The Weirdness of Ambrose Bierce: From “Owl Creek Bridge” to Horror and Satire

Ernest Hemingway did it. Jasper Fforde did it. So did Philip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov. Ditto Black Mirror, Boardwalk Empire, The Twilight Zone, Titanic, and Jacob’s Ladder. Lost kind of did it, as did Newhart, the second of Bob’s shows. There is a Star Wars story (“The Longest Fall”) that is exactly it, though the time and place are a little different. The Irish writer Lord Dunsany was one of the first to do it, but not the first, missing that honor by about twenty years. And with everything else he puts up with, Batman has faced this, too. Twice. 

I am speaking of the Dying Dream trope. It’s where a tale is revealed in the end to be the dream or hallucination of the main character, especially as he or she is about to die. I’m sure that, if you think about it, you can come up with lots more examples of this device. What, as far as we know, was the first instance? The ur-example? The foundational text?

The 1890 story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce.

Born in an Ohio log cabin in 1842, Bierce (rhymes with “fierce,” appropriately enough) was one of thirteen children. His siblings were named Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Andrew—their parents were those parents. He attended the Kentucky Military Institute until it burned down, after which he enlisted in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry. He fought in a number of battles, eventually becoming a first lieutenant. On June 23, 1864, at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in northern Georgia, he was shot in the head. The bullet fractured Bierce’s temporal lobe and lodged in his skull, behind his left ear, giving him headaches and, if you’re the nurture-over-nature sort, accounting for the cynicism and irascibility he displayed in his best journalism as well as that masterpiece The Devil’s Dictionary. 

What finally killed Ambrose Bierce, “one of American literature’s great stubborn bastards”? No one knows. In 1913, at the age of 71, he went to Mexico to get involved in the Mexican Revolution, joining Pancho Villa’s forces as a sort of journalistic attaché. On December 26, 1913, he concluded a letter to a friend, Blanche Partington, with the words, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” He was never heard from again. There are many notions about his disappearance, some plausible (he died in an accident or was killed by Mexican forces), some outré (he died by suicide or escaped under an assumed identity; one source mentions “the possibility of alien abduction”). 

Whatever happened to “Bitter Bierce,” as he was often called, he left behind a celebrated body of work. I’ve already mentioned The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of the satirical definitions that he had been sprinkling into his essays, columns, and letters for decades. Humor was not alien to the dictionary world. Both Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster snuck in a few japes: one of Johnson’s most famous was “Oats, noun:A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Bierce, though, played chess to Johnson’s checkers, as in this entry: “DOG, n. A kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world’s worship. This Divine Being in some of his smaller and silkier incarnations takes, in the affection of Woman, the place to which there is no human male aspirant. The Dog is a survival—an anachronism. He toils not, neither does he spin, yet Solomon in all his glory never lay upon a door-mat all day long, sun-soaked and fly-fed and fat, while his master worked for the means wherewith to purchase the idle wag of the Solomonic tail, seasoned with a look of tolerant recognition.” A Renaissance man, Bierce wrote poetry, journalism, memoir, fables, fiction, and lots and lots of letters. Much of his fiction, like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” drew on his background as a Civil War soldier. Others showcased his prodigious imagination.

Like his horror stories. 

Washington Post critic Michael Dirda called Bierce the most important American writer of horror fiction between Poe and Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself approved of Bierce’s “grim and savage short stories,” arguing that some of them “stand out as permanent mountain-peaks of American weird writing.” Pretty high praise!  Moreover, Bierce has specific Lovecraft connections. His story “Haïta the Shepherd” (1891) includes an entity called Hastur, described as “the god of shepherds.” Robert W. Chambers used the name in several ways in his story collection The King in Yellow, which Lovecraft admired. He admired it so much that he mentioned Hastur in his own story “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Hastur also appears in August Derleth’s story “The Gable Window,” where he is described as “Lord of the Interstellar Spaces.” (Hastur has appeared in many other places, too. Fans of Good Omens will recognize him as a Duke of Hell who tries to kill Crowley and gets trapped in the latter’s answering machine, among other indignities.) The city of Carcosa, another Bierce creation, also made its way into The King in Yellow and clearly inspired Lovecraft: how many of his characters trudge through ancient, haunted municipalities? 

