How about I start with the bad news about Ambrose Bierce, or at least describe an odd aspect of his fiction. Then the rest of the week will be the usual “ain’t this neat” kind of writing. This post contains, as they say, spoilers, but any spoiling is done not by me but by Ambrose Bierce.
Bierce’s most famous story is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which is known for, as much as anything else, its trick ending, the kind of trick a writer gets to use just once. Most writers do not get to use it at all, actually, because Bierce has ruined it for them. Sentence by sentence, “Owl Creek Bridge” is – no, I should just parrot David Mason: “I don’t even really know how to talk about [the story’s] perfections, the descriptive set pieces or the cinematic cross-cutting or the spellbinding dread and realization of what is happening in the mind of the reader as well as that of the protagonist.” And then there’s the almost too memorable ending.
“Chickamauga” is well-known, too. It depicts a famous battle from a child’s point of view, and has some amazing “make it strange” writing:
He moved among [the soldiers] freely, going from one to another and peering into their faces with childish curiosity. All their faces were singularly white and many were streaked and gouted with red. Something in this – something too, perhaps, in their grotesque attitudes and movements – reminded him of the painted clown whom he had seen last summer in the circus, and he laughed as he watched them.
And then at the end there is a twist – no, a trick, it is also a trick.
These two stories occupy positions # 2 and 3 in In the Midst of Life. Story #1, “A Horseman in the Sky,” is a lesser affair, except for one astounding image (see title). It’s last paragraph:
The sergeant rose to his feet and walked away. “Good God!” he said.
The sergeant is responding exactly like I did to the story’s trick ending. No, this one is a twist, not a trick.
Reading the stories in a sequence, Bierce quickly trains me to expect a twist ending, and in fact there almost always is one. The strangest things happen in war, granted, but the strangest things always happen on Bierce’s fictional battlefields.
The stories from the final edition of In the Midst of Life were published in newspapers over the course of almost forty years (1871-1909), so the first-time readers were likely more prone to surprise, unless a lot of newspaper fiction was of the trick-ending variety, which it likely was.
The ghost stories, for example, Bierce’s masterly ghost stories. The twist is inherent in the genre, isn’t it? Once you have heard your first ghost story, the pleasure of the next one depends on the cleverness of the variation. The house is haunted because a terrible murder took place there! Yes, and? I have heard that one before.
The Argumentative Old Git argues that “the point of a ghost story is to evoke fear,” and in that sense Bierce’s ghost stories – I suspect, for me, all ghost stories ever written – are failures. Fear? Amusement, yes; laughter, sometimes. I read them in anticipation of a display of cleverness. Spending the night in a haunted house – what is Bierce going to do with this trite setup? How will he escape the little trap he has built for himself? And he always escapes. He was very clever.