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.