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‘Do you mean to say,’ he began, ‘that if I take the trouble to observe your directions – place myself in the condition which you demand: solitude, night, and a tallow candle – you can with your ghastliest work give me an uncomfortable sense of the supernatural, as you call it? Can you accelerate my pulse, make me start at sudden noises, send a nervous chill along my spine, and cause my hair to rise?’

Before Robert W. Chambers, before H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, there was Ambrose Bierce. The increasingly more excessive supernatural tone of their stories, with an equal increase in the overwrought standard of prose – at least in certain examples of the above, was initially derived from Bierce’s use of melancholic horror.

His name is often mentioned as one of the founders of the Cthulu Mythos, which would have been much to his amusement I imagine. For the horrors he unleashes are neither squamous, nor cyclopean, but often the very real horror of war. Certainly this collection of short stories, divided into two sections ‘Soldiers’, and ‘Civilians’, is rooted heavily in the events of the American Civil War, with the division of families and loved ones a recurring theme. What there is of the supernatural on show is weighted by Bierce’s own agnosticism.

The afterlife here is not so much damnation below, or a heavenly reward, but that brief moment when the dying soldier imagines that they have escaped their fate. There’s an excellent line in the story Parker Adderson, Philosopher that illustrates Bierce’s perspective on religion. A Union soldier – the Union throughout is referred to as ‘Federal’, which was a term I was unfamiliar with in this context – has been arrested by the Confederate army as a spy. Parker Adderson proves to be a witty and bemused subject for interrogation, engaging the enemy Confederate general in a battle of words. When it is made clear that he will be executed, Adderson refuses to speak to any priest, as he says: You can hang me, general, but there your power of evil ends; you cannot condemn me to heaven.

A Horseman In The Sky and The Coup De Grace both treat of the costs the war brought to bear on families, with fathers turned against sons and husbands leaving wives and offspring to a doubtful fate when called to the field. The former story features a native Virginian following his principles and joining the army from the North, setting him against his family and community. The hallucinatory story Chickamauga, resembling at times a gory Hideo Nakata movie, shows how children playing soldier games are blind to the inhumanity of the battlefield.

Cthulu scholars should read An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haita the Shepherd with interest as both stories feature names of gods and places referred to by successive authors, although the deity known as Hastur here appears in a far more benevolent form than in later supernatural fiction. The opening story The Suitable Surroundings, from which my opening quotation was taken, even has an early progenitor of the ‘evil book’, trope although once again, Bierce’s materialism does not allow for the amorphous threat posed by the Necronomicon. In fact I would argue his matter of fact scary story is far more frightening, as it is more plausible than outer gods threatening our reality through the gateway of mouldering, old books.

The real star of the collection though is Bierce’s seminal story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. This is an excellent study in suspense, with the protagonist a civilian devoted to the Confederate cause attempting to aid them and survive capture by the Federal soldiers. The story is as much a study of the lengths a man can go to when motivated by feelings of patriotism, as it is a mediation on death itself. An excellent story.

Many of Bierce’s writings can be found in different collections. This book that I have read was published in 1964 and his reputation has grown since then thanks to the generous credit given to him by contemporary Lovecraft scholars.

Suspenseful, thoughtful and chilling, this is classic supernatural fiction that does not stretch plausibility.

This book we proudly delicate, to Aussies overseas,

You’re trying to make a safer world, for all our families

Last Saturday I read Fly Away Peter by David Malouf, which featured an astonishing vision of a Hades dedicated to Australian Diggers who lost their lives during World War One. This book features a collection of poems, stories and memories of home, intended to lift the spirit of Australian service personnel working overseas.

That said my favourite story in the collection is Melanie Harris’ Loon Kitten Stories, which has nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan, but does feature a determined kitten named Sarge. This simple tale of the author and her flatmates attempting to break in a fiendishly intelligent feline manages to raise a smile and remind the reader that sometimes the simplest things in life can lift the spirit. A year in the life of one frustrated cat owner becomes an epic story of human versus ball of fur and claws. It is a sweetly endearing comic tale.

Swede by Sergeant Grant Teeboon also is concerned with the furry kind, a police dog in this instance, who takes a distinct dislike to Margaret Thatcher. Then Allan Goode’s Mateship defines that most quintessential of Australian qualities by comparing it to the relationship between two puppies.

For the most part though the book features poems and stories from service personnel telling of difficult experiences in distant lands; with families and loved ones waiting for them at home. It is also a book about Australia and Australian pride, about why the Diggers are so well regarded.

Broken into a series of different sections, some dedicated to humour, even romance, the book reminds us that these are men and women who have left so much behind. It also serves to remind them what is waiting for them when they return. Not everyone agrees on the case for war and certain pieces express the anger of those fighting for a cause they are not convinced is a worthy one. Nevertheless once committed the Diggers will not refuse to serve.

In addition to the intimate thoughts expressed in verse and prose, Postcards from Home also features art and photography dedicated to the sights of Australia. Carlo Travato’s illustrations feature throughout the book, but his drawings of quotidian objects are startlingly detailed. There are also photos of some ordinary things, such as a mother possum with its child. Some contrast the familiar sight of Sydney bay with a certain animal in shot. Another comical image has a rather confused Santa Claus stuck halfway up a post.

A sudden change of tone is offered by Kris Farrant, a Canberra based musician who submitted a series of poems taking their inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. At first I was surprised, after all I am very familiar with the line That is not dead which can eternally lie, but I have always considered that New England writer to be something of a cult concern. However, it just goes to show how home itself is a collection of memories and things that are not fixed in the soil of Australia. R.A. Dee’s Charmers is a humourous, yet quirkily romantic tale, without a single squamous in sight (and thank Cthulu for that, a Lovecraft romance is not something I would like to read). Both writers offer contrasting views on life at home….alright not so much with the Cthulu, but you can read Lovecraft at home! They might discourage that in the armed services.

This is a book dedicated to a good cause and is quite a heartfelt at that. Many thanks to Odyssey Books for the review copy.

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