An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge And Other Stories, by Ambrose Bierce
This is a stellar collection of short stories. I must admit to being somewhat late to enjoying the writing of Ambrose Bierce, but this short book certainly provides an admirable collection of his stories for the reader, and divides them into several genres so that one can see the range of Bierce’s writing. And it is easy to be impressed by these stories. The author clearly took his life and his work as both a soldier and a reporter, added it to his own impressive and somewhat perverse imagination, and came up wit ha variety of stories that has often been imitated but has rarely (if ever) been duplicated. Again, this is not the sort of book that everyone will appreciate, but if you like dark stories of soldiers with a conscience and tales of murderers attempting to escape the reminder of their crimes, this book has a lot to offer. A pioneer in the writing of horror fiction, Bierce manages to deal with a variety of concerns that include the horror of war, the horror of the supernatural, and the horror of violence in families and communities, all of which makes for thoughtful fiction.
The stories in this collection are divided into three genres. The first collection of stories is defined as Civil War stories, where Bierce leverages his personal experience as a Civil War officer for the Union in a series of compelling tales including “A Horseman In The Sky,” “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” “Chickamauga,” “One Of The Missing,” “One Kind Of Officer,” “The Major’s Tale,” “The Story Of A Conscience,” and “An Affair Of Outposts.” In these stories we see the many ways that someone in the Civil War could die, the hazards of a conscience, the danger of family violence, and the way that personal grudges as well as personal friendships could prove to be costly. After this there are horror stories including “A Watcher By The Dead,” “The Man And The Snake,” “A Holy Terror,” “The Middle Toe Of The Right Foot,” “The Damned Thing,” “The Death Of Halpin Frayser,” “The Moonlit Road,” “The Stranger,” “The Eyes Of The Panther,” and “Beyond The Wall” that show Bierce to have been a pioneer in a type of fiction with deep supernatural and mystical elements. The book then closes with a series of darkly humorous fables like “An Imperfect Conflagration,” “Oil Of Dog,” “My Favorite Murder,” and “The Hypnotist” that contain intriguing and sardonic aspects of Bierce’s imagination.
One learns a lot about the mind of a writer from the material that is written, and reading this book made me feel more sympathetic than I had previously been towards Bierce. Though he was a sour man with a dark sense of humor and imagination, he came by it honestly. His writing suggests that his conscience was dramatically shaped by the horrors of the Civil War as well as by the coarsening that came about as a writer who had to frequently wrestle with the issues of crime that were a part of his reporting beat. He was certainly darkened by his experiences, and as a result a reader of this book can appreciate the way in which he turned what may have led him into despair into works that demonstrate a high degree of skill in crafting historical and supernatural mysteries. And this appreciation for the mystery writing of Ambrose Bierce can only be heightened by an awareness of the mystery of his life in that he departed to cover the Mexican War in 1913 and never came back, meeting a dark and mysterious end in the violence of a turbulent time and place.