Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter by Ambrose Bierce (1892)

I'd never read any Ambrose Bierce before, but how could I resist the cover of this collection featuring his novella The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter (1892) and seven other short stories from the 1880s and 1890s? I just couldn't. And I'm glad I couldn't because Bierce has an amusing cynicism, beautifully written prose, and a sense for the perfect twist that make his stories very readable 120 years after they were written.

In the title story, a young monk is sent with some of his brothers to an isolated village in the Alps. He soon encounters a beautiful young girl who is shunned by the villagers because her father is the hangman. The monk thinks this injustice is ungodly, and tries to comfort and protect the young girl but is reprimanded by his superiors. The monk is sent up a mountain to a lonely cottage to search his soul and rethink his attraction to the doomed girl, but his life is set on a tragic course and things don't end up turning out very well for anyone up on that mountain.

Bierce hates phonies and is at his best when his naive narrator reveals the hypocrisies he sees around him (and the double-sidedness of his own monkly nature):

I looked about me to see if the child of the hangman were present, but I could not see her anywhere, and knew not whether to rejoice that she was out of reach of the insults of the people or to mourn because deprived of the spiritual strength that might have come to me from looking upon her heavenly beauty.... The wheaten bread was brought in immense baskets, and as to drink, there was assuredly no scarcity of that, for the Superior and the Saltmaster had each given a mighty cask of beer. Both of these monstrous barrels lay on wooden stands under an ancient oak. The boys and the Saltmaster's men drew from the cask which he had given, while that of the Superior was served by the brother butler and a number of us younger monks. In honor of Saint Franciscus I must say that the clerical barrel was of vastly greater size than that of the Saltmaster...

At the table, surrounded by their beautiful wives and daughters, sat many knights, who had come from their distant castles to share in the great festival. I helped at table. I handed the dishes and filled the goblets and was able to see how good an appetite the company had, and how they loved that brown and bitter drink. I could see also how amorously the Saltmaster's son looked at the ladies, which provoked me very much, as he could not marry them all, especially those already married.

We had music, too. Some boys from the village, who practice on various instruments in their spare moments, were the performers. Ah, how they yelled, those flutes and pipes, and how the fiddle bows danced and chirped! I do not doubt the music was very good, but Heaven has not seen fit to give me the right kind of ears...

But the women seemed to dislike the beer, especially the young girls. Usually before drinking a young man would hand his cup to one of the maids, who barely touched it with her lips, and, making a grimace, turned away her face. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the ways of woman to say with certainty if this proved that at other times they were so abstemious.

The rest of the collected short stories are all perfectly crafted with biting twists. My favorite (and probably Bierce's best known work besides The Devil's Dictionary is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) -- a Civil War story about a prisoner being hanged that has some of the most visceral and beautiful descriptions of dying that I've ever read [and to save me doing a bunch more quoting, just read the whole thing here. It is very short and totally worth your time]. In fact, since all of Bierce's work was published before 1923 it is all in the public domain and readily available for your online reading pleasure!

[Book nerd alert: my copy is a 1955 Avon Publications book. If you think the front cover is cool, then just feast your eyes on the back cover.]

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