One of Bierce’s standout stories is “Chickamauga” (1889), about a six-year-old boy who gets lost in the woods near his plantation home. As he tries to find his way back, he encounters hundreds of zombie-like soldiers crawling on the ground, with “singularly white” faces that are “streaked and gouted with red.” The boy tries to play with the men, holding aloft his toy sword and pretending to lead them. They move through the trees toward a red glow that turns out to be a house on fire. His house. Worse, lying on the ground is a woman, presumably his mother. Her clothes are ripped; blood clots her hair. “The greater part of the forehead,” Bierce writes, “was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.” 

Bierce had been in the real Battle of Chickamauga, which, with nearly 35,000 casualties, was second only to Gettysburg for carnage. This endowed the story with a vividness that would lead to Bierce being called “one of the greatest masters in depicting the horrors of war.” A more overtly supernatural story is “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” which, according to H.P. Lovecraft, the writer Frederic Taber Cooper thought was “the most fiendishly ghastly tale in the literature of the Anglo-Saxon race.” Frayser is a peculiar Californian who is wandering the woods and comes face-to-face with the “blank, dead eyes of his own mother, standing white and silent in the garments of the grave.” Through flashback, we learn that Frayser and his mother had an unusually close (and possibly incestuous) relationship back in his Tennessee hometown until his decision to leave for California. The day after he meets his mother’s reanimated corpse, a detective and a deputy sheriff find Frayser’s body and realize he is a man they have been looking for—a man accused of killing his own mother. 

“The Damned Thing” (1893) is a hybrid: it reads a bit like Lovecraft meets Zane Grey (though of course it was published before either of those authors had established their own writing careers). It begins in Hugh Morgan’s cabin, where an inquest is about to be held into his strange, violent death. William Harker, who was with Morgan when he died, describes a hunting trip into the California wilderness where the pair encounters an unseen creature that Morgan calls “that Damned Thing.” The creature, which is invisible, attacks Morgan and shreds his body. The jury, thinking Harker is insane, rules that a mountain lion killed Morgan, but Harker knows the truth. The story concludes with a passage from Morgan’s diary, in which he plans to invite Harker to help him kill the creature. Morgan speculates that, as there are sounds that human ears cannot hear, so must there be colors that human eyes cannot see. “And, God help me!” Morgan writes, “the Damned Thing is of such a color!” 

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is by far Bierce’s most famous story. It’s been adapted into several short films, one of which was modified and aired on The Twilight Zone. At least two music videos have been based on the story, as has an episode American Dad! It has also been the subject of a one-act opera, a radio drama starring Vincent Price, and an issue of Eerie. The story isn’t horror per se, but I think it meets Lovecraft’s definition of “weird fiction”: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

The story centers on Peyton Farquhar, a plantation owner who is about to be hanged by the Union army from an Alabama railroad bridge. His offense? Trying to burn down the bridge. He had learned it was vulnerable from a Union scout disguised as a Confederate soldier. The order is given, and Farquhar, his neck in a noose, is pushed to his death—except the rope breaks, plunging him into the creek. Dodging bullets from above, Farquhar swims downstream, climbs out of the creek, and disappears into the woods. He walks all day, plagued by strange noises and visions, and finally arrives at his house, where his wife rushes out to meet him. Suddenly, he feels a blow on his neck and hears a sound “like the shock of a cannon.” Then comes the story’s final line: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”

The narrative that surges through Farquhar’s mind during his final seconds, his Dying Dream, is an early example of stream of consciousness, a term popularized by William James in The Principles of Psychology: “consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits … it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.” When did James publish this observation? 1890—the same year as “Owl Creek.” It became one of the defining ideas of modernism; today, the technique remains omnipresent in fiction, songs, film—everything. 

