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Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Ambrose Collector

Just over a century ago, the American author Ambrose Bierce disappeared in war-torn Mexico. On December 26 1913 he wrote “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination” – and he was never seen or heard from again. The case remains one of the classic unsolved mysteries, and there are dozens of conflicting theories as to his fate. A recent article describes several eyewitness accounts of his death, all in different places at different times.

There are much weirder theories, too. Many years earlier, Bierce wrote an odd little story called “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, about a man who starts to walk across a field – and suddenly vanishes into thin air. This has led some people (and by “some people”, I mean the makers of Ancient Aliens) to speculate that Bierce stumbled across a secret portal to another dimension... which he described in veiled terms in the story, before eventually passing through it himself.

Not surprisingly, Charles Fort was interested in the case of Ambrose Bierce. He wrote about it in Lo!, and again in Wild Talents. In the latter book he linked the story to another disappearance – that of Ambrose Small in Canada in 1919. The problem that fascinated Fort was “what the disappearance of one Ambrose could have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose”. This led to a characteristically Fortean speculation: “Was somebody collecting Ambroses?”

The bizarre notion of an Ambrose Collector crops up in a novel I read several years ago, and then forgot all about until I was reading about the Bierce case recently. The book in question is Compliments of a Fiend by Fredric Brown, who is best known for the numerous science fiction stories he wrote in the 1940s and 50s. Some of the best of these, such as his novel What Mad Universe, foreshadow the work of Philip K. Dick in their portrayal of counterfeit, mind-created worlds. I mentioned Fredric Brown in just this context earlier this month, in my post about Mad Scientists, Zombies and the Loch Ness Monster.

But Compliments of a Fiend (1950) isn’t science fiction. Fredric Brown was an equally prolific writer of crime novels, and several of them feature a young detective named Ed Hunter and his uncle Ambrose. With a name like that, it was only a matter of time before the pair came up against the Ambrose Collector!

The novel isn’t especially Fortean, and it makes no attempt to explain the disappearance of either Ambrose Bierce or Ambrose Small. But it does have a villain who uses the pseudonym of “the Ambrose Collector”, and the corresponding quote from Wild Talents is referred to several times in the course of the plot. I read Compliments of a Fiend because it was recommended to me by someone who is a big fan of Fredric Brown, so I know at least some people think it’s a great book. As I mentioned earlier, however, personally I found the novel rather forgettable – although it’s a decent enough mystery story, and definitely one for Fortean completists.

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