Sunday, October 30, 2016

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890)

Read story by Ambrose Bierce online.

This Civil War tale by Ambrose Bierce is not just his single most anthologized piece, but indeed is one of the most frequently collected of all short stories. It's a war story, but with spooky otherworldly effects, and grimly imagined. The story is short, around eight pages, but formally divided into three sections labeled with Roman numerals. It takes place in the South, where the Union army has captured, tried, and sentenced a man to death. We know this Southern man is guilty at least of plotting sabotage—his blunder was unknowingly asking a Union soldier the wrong questions. The story is not about the crime but about the punishment, a hanging that takes place at the bridge in the title. There's a meticulous detailing of how the hanging will proceed. And then there is the hanging itself and what follows, which is twisty and tricky. Bierce's language is all focused on the physical and the concrete. The narrator is omniscient but mostly stays with the condemned man. The story is not specifically antiwar, but it's aware of the follies of war. Neither side is sympathetic—neither the conniving would-be saboteur, nor the clinically precise machinations of the army putting him to death. He may be guilty, but it's transparently a kangaroo court. In case you've never encountered this story in all those anthologies, or seen the Twilight Zone episode based on it that won a Cannes award, or any of the other productions, I won't give away what are plainly intended as surprises. Bierce's tone is so restrained it's practically numb, but you come to realize it's a reflection of how intensely he has magined the incident. He is particularly good with the way ropes feel on the neck and wrists. I almost get the feeling some of this might have been drawn from separate exercises, working out intense anxieties. It's powerful stuff. Bierce is an heir of Edgar Allen Poe, and a forerunner of strains of 20th-century horror, partly by his famously bad attitude (he was known in his time as "Bitter Bierce") but more formally by his embrace of the surprise ending. That's on display in his best-known short story, which Kurt Vonnegut, for one, considered the greatest American story ever written. I think it's pretty good too.

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce (Library of America)

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