"A Psychological Shipwreck" (1893-5 pages)
"A Diagnosis of Death" (1909-6 pages)
"Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge" (1891-7 pages)-All by Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce (1842 to 1914-Ohio) is probably best known now as the subject of a 1989 movie Old Gringo staring Gregory Peck which was about Bierce's involvement with Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Bierce, in his 70s, disappeared while covering the revolution for the Hearst Newspapers and was never heard from again. He fought on the Northern side, starting at age 19, in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and was decorated for extreme bravery. After the war he stayed in the army for a while and ended up in San Francisco. He then embarked on a career as a journalist for San Francisco news papers and had for the rest of his life a working relationship with the Hearst Company and was greatly admired by William Randolph Hearst. He is in the tradition of American War time journalist turned author that includes Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway.
I decided to read one of his stories by accident. Almost everyday since I got interested in short stories I look at East Of of The Web: Short Stories to see what their stories of the day are. The story of the day was "A Psychological Shipwreck" by Ambrose Bierce. I had vaguely heard of him and recalled seeing his one famous book, The Devil's Dictionary, in book stores. I did a bit of quick research and I saw he was actually pretty famous. One of his stories had been made into one of the most popular episodes of the long running American TV shows, The Twilight Zone. I ended up reading three of his stories as I liked the first one so much.
"A Psychological Shipwreck" opens aboard ship. The central character has booked passage on a freight schooner across the Atlantic as he wants a long cruise to allow him to calm his mind after seeing terrible events in a war. There are really only two passengers on the ship, him and an attractive woman. The prose is the spare clean athletic prose of a political and war correspondent but one who spent a life time reading the best books he could find. I was able to verify Bierce was very into the reading life. The atmosphere is dark and sinister. There is a surprise twist type of horror movie type ending and I will not spoil it. I think if you read this story you well might read more, as I did. I want to quote one passage from this story so you can see his style:
In an instant my mind was dominated by as strange a fancy as ever entered human consciousness. It seemed as if she were looking at me, not with, but through, those eyes -- from an immeasurable distance behind them -- and that a number of other persons, men, women and children, upon whose faces I caught strangely familiar evanescent expressions, clustered about her, struggling with gentle eagerness to look at me through the same orbs. Ship, ocean, sky -- all had vanished. I was conscious of nothing but the figures in this extraordinary and fantastic scene. Then all at once darkness fell upon me, and anon from out of it, as to one who grows accustomed by degrees to a dimmer light, my former surroundings of deck and mast and cordage slowly resolved themselves. Miss Harford had closed her eyes and was leaning back in her chair, apparently asleep, the book she had been reading open in her lap. Impelled by surely I cannot say what motive, I glanced at the top of the page; it was a copy of that rare and curious work, Denneker's Meditations, and the lady's index finger rested on this passage."A Diagnosis of Death" is a short simple tale with a strange twist. I liked it but not as much as the other two I read.
"Incident at Oak Creek" is by far his most famous story and is, according to my research, often listed among the best 19th century American short stories. It has been dramatized on French TV and was also the basis for a Twilight Zone TV show. A man, during the American Civil War (circa 1864) is on a bridge. He is going to be executed by hanging. The execution is being preformed by Union Soldiers. We not not learn why he is being executed. As I read the story I could hear Rod Sterling (creator and voice of the Twilight Zone TV Series (began 1959-156 episodes in all) setting in his marvelous voice for us the setting of the story. To tell any of the plot would spoil it but the story is just wonderfully done. It not high literary art but it is fun and their is real intelligence behind it.
I think you will be pleasantly surprised by these three stories as I was and they are for sure worth the small amount of time it takes to read them. If you have time or want to read just one read "Incident at Oak Creek".
If anyone has any suggestions as to short stories I might like, please leave a comment. I am pretty much reading all of my short stories online. This also allows anyone who might want to read one of the stories I have blogged on to read it for free just as I did.
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