You can see this focus on interiority at the sentence level. Bierce was a writer of his time, often using sesquipedalian words and long, winding sentences. This story, however, largely eschews that rococo style. The critic David Mason writes, “There is not a wasted detail here, including the opening description of the hanging rope: ‘It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.’” In part III, Bierce seems to relapse, crafting lines such as, “Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity.” Why the switch? To show the reader Farquhar’s mind at work. To immerse us in the loss of lucidity and flights of fancy that come with death—his death, anyway, for Farquhar is the center of his own universe (as most of us are). And so in this moment, Bierce employs the heightened language and dramatic sensibilities of a man who sees himself as worthy of distinction and a greater destiny (“No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous…,” etc.).

Details are, of course, a large part of what make mediocre writing better and good writing great. Bierce opens the story by informing us that “[a] sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as ‘support,’ that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest—a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body.” This sort of military jargon enhances the mise en scène. A few lines later, he offers a similarly definitive description of “parade rest.” 

Later, in part III, we get dreamlike passages such as “he saw the very insects upon [the leaves]: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.” These lines recall the nature imagery of another Civil War chronicler, Walt Whitman, who, like Bierce, was both poet and journalist. One of Whitman’s best poems observes how “a noiseless patient spider” sends forth “filament, filament, filament, out of itself” in the same way that the poet’s own soul flings out bits of itself “Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere.” Bierce’s images, however, are not uplifting; they are death throes, mocking Farquhar as he, too, unspools on his fatal descent. 

Yet there is quite a lot Bierce leaves out. We don’t know, for instance, the names of the characters. Or when the story takes place. Or really any location beyond “Alabama.” Moreover, we are missing one of the most important details: exactly what Farquhar did to deserve hanging. The Federal scout says that the driftwood collected around the bridge “is now dry and would burn like tinder,” but we are not told that Farquhar actually tried to ignite it. For that matter, why did the Army set such a trap for Farquhar? Surely there were thousands of other plantation owners who might offer resistance. What made him worthy of entrapment and execution? 

Neglecting to answer such questions while focusing instead on imagery is a very poetic thing to do. A very modernist thing to do. Bierce is often compared to Lovecraft (for horror) and Stephen Crane (for Civil War writing, a comparison he didn’t relish), but maybe those aren’t his most direct analogues. Modernist writing—Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, The Awakening—emphasizes character over plot, which fits here: how much plot is there, really, in “Owl Creek”? Some critics might call the story a character study, but other than being a Southern sympathizer who longs for “the opportunity for distinction,” what do we learn about Peyton Farquhar? Not much. “Owl Creek,” for the most part, offers us complete immersion in a single moment of existence. Maybe “short story” is the wrong genre; maybe it’s a prose poem. 

Whatever it is, Ambrose Bierce deserves to be revered alongside Whitman, Crane, Herman Melville, and his other contemporaries. Perhaps if he had written some novels instead of satire and short stories, his work would be read and discussed more often in our current time—and yet, his influence cannot be denied. There is no evidence he and Lovecraft corresponded, but if they had, I bet he would have been welcomed into the latter’s circle. Would he have wanted to join? Good question. Always a prickly iconoclast, Bierce broke many molds. He did his own thing, up to and including his life-imitating-art disappearance… so why not give the man himself the final word on existence, and what it all means?

LIFE, n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay. We live in daily apprehension of its loss; yet when lost it is not missed. The question, “Is life worth living?” has been much discussed; particularly by those who think it is not, many of whom have written at great length in support of their view and by careful observance of the laws of health enjoyed for long terms of years the honors of successful controversy.

What are your thoughts on Bierce’s fiction? Have you read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” or are you more familiar with the many adaptations and other works that have been inspired by the story? If you have a favorite example of the “Dying Dream” trope or similar twists, sound off in the comments. icon-paragraph-end

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