another mash-up of an old post or three, but i'm feeling lazy ...
Ambrose Bierce - Terror by Night: Classic Ghost and Horror Stories (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural, 2006)
David Stuart Davies - Introduction
An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge The Moonlit Road Haita The Shepherd The Secret Of Macarger's Gulch The Eyes Of The Panther The Stranger An Inhabitant Of Carcosa The Applicant The Death Of Halpin Frayser A Watcher By The Dead An Imperfect Conflagration The Man And The Snake John Mortonson's Funeral Moxon's Master The Damned Thing The Realm Of The Unreal Chickamauga A Fruitless Assignment A Vine On A House One Of Twins Present At A Hanging A Wireless Message One Of The Missing An Arrest A Jug Of Syrup The Isle Of Pines At Old Man Eckert's Three And One Are One The Spook House The Middle Toe Of The Right Foot The Thing At Nolan The Difficulty Of Crossing A Field The Affair at Coulter's Notch An Unfinished Race Charles Ashmore's Trial Stanley Fleming's Hallucination The Night-Doings At "Deadman's" A Baby Tramp A Psychological Shipwreck A Cold Greeting Beyond The Wall John Bartine's Watch The Man out of the Nose An Adventure at Brownville The Mocking-Bird The Suitable Surroundings The Boarded Window A Lady From Redhorse The Famous Gilson Bequest A Holy Terror A Diagnosis Of Death
"A jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise."
Nobody quite does sardonic like heavyweight miserable git Ambrose Bierce (1842-191?), and his brand of gallows humour, often teetering on misanthrope, is ideally suited to horror anthologies. Short of his Collected Writings, an 810 page paperback edition of which was published by Picador in 1988, there probably isn't a single volume of stories that collects all the best ones, but this generous early Wordsworth edition does a better job than most. includes:
An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge: Peyton Farquhar, a well-to-do Alabama planter, is about to be hung by the Yankees for plotting to sabotage the railway at the bridge. At the last moment, the rope snaps and he plunges into the river below, dodges a hail of bullets and swims to safety. He crosses a strange woodland and eventually finds his way back to his loving wife, although, obviously, the ordeal has left him close to exhaustion.
"His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it he found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested. He could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst ... How strongly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue - he could no longer feel the roadway between his feet."
Still, all's well that ends well.
The Moonlit Road: Three narratives: the first is that of the son, Joel Hetman, who tells of how his mother was strangled by an intruder. Nobody was ever convicted of her murder, and his father seemingly vanished along the Moonlit Road shortly afterward. Next, the statement of Casper Grattan, tormented by terrible dreams in which he kills a person unknown. Finally, via a medium, we have the testimony of Joel's mother which clears up the confusion.
One Summer Night: Henry Armstrong is a victim of premature burial. Lucky for him, within hours of being planted in the soil, two medical students hire big negro Jess the cemetery caretaker to dig him up to furnish their dissecting table. On second thoughts, maybe "lucky" isn't the right word ...
John Mortonson's Funeral: A tasteful, open casket affair with the deceased "not disagreeable" to look upon. It passes almost without incident, as you'd imagine ...
Oil Of Dog: Boffer Bings, born to a father who is manufacturer of dog-oil and a mother who gets rid of the neighbourhood's "superfluous" babies, accidentally hits on the formula that will revolutionise their business and lead to huge commercial success.
A Watcher By The Dead: Medical students bet a young man that he can't spend the night in the same room as a corpse. Mr. Jarette duly obliges, and, not having read enough horror stories, he never once suspects that these low-down skunks are required by law to play a nasty trick on him. The story relies a little too much on an unlikely coincidence, but when the prank goes horribly wrong it's well worth the wait.
Chickamauga: A six-year-old deaf mute is lost overnight in a forest. The following day he chances upon some funny men in uniform with red stuff all over them crawling toward the lake. He joins in the fun, even climbing on one of their backs until the man - who seems to have quite a bit of his face missing - angrily pushes him away. On reaching their destination, some of the party who stick their heads in the water don't lift them out again. The child sees a fire in the distance and, as his new pals seem to have all fallen asleep, heads out to investigate. It takes him a while to figure just whose house it is that's ablaze and whose family the Yankee soldiers have massacred, but he gets there in the end.
A Horseman In The Sky. When he informs him that he is enlisting with the Union army, Carter Druse's father tells him that he is a traitor to Virginia but "Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty."
When Druse spots a Confederate scout high up on the ridge, he remembers the old man's words.
The Boarded Window: Happily married couples are a rarity on planet Bierce and maybe its just as well on the evidence of this black-hearted four pager. Murlock’s wife falls ill with fever and within days, to all appearances, she’s dead though it would have been better for both of them if there had been a doctor on hand to make sure. Her husband builds her a coffin and leaves her lying in state in their log cabin until the following morning when he’ll bury her. Perhaps he’ll be able to cry then because he feels guilty that he’s not been able to do so just yet. During the night he’s awoken by something pushing heavily against him in the dark ….
The Man And The Snake: Harker Brayton sneers at the belief that snakes mesmerise their prey before striking. which makes the circumstances behind his death doubly humiliation.
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.