Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
About ten years ago I was living in Southern California and one evening I got a call from my parents. They were watching Jeopardy and the final Jeopardy answer was “This man wrote the short story, Strange Occurrence at Owl Creek.” I am not sure why my parents could not wait until after the commercial to get the answer, but they called me sure I would know the answer. Of course, I did, it was Ambrose Bierce.
Today we ae going to try to answer that final Jeopardy question “Who was Ambrose Bierce?” In a companion piece with Black Clock Audio, I try to explain who Bierce was as a living breathing human being. How the Civil War and losing his two adult sons, affected who he was as a man. Here I am going to try to explain who he is as a writer. To do this I will be discussing some of his stories, and there is no way I can do that without a few spoilers. You have been warned!
Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. In this story a civilian who is sympathetic with the Confederate cause, attempts to destroy some Union railroads. He is caught and since his actions were done out of uniform, he is sentenced to be hung at Owl Creek Bridge. Luckily, the rope snaps and he escape after being chased by Union soldiers. He makes it his home and his wife, when suddenly, his neck breaks and his body dangles under the bridge. The entire painstakingly described escape scene was just his imagination before he died.
In modern times this is the story Bierce is best known for. In 1964 there was a movie short of this story made in France. This version so impressed Rod Serling he had it shown on his anthology show, The Twilight Zone. Since them this story has become a staple of high school English textbooks (that is where I discovered it).
It demonstrates Ambrose’s mastery of the twist ending. But it also exemplifies a common theme in his writing, death. Since the Civil War Bierce is going to be surrounded by death, and he deals with it by way of his writings. Modern science tells us that when a person dies or comes close to dying, there are strange and random impulses that are sent out to the higher functioning parts of the brain. This may or may not be the cause of near death experiences such as seeing a corridor of light or family members that pass on. Bierce was so familiar with the concept of death he wrote about it hundreds of years before science discovered this fact.
What I Saw of Shiloh: This is two days in the life of Sargent Bierce (by war’s end he would be promoted to brevet major) It is the truly horrific story of what war is like. Though as a newspaperman Bierce would be known for some hyperbole, I do not think he embellished anything about the horrors of war in this memoir. Historically the book holds up well in its view of macro history. I am told that some forest rangers use this book as a guide when they give a tour of Shiloh battlefield.
Some others challenge his “facts”The story is written down nearly two decades after the events, and after Bierce suffers a serious headwound in the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, as well as him freely admitting that this was just what he saw, others may have seen different things. I however have no reason to think that the Civil War was not as brutal and nasty as he describes.
Death becomes part of Bierce’s life and his writings. Many of his stories involve death or the impact of a death on a person or a community. I cannot help but think that is because death especially what he encountered at Shiloh made such a lasting impact on him.
It is important to note that while Bierce may laud the patriotism and sacrifices of individual combatants, he never glorifies war. His black humor often articulates how fragile life can be and how randomly death can strike. His stories are very much anti-war stories, told by someone who was there, in this way it is an early American counterpart to Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quite on the Western Front. There is an academic theory floating around that modern horror had its origin in WWI, maybe it had its origin in the American Civil War?
Chickamauga: Here we see Bierce blend his civil war stories with his supernatural ones. In this story a child growing up near the battlefield of Chickamauga, see the ghost of soldiers and attempts to play with them. We feel fear for this child who is surrounded by the unknowns from beyond the grave, but also for the soldiers who died at such a young age and cannot pass on. Again, we see how random and arbitrary death can be. The reader can see the naive innocence of the boy, and compare it to the soldiers, who must have been like that to some degree before the war took their youth, their innocence and lives. The ghost become representative of the psyche and emotional scars that war left on the nation.
As I have said in the Black Clock Audio presentation on Ambrose Bierce suffered both a traumatic brain injury as well as PSDT, in a time where these concepts were not understood. If you or anyone you know suffers from PSDT, there are places to reach out for help.
For more information on PTSD click the link below.