The first known mention of the city of Carcosa was in a brief and melancholy story by Ambrose Gwinett Bierce (1842–1914?) – author, journalist, satirist, Civil War veteran, ladies' man, social and political pundit – who is otherwise known for writing some of the most morbid and macabre stories in American literature. His wickedly funny The Devil's Dictionary defines 'hearse' as "Death's baby carriage", and 'birth' as "the first and direst of all disasters". His three Parricide Club stories – 'My Favorite Murder', 'An Imperfect Conflagration' and 'The Hypnotist' – are deadpan farces in which the protagonists kill their parents in highly inventive ways. His tales of the Civil War, such as 'Chickamauga', 'One Kind of Officer' and the famous 'An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge', are gritty, ironic, and harrowing. His ghost stories are dark gems that inspired such later giants as H. P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers.
Ambrose Bierce's tale An Inhabitant of Carcosa is arguably the wellspring of the whole Yellow Mythos. It employs an exoticism of setting unusual for the author, and sprang from the alienation that dogged Bierce all his life. The story's genesis may have come from a terrible dream he had in his youth, which inspired his essay, Visions of the Night, in which he recounted wandering through a blasted landscape and entering a colossal, deserted castle. The castle's dusty, echoing corriders filled him with the feeling that the entire universe was long extinct:
- Man is long ages dead in every zone
The angels all are gone to graves unknown
The devils, too, are cold enough at last
And God lies dead before the great white throne.
In this cosmic tomb, young Ambrose found a bed on which lay a horribly decayed corpse. The cadaver's eyes opened, and Bierce saw, to his horror, that they were his own: "That hateful and abhorrent scrap of mortality, still sentient after the death of God and his angels, was I!"
Although the details are different, thematically it is very similar to An Inhabitant of Carcosa.
The author's other main contribution to the Mythos is via his story Haita the Shepherd, which first introduced the name of Hastur to the world. From here it would go on to greater significance (though with its context greatly altered) through the writings of Chambers and then Lovecraft, becoming the central plank of The Hastur Mythos.
Astute readers will have noted the question mark after Ambrose Bierce's death date. At the age of seventy-one, Bierce decided that, instead of waiting for death to come, he would go and find it. He visited Southern cemetaries to apologize to the rebel soldiers he had killed in his youth, and headed for Mexico to join Pancho Villa's revolution. He wrote a letter to a friend saying that he would head out the next day for an unknown destination – and then disappeared. Presumably he died in Mexico, but nobody knows when or where or how.
Or perhaps he didn't. Highly unreliable sources have speculated that, instead of simply dying, Ambrose Bierce wandered out of this world and into the ancient and (in)famous city of Carcosa. John Tynes's story "Ambrose" explores this idea. And if it's true, who's to say that he is not happier there than he ever was on Earth?
Appearances In Fiction
Bierce, Ambrose Gwinett, "The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce." University of Nebraska, c. 1970.
Ibid, "A Sole Survivor: Bits of an Autobiography." University of Tennessee, c. 1998.
Tynes, John, "Ambrose: a Tale of the King in Yellow." Armitage House, c. 1996.