sommerfeld was subsequently the man behind the German gun trafficking through Mexico and into the United States as discussed in EOTW1. Was Sommerfeld NJMZA/NYMZA? It’s possible that he at least would have been associated with NJMZa/NYMZA personnel.
This makes the hunt for Bierce all the more interesting within our context, for if the author were attached in any way to the Aeron airship project of the United States – or especially if he were linked to The 1903 – Sommerfeld would have been keenly interested in locating the missing American journalist/agent. And that makes the wild-ass speculation that Barlow’s father could have been involved in the search for Bierce all that more delightful.
As close as we are now to jumping into the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce, I’m going to pull the reins in yet again because there remains still a tad more of this chapter. We may have in young Robert H. Barlow a solid thread of connection between Bierce and the Empire of the Wheel milieu, through Barlow’s father. If the elder Barlow had been assigned to an intelligence unit attached to Pershing’s expedition, he could certainly have been tasked with the hunt for any information on the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce.
Now consider that by the time Barlow met Lovecraft, he may have heard numerous stories from his father about the hunt for Bierce and that mysterious dark land south of the border. It is even conceivable that US Army intelligence agents indeed did learn something about Bierce in Mexico and it remains secret to this day.
What could that possibly have been?
Well, indulging this filter of my Barlow speculations (based on the available facts), perhaps the tales that Bierce was indeed on an occult quest possess a nugget of truth: Barlow the younger became fascinated with Mexico’s ancient lost past – perhaps ignited by something his father told him about the disappearance of Bierce? Don’t forget that Barlow became friends with Clark Ashton Smith, who was praised by and nearly introduced to Ambrose Bierce. What I would give to know what was discussed between Barlow and Smith about that.
But we find ourselves at the border now. With Barlow, we must cross that border into Mexico and continue into another dimension, the figurative ‘Carcosa’ into which Bierce disappeared in 1913.
It is fitting that the last literary descendant of Ambrose Bierce to be examined here sends us headlong onto that very dark trail into lost Mexico, where waits hellish Carcosa. It is perhaps the most fun glimpse at Ambrose Bierce you will ever know — and may oddly turn out to be closest to the truth. I speak, of course, of the third installment of Robert Rodriguez’ modern pulp masterpiece, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter.
To be up front about this film, I have loved it from the first time I saw it. Actually a prequel to the successful original movie starring George Clooney, FDTD3:Hangman’s Daughter was first screened on Halloween of 1999 and was released generally early in 2000. The title is even drawn from a work of fiction upon which Ambrose Bierce was a co-author, The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, a gothic novel translated from German and published with Adolph(e) Danziger in 1892 . Of course, the screenplay by Alvaro Rodriguez, excellently directed by P.J. Pesce, uses elements of this Bierce story but is firmly set within the mythology created by director Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Until seeing this movie, most of what I knew about Ambrose Bierce was Owl Creek and “The Devil’s Dictionary”.
This film brings the main characters together in a fashion quite like the scenario in the first movie, various perils leading them to a saloon in the middle of the Mexican desert, essentially in the middle of nowhere outside of ‘Tierra Negra’. Ambrose Bierce, portrayed magnificently by Michael Parks , takes a stagecoach with an American evangelist couple and is waylaid with them by a group of Mexican bandits – one of whom had been rescued from hanging in the town from which the travelers departed. The rescued bandit in turn helps the beautiful Esmeralda escape her wretched father, the hangman. Fans of the original film will instantly recognize the saloon in which they all find themselves taking refuge for the night.
As you might guess, one creepy thing leads to another and soon our hapless travelers are surrounded by reptilian vampires who trap them inside the ancient pyramid temple dressed out like a saloon to catch victims. The madam of the place is played by Sonia Braga, who earns her place among classic gothic ladies in haunted houses and vampire castles past. It turns out she’s the mother of Esmeralda, whose hangman father shows up later and reveals that he has been hard on the girl to control her vampire nature. In the end, we are treated to a fun (and graphic) free-for-all between the vampires and the luckless band of travelers fighting for their lives.
What I love is that Ambrose Bierce survives, heading off deeper into the mysterious desert.
After seeing this film seventeen years ago (as of this writing), I looked a little closer at Bierce and discovered his ghost stories and of his personal interest in the strange world of the supernatural. It made the film even better for me because it reflects the essence of both the man and his inner identity.
If you’re looking for a screen portrayal of Bierce, there’s none better than Michael Parks. Parks who plays but it with an awareness of the man himself. There is the cool intensity which Bierce was known to display in moments of anger or conflict, as well as the confidence in the brandishing of arms one expects of a respected soldier (and suspected lifelong federal agent). Parks also nails the urbane cosmopolitan Yankee aspects of Bierce’s personality. You might say that Ambrose Bierce would be very comfortable alongside Abram Van Helsing in a Stoker novel – if not himself filling the role of guru warrior of the arcane. I have watched this movie several times and every time it is the Bierce bits that are my favorite.
What also makes FDTD3: Hangman’s Daughter an excellent top-grade ‘B movie’ is that Rodriguez’ troupe and Tarantino have a true appreciation for things pulp. Pesce’s direction produces that perfectly pulpy blend of western and horror. Alvaro Rodriguez’ script, from the story he crafted with Robert, provides the perfect blueprint for the very essence of what makes these stories – and the potential of their reality – so beloved. There is no better example of the influence of Ambrose Bierce on the popular culture of our times than this film and it serves as the best prelude to discuss the strange and arcane rumors surrounding the man’s mysterious disappearance.
In fact, I recommend the reader put this book down before continuing to the next chapter. Get your hands on a copy of FDTD3: Hangman’s Daughter and watch it first. Let it flow over you. Soak up the genre vibes, bask in the torchlit ambience of the cold stone thrills and chills. Watch Parks’ Bierce tangle and survive with his fellow travelers through an ancient horrorland in forgotten Mexico and, just for a couple of hours, consider all the possibilities, for the real Bierce would doubtless have loved the movie himself.
The Mexico of gothic horror, from the pulp thrills and gory laughs of FDTD3 and great black and white classics like ‘Curse of the Crying Woman’, is the perfect backdrop against which to explore the last known exploits of Ambrose Bierce.
Like a wayward traveler on a dusty and abandoned road in a Poe story, Bierce set out through old and forsaken Mexico, in his black suit, armed only with a pistol and twenty gold pieces to make his way. From Bierce’s perspective, this land of legendary bloodthirsty horrors into which he was venturing was another dimension from which he did not believe he would return.
Let us now follow the shadowy trail into the Mexico of ancient magic and bloody rituals, red volcanic skies and deep steamy jungles. Let us follow Bierce’s footsteps and see how far into the occulted night his journey may have taken him. He did not return from this expedition, he left no apparent trace behind. He rode south from El Paso and that is where the next chapter begins.
Saddle up…

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NYMZA by Walter Bosley


Walter Bosley explores the darker implications of America’s post-WW2 relationship with the enemy and how a medieval method of invasion and conquest was used against the Allied victors. This is an examination of the political, financial and societal compromise of the United States by an organization with roots dating back centuries.


NYMZA by Walter Bosley
NYMZA: How America Sold Its Soul