With a few exceptions, if you went to a high school in the USA, you’ve read Ambrose Bierce. In fact, I can even tell you which story: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” You know the one. A guy, about to be executed, escapes, swims through the river, gets back home, just as he’s about to enter his property something tugs at him and—bam! It turns out he was actually just in the process of dying all along. It’s the archetypical twist ending, the inspiration for a million bad stories, episodes of anthologies shows, and I’m going to assume for Borges’ “The Secret Miracle” although I have no evidence for this. In a culture oversaturated with the influence of this one twist ending, it’s more likely to produce a groan than genuine surprise, but cutting through that we can also see in this story the elements that make Bierce such a fun horror author.
I find Bierce strikingly accomplished at the portrayal of subjective states, especially those that do or do not encompass the supernatural. He approaches his characters with an eye for psychological realism but also a great deal of satirical genius. I’ve only read this collection, Can Such Things Be?, and his mocking The Devil’s Dictionary, but it seems to me that he might stand as the best satirical American author from the 19th Century—yes, even better than Mark Twain, because of the deft subtlety with which he undercuts societal assumptions ranging from religion to racism. To give some idea, this entry from The Devil’s Dictionary:
“GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.
There is one insuperable obstacle to a belief in ghosts. A ghost never comes naked: he appears either in a winding-sheet or ‘in his habit as he lived.’ To believe in him, then, is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power inheres in textile fabrics. Supposing the products of the loom to have this ability, what object would they have in exercising it? And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk abroad without a ghost in it? These be riddles of significance. They reach away down and get a convulsive grasp on the very tap-root of this flourishing faith.”
Bierce’s use of language is so skilled that I would almost prefer to just post the entire text of one of his stories—certainly there are some, such as “One Summer Night”, that are sufficiently short, and I feel his language is more adequate to the task of advertising him than my own. However, since the purpose here is also to give my opinion and analysis, let’s look at one of the more traditional ghost stories he presents.
A TOUGH TUSSLE
Our story starts in the midst of the Civil War (which Bierce had served in) with a Federal officer waiting in the dark. First we learn that this man, Lieutenant Byring, is a brave soldier who has distinguished himself thus far. Furthermore, we learn that he “was a braver man than anybody knew” because he is in fact terrified of corpses but “nobody knew his horror of that which he was ever ready to incur.”
This night he is in darkness in the night waiting for action. Bierce paints a vivid image of night—”how even the most commonplace and familiar objects take on another character.” While waiting Byring drifts into thought during which time the changing patches of moon- and starlight illuminate a human figure—a corpse. He lights a cigar and after the moment of darkness following the light of the flame, it “seemed to have moved a trifle nearer.”
To distract himself from his fear Byring meditates on the ancestral origins of the human fear of corpses, evoking “the cradle of the human race” when exposed corpses might have been left unburied and “bred pestilences.” He concludes with the thought, “I think, indeed, I’d better go away from this chap.” Bierce shows seemingly legitimate anthropological speculation to be finally only in service of irrational fear just as much as any other thoughts might be.
But duty stays Byring, as his men will be looking for him at that exact spot, and it he were to move “they would think he feared the corpse”—which is, of course, the truth. He seats himself and watches the corpse but just then he feels a sharp pain, and realizes he has been “grasping the hilt of his drawn sword so tightly that it hurt him.” He laughs, but is startled by the sound.
“He could no longer conceal from himself the horrible fact of his cowardice; he was thoroughly frightened!” He is frozen in terror, fixed to the gaze of the corpse. “One sole conviction now held the man in possession: that the body had moved.” He sees it continue to move, and just then a shot rings out from the line and breaks the spell. “With a cry like that of some great bird pouncing upon its prey he sprang forward, hot-hearted for action!”
The narrative then pulls back to a disengaged description of the overall fight. The next morning “a fatigue party … searched the ground for dead and wounded. At the fork of the road, a little to one side, they found two bodies lying close together—that of a Federal officer and that of a Confederate private. The officer had died of a sword-thrust through the heart, but not, apparently, until he had inflicted upon his enemy no fewer than five dreadful wounds.”
They discover that the officer is Byring, and are surprised to learn that he was killed by a thrust from his own sword, the only other weapon being “an undischarged revolver”. They try to move the body of the confederate, but it is stiff and without blood. “The dead do not wish to be moved—it protested with a faint, sickening odor. Where it had lain ever a few maggots, manifesting an imbecile activity.
The surgeon looked at the captain. The captain looked at the surgeon.”
One of the ideas I’ve mentioned repeatedly, particularly in connection with earlier fiction, is the ambiguity of explanation where events could be either supernatural or psychological. Bierce executes this perfectly. Although it is most likely that Byring’s fear of the dead took hold of him and while thrashing about in the dark he accidentally cast the fatal strike against himself, the motion of the corpse, especially as portrayed through the third-person narration, remains as a sort of threat, a nagging doubt. Bierce also plays up the absurdity of wartime, where an officer perfectly content to put himself in threat of mortal danger from other humans nonetheless succumbs to an unknown supernatural fear.
Bierce is for me one of those quintessential American voices: witty, sardonic, possessed by the atmosphere and action of a painfully expanding nation. It doesn’t hurt that most of his stories are set in my native Northern California; it’s nice to for once see the spirits haunting the manzanita and gulches of Auburn rather than the ruins of Marblehead or the like. I give this story a 9/10—the only negative for me is the predictable plot, but the perfect execution precludes boredom. And I give a high recommendation for the whole collection, Can Such Things Be?, for all readers. I’m reading it out of an omnibus collection which is a great way to read authors like Bierce—I essentially got all his important works for $4. Plus there’s the added satisfaction of holding a nice hefty book in your hand.
Tomorrow, can Ramsey Campbell make sex scary with “The Other Woman?” No, no he can’t. But we’ll see why tomorrow.
All quotations from The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce copyright The Citadel Press 1946. (Although it’s also in the public domain so I suppose I could have just pretended that’s where it’s from.)
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.