Monday, August 31, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Ambrose Bierce's Short Fiction

***For once in this normally pristine blog's history, spoilers abound*** (but thankfully, these stories are so short it'll be 10-15 minutes between the ruination of the plot and your discovery of it)

I've highlighted American authors before. Now, look at me, I'm doing it again. This time, I'm discussing two extremely short pieces that portray the Civil War chillingly well, namely "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "A Resumed Identity". They're well worth reading, and they're a welcome diversion from far longer works.

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" immediately became one of my favourite pieces of short fiction. The way in which it deals with a dream sequence-like event, combined with the harshness of Civil War-era America, cuts deep. Bierce's prose is highly descriptive, which frames the consciousness of Peyton Farquhar. What can, or cannot, happen, in the few moments stretched out to five pages, is a creature of the imagination. The reader is quickly lured into a reality in which truly anything can happen, even something like Peyton retrieving stray bullets from his flesh with minimal pain, without ever losing the underlying Civil War setting. It may be a true triumph in low fantasy in that setting, in that the real and fantastical worlds are each so convincing.

Its open discussion of hanging - I have no idea if it was controversial at the time - is interesting in light of the ongoing death penalty debate. Its main character is "about thirty-five", which is not that much older than me, but then again, neither was William Kemmler. The way Bierce ties the start and the end together here is brilliant, especially to someone who's read about the details of hanging. Peyton has been hanged successfully, which we all know within the first page, yet Bierce keeps us reading. It is reminiscent of the Stockton-Malone pick and roll. You see it coming, you can't stop it, and you revel in it when it happens.

"A Resumed Identity" is admittedly not quite as good but still quite good. It calls to mind the experiences of Japanese soldiers marooned on remote islands during World War II, which Bierce could not possibly have known even happened but he seems to have foreseen flawlessly. The only thing I worry about is that the few people the narrator encounters do not bother commenting on his appearance. In that sense, a Twilight Zone-esque effect occurs. Details that should have been obvious are used strategically to instruct the reader on, to put it as bluntly as possible, social norm deficiencies.

With that, hope you read and like these pieces!

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