Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Dark and Spooky Tales by Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was nicknamed "Bitter Bierce", and after reading his stories, it is easy to see why.  Although the stories I read were undoubtedly lacking sunshine, they were very well written.  In fact, Bierce’s life or rather his death is as spooky as any of his stories. He was travelling in Mexico whence he disappeared without a trace and was never heard from again. Sounds like something he would write. This week I read two of his short stories, among them An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge which is his best known work.

Beyond the Wall

The narrator, who is never named, renews contact with an old school chum, an aristocrat named Mohun Dampier. He goes to meet Dampier at the latter’s home and is dismayed to find his once-handsome and robust friend now looking absolutely ghostly. There is an atmosphere of doom and decay around the house and it is clear that Dampier himself is wasting away. Barely have the friends exchanged a few not-so-pleasantries when there is a gentle tapping sound which seems to be coming from the adjoining room. Except, there is no adjoining room. There is nothing beyond the wall but the dark night.

Now, this is paint by numbers spooky story. There is nothing here that you haven’t read before and you almost always know what the next scene is going to be. The atmosphere that Bierce strives to create is also pretty clichéd with a raging storm and a gloomy house. I don’t mean to imply that this is a bad story; just that it is a standard issue horror story, perfect for when you are in the mood for such a thing.  Perhaps it just takes a lot more to shock and scare us today than it did with readers in Bierce’s time.

Give it a go. You can find it Here.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The story, set in the American Civil War, begins with a man standing on a railroad bridge, bound hand and foot, with a noose around his neck. Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy plantation owner and confederate loyalist is about to be hanged for trying to destroy an important bit of the railroad. All the preparations for the execution are complete and now it only remains for the captain to give the signal and the deed will be done. Farquhar thinks of his wife and children and also of escape. Then, in a strange turn of events, he does escape. What comes next is the big daddy of all twist in the tale endings.

As I mentioned before, this story was always considered Bierce’s best. I haven’t read enough of his stories to make a comparative judgement but this would be pretty hard to top. Almost the entire story takes place on a plank on the bridge with a noose around the protagonist’s neck. How’s that for a setting?  We drift in and out of Farquhar’s mind until reality and imagination blend seamlessly into each other. Really, this is the work of a master craftsman.
It’s an amazing story but also a very disturbing one. Bierce treats the subject of death and execution with a casualness and thoroughness that makes the whole experience even more macabre for the reader. This is no bedtime story. More like a brilliantly written nightmare.

You can read it Here.


  1. I read "Occurrence at Oak Bridge" a few months ago-it is a very disturbing story just as you beautifully depicted it-it was the basis for one of the best ever "Twilight Zone" American TV shows-this is the only one of his works I have read so far though I do not know what is really holding me back from reading a few more-

  2. Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge really is a wrenching story. Good review! I haven't read the first one.

    I can recommend "The Damned Thing" by Bierce - a short scary story about a man who is stalked by something he can't see (we find out about this after his death). That story just sticks with you; it contains a lot of the elements of memorable horror: a man thinking he's going mad, a monster/creature that won't stop and won't go away, a mangled body, etc.

  3. Mel U I've heard about the Twilight Zone adaptation of this story and I'm really keen to see it.

    HKatz Thanks for the recommendation. I'm off to hunt for The Damned Thing right away.

  4. It sounds like I really need to read some Bierce - these stories are right up my street. Definitely a contender for next week's Wednesday short story!

  5. Sophia I hope you enjoy them.

  6. Ha ha! I would think twice, thrice, four times, a countless times before I decide to pick that second story up! I'm a fraidy cat and I don't know if I could manage this sort of nightmare story. Perhaps in broad daylight?...

    Lovely reviews, btw!:)

  7. Risa I'm a fraidy cat too so i don't go anywhere near hardcore horror. Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge isnt scary but wrenching as HKatz said.