Thursday, June 24, 2004
LONG GONE. Today is the birthday of Ambrose Bierce. He was born in 1842, and nobody knows when he died, because he journeyed to Mexico in 1914 and was never heard from again. A fitting departure for a writer of horror and war stories, although it must be said that he was far more than a teller of tales. His entry at the site Today in Literature offers this glimpse of his appeal (if we can call it that.)
Those familiar with Bierce usually approach him through his Civil War stories ("An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "Chickamauga," etc.) and then stay to enjoy, or at least marvel at, his celebrated aphorisms and definitions. These offer a scoff for every situation, and are so thoroughly, happily bitter that even H. L. Mencken recoiled in horror. Almost any sampling from The Devil's Dictionary will demonstrate what Bierce was capable of feeling about human relationships:
BRIDE: A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.
MARRIAGE: The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
HOMICIDE: The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable and praiseworthy.
BORE: A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
First up is The Devil's Dictionary, a true masterpiece of malice. The link will carry you to the complete text, but be advised not to read it in a single sitting. It can turn your blood to acid and your heart to ashes. But you'll be laughing right up to the moment the metamorphosis occurs.
For any among you who prefer to do your reading from T-shirts rather than books or CRTs, here's a site offering Bierce merchandise.imprinted with some of the briefest meanest entries from the DD. You may even be tempted to buy one, although we'd prefer it if you'd buy one of these instead.
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was mentioned above. It's a classic short story, but it's also become a classic short movie, which you can learn more about (and possibly see) at liketelevision. Here's a preview of the 28-minute film made in 1962. The vidclip is a promo piece for liketelevision, so be prepared to wait through previews of the Burns & Allen TV show and One Step Beyond, an early rival of Twilight Zone, before seeing the Owl Creek footage. It will likely make you want to see the movie and try out the musical experiment they demonstrate in the preview. (If your browser is cranky about playing the clip, you can also access it at the liketelevision link.)
Finally, we thought you might want to read a sample of Bierce's strangely compelling fiction. So here is the complete text of one of his most haunting stories.
The Horseman in the Sky
One sunny afternoon in the autumn of the year 1861, a soldier lay in a clump of laurel by the side of a road in Western Virginia. He lay at full length, upon his stomach, his feet resting upon the toes, his head upon the left forearm. His extended right hand loosely grasped his rifle. But for the somewhat methodical disposition of his limbs and a slight rhythmic movement of the cartridge-box at the back of his belt, he might have been thought to be dead. He was asleep at his post of duty. But if detected he would be dead shortly afterward, that being the just and legal penalty of his crime.
The country was wooded
everywhere except at the bottom
of the valley to the northward, where there was a small natural meadow,
through which flowed a stream scarcely visible from the valley\'s rim.
This open ground looked hardly larger than an ordinary dooryard, but
was really several acres in extent. Its green was more vivid than that
of the inclosing forest. Away beyond it rose a line of giant cliffs
similar to those upon which we are supposed to stand in our survey of
the savage scene, and through which the road had some how made its
climb to the summit. The configuration of the valley, indeed, was such
that from this point of observation it seemed entirely shut in, and one
could not but have wondered how the road which found a way out of it
had found a way into it, and whence came and whither went the waters of
the stream that parted the meadow two thousand feet below.
The father lifted his
leonine head, looked at the son
a moment in silence, and replied: "Well, go, sir, and, whatever may
occur, do what you conceive to be your duty. Virginia, to which you are
a traitor, must get on without you. Should we both live to the end of
the war, we will speak further of the matter. Your mother, as the
physician has informed you, is in a most critical condition; at the
best, she cannot be with us longer than a few weeks, but that time is
precious. It would be better not to disturb her."
So Carter Druse, bowing
reverently to his father, who
returned the salute with a stately courtesy which masked a breaking
heart, left the home of his childhood to go soldiering. By conscience
and courage, by deeds of devotion and daring, he soon commended himself
to his fellows and his officers; and it was to these qualities and to
some knowledge of the country that he owed his selection for his
present perilous duty at the extreme outpost. Nevertheless, fatigue had
been stronger than resolution, and he had fallen asleep. What good or
bad angel came in a dream to rouse him from his state of crime, who
shall say? Without a movement, without a sound, in the profound silence
and the languor of the late afternoon, some invisible messenger of fate
touched with unsealing finger the eyes of his consciousness - whispered
into the ear of his spirit the mysterious awakening word which no human
lips ever have spoken, no human memory ever has recalled. He quietly
raised his forehead from his arm and looked between the masking stems
of the laurels, instinctively closing his right hand about the stock of
His first feeling was a
keen artistic delight. On a
colossal pedestal, the cliff, - motionless at the extreme edge of the
capping rock and sharply outlined against the sky, - was an equestrian
statue of impressive dignity. The figure of the man sat the figure of
the horse, straight and soldierly, but with the repose of a Grecian god
carted in the marble which limits the suggestion of activity. The gray
costume harmonized with its aerial background; the metal of
accoutrement and caparison was softened and subdued by the shadow; the
animal\'s skin had no points of high light. A carbine, strikingly
foreshortened, lay across the pommel of the saddle, kept in place by
the right hand grasping it at the "grip"; the left hand, holding the
bridle rein, was invisible. In silhouette against the sky, the profile
of the horse was cut with the sharpness of a cameo; it looked across
the heights of air to the confronting cliffs beyond. The face of the
rider, turned slightly away, showed only an outline of temple and
beard; he was looking downward to the bottom of the valley. Magnified
by its lift against the sky and by the soldier\'s testifying sense of
the formidableness of a near enemy, the group appeared of heroic,
almost colossal, size.
