© Schlock! Webzine
I’m a big fan of the American writer Ambrose Bierce, so I’m delighted to report that my Bierce-inspired short story No Man’s Land has been been published in the October 2020 issue of Schlock! Webzine.
During his lifetime, Bierce was best known for his journalism, although today he’s probably remembered most for his short fiction, and for two categories of short fiction in particular: his horror stories and his American Civil War stories. A good example of Bierce’s work in the former genre is 1893’s The Damned Thing, which has an irresistible premise – something monstrous and hideous is stalking the remote American West but nobody can see it because it’s a colour that exists beyond the spectrum of colours visible to the human eye. It’s an obvious influence on later writers of the weird and macabre such as H.P. Lovecraft.
However, I prefer Bierce’s short stories about the American Civil War, in which, as a young man, he’d fought on the Union side. They’re packed with unrelentingly grim detail about the conflict – and grim it certainly was, producing the greatest number of wartime deaths in the history of the United States, 620,000 (which is 200,000 more than the American death toll in World War II). Possibly my favourite of these stories is 1889’s Chickamauga, about a six-year-old child who wanders off from his family home and into a forest, becomes lost, and ends up in the aftermath of battle, where he witnesses all manner of terrible things.
Interestingly, perhaps Bierce’s most famous story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890), manages to combine a Civil War setting with psychological (and almost supernatural) horror. Kurt Vonnegut has praised it as ‘a flawless example of American genius’ and its twist ending has influenced novels, like William Golding’s Pincher Martin (1956), and movies, like Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), ever since.
No Man’s Land grew out of a mad question that occurred to me one day: “What would a vampire story written by Ambrose Bierce have been like?” When I started writing it, I perversely tried to model it on one of his Civil War stories rather than on one of his horror ones. What’s interesting is that as the story developed, and as I tried to accommodate the machinations of the plot, and tried to incorporate the vampire element, it moved further and further away from the Civil War and from America itself. Eventually, it ended up being set on a battlefield in some imaginary kingdom in 19th century Eastern Europe, rather like Ruritania in Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. The result was more like a dark fairy tale. For that reason, the story published in Schlock! Webzine is credited to Rab Foster, the pseudonym I put on my fantasy (as opposed to horror) stories.
Because I wanted to focus on the soldiers, and to avoid making the plot too tangled, I refrained from giving the vampires personalities and made them as bestial and mindless as possible. They’re not the suave, eloquent figures you’d get in, say, the average Anne Rice novel. That said, I did pay homage to the more traditional school of vampire story-telling at the end of No Man Land, when I lifted (okay, pinched) an idea from Brian Clemens’ 1974 Hammer horror movie Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter about the reflective properties of sword-blades.
Despite the fairy-tale atmosphere of No Man’s Land, I hope that at least some of Bierce’s influence shows through. I’ve sprinkled the story with details that evoke his Civil War stories – a fleeing, defeated army of injured soldiers stumbling and crawling along, their uninjured and able-bodied comrades having run away from the scene already; a battleground littered with discarded and dropped items, including “blankets, knapsacks, canteens, rifles with broken stocks and bent barrels, hats, waist-belts, bayonets, bugles, cartridge boxes, rations of biscuits and sardines, a scattered set of playing cards”; the air filled with a fog of gun and cannon-smoke; the mud patterned with the criss-crossing footprints and hoof-prints of armies advancing and retreating.
From the Clifton Waller Barret Library of American Literature