Tuesday, April 17, 2012

“Good God!” he said - Bierce's tricks and twists

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.


  1. One of the footnotes to Bierce's ghost stories is that some of them have become urban legends. "Charles Ashmore's Trail," in particular, has had a long, troubled history in books on "paranormal phenomena"; so many people want to believe it. For me, it's not always clear if Bierce is making stuff up or passing on foaflore: which is, of course, fun.

  2. No kidding. So the semi-science fiction worked - it looked to some people like "science" fiction. And it is all done with rhetoric, the detached, factual prose.

  3. Nobody can use Bierce's endings, no, not without irony. But a lot of people use his middles. The passages in "Owl Creek" where the details of the place come into extreme and exquisite focus? That sort of thing is very popular (in 20th- and 21st-c. American fiction anyway). It's too easy to forget that Bierce could write amazing prose. "There was nothing it reminded him of that wasn't beautiful" or however it goes. Just great stuff.

    For the longest time I only knew Bierce from the Devil's Dictionary but I'm glad I stumbled across his stories. I have such a poor memory for plot that I always forget what the twists are anyway, so I don't mind them. I don't think I know his ghost stories at all.

  4. The move into the uncanny at the end is perfect, too: "He had not known that he lived in so wild a region."

    I make no great claim to memory either - I will forget most of them soon. The funny effect of the twists comes when reading the stories one after the other - OK, what's it gonna be this time? I do not know what the twist is, but I know that it exists.

  5. Whether one reads ghost stories for cleverness, or what, somewhat depends on which author you're reading. M.R. James for cleverness of the kind you're describing; Lovecraft for gibbering horrors from beyond the stars and so on; Robert Aickman for genuinely odd stuff that hovers right at the periphery. I like all of them pretty well.

  6. No fear though? You do not read Lovecraft and experience fear? I read him and experience jolly laughter. And I like him pretty well, too.

    James I have never read; Aickman I have never heard of, so thanks for the pointer.

  7. The trick endings can be annoying, but they seem to have been obligatory for much of the short story market. O. Henry and Saki (among others) overused them. I guess readers demanded them.

    There's a wonderful book on the subject, which I mention since I suspect you'd enjoy it: "101 Plots Used and Abused," by James M. Young (1945). The writer was an editor at "Collier's," and catalogues all the hackneyed plots writers should avoid -- most of which have trick endings.

  8. I used to attribute the twists to the influence of Maupassant, which may be partly true, but Bierce was coming up with clever ones before M. published his stories. Yes, that must have been a big part of what the market wanted.

    Plus Bierce, Saki, O. Henry, and Maupassant were all especially good at this particular type of plot. Think of all the mediocrities!

    The plot book does sound good - thanks.

  9. Um, no, I have never experienced fear reading Lovecraft. Laughter, yes; interest, yes; annoyance at his racism, yes. Fear, no.

    Aickman is really worth reading. "Into the Wood," "The Next Glade," "The Inner Room," "The Hospice," "Bind Your Hair" -- none of these are ghost stories (though he wrote one or two, and even one straightforward vampire story.) They are strange stories. Stories of unease. I literally can't get enough of 'em; they're hard to find.

  10. "Unease," that's good. That's Lovecraft at his best, too, that sense or possibility that maybe the world is not as I thought it was.