When you walk in the rain up to your ankles in water
Fixated on the vision of the hangman’s daughter
And what she’d mean to you, when she’d set you free

John Cale – “Set Me Free”

I don’t know what it is about the Hangman’s daughter, but she does seem to inspire plenty of artists… There’s the Incredible String Band’s “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” album; the John Cale song above (from the album “Walking on Locusts”); and even a band called Hangman’s Beautiful Daughters, to name but a few.  And then there’s this – a slim volume from Oneworld Classics that I picked up as a part of a very reasonably priced set from The Book People some time ago. It’s been calling to me for a while…

Abierce

Author Ambrose Bierce is a bit of a strange one – Wikipedia says “Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842– Circa 1914) was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist, and satirist. He wrote the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and compiled a satirical lexicon The Devil’s Dictionary. His vehemence as a critic, his motto “Nothing matters”, and the sardonic view of human nature that informed his work, all earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce”. Bierce employed a distinctive style of writing, especially in his stories. His style often embraces an abrupt beginning, dark imagery, vague references to time, limited descriptions, impossible events and the theme of war. In 1913, Bierce traveled to Mexico to gain first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution. While traveling with rebel troops, he disappeared without a trace.”

So his life is intriguing enough to start with! However, what of his writing? This is I think the only Bierce book I’ve read, and it’s set in the year 1680. Three monks are travelling to a rural monastery, and on their journey the youngest Ambrosius (who is also the narrator) notices a strange sight; a beautiful young girl chasing birds of prey away from a hanged man.

“…in the meadow appeared a young girl, with long golden hair, upon which rested a wreath of blossoms. She wore a bright red dress, which seemed to me to light up the whole scene like a flame of fire. Nothing in her actions indicated fear of the corpse upon the gallows; on the contrary, she glided toward it barefooted through the grass, singing in a loud but sweet voice, and waving her arms to scare away the birds of prey that had gathered about it, uttering harsh cries and with a great buffeting of wings and snapping of beaks.”

The girl is Benedicta, the hangman’s daughter of the title, and she is shunned by the local townsfolk because of her father’s trade. Ambrosius, a rather disingenuous and unreliable narrator, is attracted to the girl; telling himself that he sympathises with her plight and that he believes the hypocrisy and intolerance displayed by the locals is unChristian. However, even his superiors at the monastery disapprove of Benedicta, and he is punished for any kindness he shows to her. The girl has also attracted the attentions of Rochus, handsome and cruel son of the local Saltmaster, who wields civilian power in the region, and when she spends time dancing with him a jealous local woman spreads lies and rumours which lead to Benedicta being punished. Ambrosius is sent to the mountains to search his heart and see if he can find God. But Benedicta and also Rochus are nearby. Will Ambrosius be able to fight his demons and save the hangman’s daughter?

monk-hangmans-daughter-ambrose-bierce-paperback-cover-art
For a short work (under 100 pages) this book is packed with a lot of action and also plenty of soul-searching! Ambrosius is either unaware, or deluding himself, about his real nature – we soon learn to interpret things differently to the way he states them; from the reactions of the local woman we learn he is good-looking, and we are aware from the very start that he is attracted to Benedicta. He tries vainly to convince himself that his interest in her is spiritual but it is obvious that he is not cut out for the religious life, and this brings about an internal battle between his heart and mind. Rochus is painted as an evil seducer, though we do find ourselves wondering if this is an accurate image. And the hierarchy of the monastery is happy to wield power and sell alcohol to keep its influence on a par with the Saltmaster, which the naive monk does not seem to recognise.

As for the tragic Benedicta, she is the most sympathetic character in the book. Expecting nothing from life, she is happy enough to live in peace with her father, and so the incursion into her life of both Rochus and Ambrosius causes conflicts for her. Her ultimate fate is surprising at first, but then perhaps seems inevitable.

This book was a remarkably good read, a short, intense piece of literature with plenty of twists and turns till the final denouement. Bierce’s writing is excellent and his descriptions of the bleak (and somewhat forbidding) landscape are stunning.

“As we proceeded cautiously on our way giant trees barred our progress and dense foliage almost shut out the light of day, the darkness being deep and chill. The sound of our footfalls and of our voices, when we dared to speak, was returned to us from the great rocks bordering the pass, with such distinctness and so many repetitions, yet withal so changed, that we could hardly believe we were not accompanied by troops of invisible beings who mocked us and made sport of our fears. Great birds of prey, startled from their nests in the treetops and the sides of the cliffs, perched upon high pinnacles of rock and eyed us malignly as we passed; vultures and ravens croaked above us in hoarse and savage tones that made our blood run cold.”

The battle between good and evil that takes place in the being of Ambrosius is very impressively portrayed, and I found myself thinking that a modern book might have taken many more pages to tell this story, but much less effectively.

This was my first Bierce, but I hope it won’t be my last. I’m glad I picked up this lovely set of Oneworld Classics and I hope some of the other titles measure up to “The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter”!