From Ambrose Bierce to Ray Bradbury and back…
I’d like to share a picture of the front cover of Terror by Night, a collection of ghost and horror stories by Ambrose Bierce on this entry but it’s simply too unpleasant. It’s turn the book face down on the night stand unpleasant, a photograph of a desiccated corpse whose face seems contorted in pain. The sight of it – I had left it out face up – once sent my then three year old son screaming from the room and requesting that the book be removed from his presence. He is much older now but still doesn’t like it. He treats it as if it holds some sort of talismanic power, bringing evil in its wake.
It’s easy to understand why.
No, I’m still not going to show you.
The blurb on the back cover describes the photograph as ‘a well-preserved mummy from a museum in Guanajuato, Mexico’. On further investigation I discover it is the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato. Here one can peruse vast showcases of mummified bodies in what I imagine must be a rather gruesome and troubling day out.
The history of the place is as interesting as it is macabre. In the second half of the 19th century burial space was in short supply in the town. The council imposed a death tax on the relatives of the deceased to ensure the continued burial of their loved one. If the tax was not paid the body was disinterred. These displaced cadavers were stored in a nearby building where they underwent a process of natural mummification due to the climatic conditions in the area. People began to visit the bodies. They started charging an entry fee. A museum was born.
A visit made there by the author Ray Bradbury, author of Farenheit 451 had a profound effect on him and prompted him to write the short story ‘The Next In Line‘ published in his 1947 collection of stories entitled Dark Carnival.
‘The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to leave Mexico,’ he said. He also said he wrote the story in order to ‘purge his terror’.
The familiar sugar candy creations and brightly coloured ornaments of the Mexican Día de los Meurtos reveal a completely different attitude to death than Western Europe, and Britain in particular. Here death is hidden, death is a different currency from life, death is a counterfeit tender from the underworld. There, death is the flip side of the same coin.It’s no coincidence that Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, one of Mexico’s most famous works of literature is a story narrated by a man who does not realise he is dead.
The contorted faces of the bodies, a curator cheerfully explains in an interview is in fact the result of changes in air pressure rather than any awful fate of the deceased. Most people died peacefully, he insists.
And all this before reading a single word of the book.
Ambrose Bierce died in Mexico in 1914. Although many places claim his final resting place, the specific location of his death remains a mystery.
I am not sure if all front covers are chosen with such care. Or perhaps what I mean is perhaps not all front covers are chosen with such an eye for detail, connection and lack of concern for whether it will aid or hinder the sale of the book.
Although it didn’t put me off, I admit.
I shall write more about An Occurrence at Owl Creek Ridge and the mysterious Ambrose Bierce next week.