For an instant Druse had a strange, half-defined feeling that he had slept to the end of the war and was looking upon a noble work of art reared upon that commanding eminence to commemorate the deeds of an heroic past of which he had been an inglorious part. The feeling was dispelled by a slight movement of the group: the horse, without moving its feet, had drawn its body slightly backward from the verge; the man remained immobile as before. Broad awake and keenly alive to the significance of the situation, Druse now brought the butt of his rifle against his cheek by cautiously pushing the barrel forward through the bushes, cocked the piece, and, glancing through the sights, covered a vital spot of the horseman\'s breast. A touch upon the trigger and all would have been well with Carter Druse. At that instant the horseman turned his head and looked in the direction of his concealed foeman - seemed to look into his very face, into his eyes, into his brave, compassionate heart.
Is it, then, so terrible to kill an enemy in war - an enemy who has surprised a secret vital to the safety of one\'s self and comrades - an enemy more formidable for his knowledge than all his army for its numbers? Carter Druse grew pale; he shook in every limb, turned faint, and saw the statuesque group before him as black figures, rising, falling, moving unsteadily in arcs of circles in a fiery sky. His hand fell away from his weapon, his head slowly dropped until his face rested on the leaves in which he lay. This courageous gentleman and hardy soldier was near swooning from intensity of emotion.
It was not for long; in another moment his face was raised from earth, his hands resumed their places on the rifle, his forefinger sought the trigger; mind, heart and eyes were clear, conscience and reason sound. He could not hope to capture that enemy; to alarm him would but send him dashing to his camp with his fatal news. The duty of the soldier was plain: the man must be shot dead from ambush - without warning, without a moment\'s spiritual preparation, with never so much as an unspoken prayer, he must be sent to his account. But no - there is a hope; he may have discovered nothing; perhaps he is but admiring the sublimity of the landscape. If permitted, he may turn and ride carelessly away in the direction whence he came. Surely it will be possible to judge at the instant of his withdrawing whether he knows. It may well be that his fixity of attention - Druse turned his head and looked through the deeps of air downward as from the surface of the bottom of a translucent sea. He saw creeping across the green meadow a sinuous line of figures of men and horses - some foolish commander was permitting the soldiers of his escort to water their beasts in the open, in plain view from a hundred summits!
Druse withdrew his eyes from the valley and fixed them again upon the group of man and horse in the sky, and again it was through the sights of his rifle. But this time his aim was at the horse. In his memory, as if they were a divine mandate, rang the words of his father at their parting: "Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty." He was calm now. His teeth were firmly but not rigidly closed; his nerves were as tranquil as a sleeping babe\'s - not a tremor affected any muscle of his body; his breathing, until suspended in the act of taking aim, was regular and slow. Duty had conquered; the spirit had said to the body: "Peace, be still." He fired.
An officer of the Federal force, who, in a spirit of adventure or in quest of knowledge, had left the hidden bivouac in the valley, and, with aimless feet, had made his way to the lower edge of a small open space near the foot of the cliff, was considering what he had to gain by pushing his exploration further. At a distance of a quarter-mile before him, but apparently at a stone\'s throw, rose from its fringe of pines the gigantic face of rock, towering to so great a height above him that it made him giddy to look up to where its edge cut a sharp, rugged line against the sky. At some distance away to his right it presented a clean, vertical profile against a background of blue sky to a point half the way down, and of distant hills hardly less blue, thence to the tops of the trees at its base. Lifting his eyes to the dizzy altitude of its summit, the officer saw an astonishing sight - a man on horseback riding down into the valley through the air!
Straight upright sat the rider, in military fashion, with a firm seat in the saddle, a strong clutch upon the rein to hold his charger from too impetuous a plunge. From his bare head his long hair streamed upward, waving like a plume. His hands were concealed in the cloud of the horse\'s lifted mane. The animal\'s body was as level as if every hoof-stroke encountered the resistant earth. Its motions were those of a wild gallop, but even as the officer looked they ceased, with all the legs thrown sharply forward as in the act of alighting from a leap. But this was a flight!
Filled with amazement and terror by this apparition of a horseman in the sky-half believing himself the chosen scribe of some new apocalypse, the officer was overcome by the intensity of his emotions; his legs failed him and he fell. Almost at the same instant he heard a crashing sound in the trees - a sound that died without an echo - and all was still.
The officer rose to his feet, trembling. The familiar sensation of an abraded shin recalled his dazed faculties. Pulling himself together, he ran obliquely away from the cliff to a point distant from its foot; thereabout he expected to find his man; and thereabout he naturally failed. In the fleeting instant of his vision his imagination had been so wrought upon by the apparent grace and ease and intention of the marvelous performance that it did not occur to him that the line of march of aerial cavalry is directly downward, and that he could find the objects of his search at the very foot of the cliff. A half-hour later he returned to camp.
This officer was a wise man; he knew better than to tell an incredible truth. He said nothing of what he had seen. But when the commander asked him if in his scout he had learned anything of advantage to the expedition, he answered:
"Yes, sir; there is no road leading down into this valley from the southward."
The commander, knowing better, smiled.
After firing his shot, Private Carter Druse reloaded his rifle and resumed his watch. Ten minutes had hardly passed when a Federal sergeant crept cautiously to him on hands and knees. Druse neither turned his head nor looked at him, but lay without motion or sign of recognition.
"Did you fire?" the sergeant whispered.
"A horse. It was standing on yonder rock-pretty far out. You see it is no longer there. It went over the cliff."
The man\'s face was white, but he showed no other sign of emotion. Having answered, he turned away his eyes and said no more. The sergeant did not understand.
"See here, Druse," he said, after a moment\'s silence, "it\'s no use making a mystery. I order you to report. Was there anybody on the horse?"
The sergeant rose to his
feet and walked away. "Good
God!" he said.
Happy birthday, Mr. Bierce.