Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 45: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

Bierce, Ambrose"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." San Francisco Examiner, 13 July 1890.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.71/10
My Rating:        8/10

"A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below."
Illustration by François Vigneault

During the American Civil War, a civilian is set to be hanged by the Union army on a makeshift platform on the Owl Creek Bridge in Northern Alabama. Civilian executions were not uncommon during the war, and the southern criminal is standing in what is described as a routine event, with some onlooking soldiers appearing even bored. Bierce was both a soldier during the war and a respected journalist later on, and many of his stories draw on both experiences. The narration here is that of an observer, employing heightened realism to what turns out to be partly fantasy. The point of view is that of an observer, a local man, describing the scene and making some assumptions, such as where the river is likely to run. It is partly the realism on which the story is built upon that makes the ending so jarring.

Yet ending aside, what I find most disturbing is the lead-up to the civilian's crime. We learn that Peyton Farquhar is a wealthy thirty-five year-old plantation owner "ardently devoted to the Southern cause." His plantation lies near Owl Creek, and he is caught attempting to set the Union-controlled bridge on fire. Yet we learn that the information Farquhar received concerning the details of the bridge were provided by a federal scout masquerading as a Confederate soldier, so that the planter was deliberately set up by the northern army to be caught and executed. This is essentially a form of murder, and though the man is a prosperous slave-owner desiring to maintain the status quo to the point that he is willing to take part in the war by destroying a bridge, he is presented as a victim. It is a rare instance when a slave-owner can gain audience sympathy.

The story is presented in three short chapters. The first is the realist depiction of Farquhar, nameless at this point, getting prepared for hanging. The second gives us his back-story. The final and longest chapter takes us on an unexpected flight, and enters a realm of fantasy. Here the observatory narration is replaced with heightened senses, the boredom with excitement, the silence with blaring guns. We are prepared by a slight shift in narration when Farquhar closes his eyes moments before he is dropped and the noose tightened, and this sets of the quasi dream sequence that then leads to the tragic finish. He closes his eyes and here the narrator is no longer a distant observer, but is aware of the man's thoughts and feelings. This transition is a blatant hint as to what is to come, but as a narrative technique is subtle, and only after re-reading can we piece together how Bierce is able to shift his realism into a dream. Overall an excellent, deftly-written story.

The story was made into an excellent short film, La rivière du hibou (The Owl River), directed by Robert Enrico. The film received the 1964 Academy Award for best live action short, and was purchased by Rod Serling and aired as a Twilight Zone episode in February 1964. This was a brilliant and bold move by Serling, saving the show a good deal of production money that was then used to fund other, more expensive episodes. The episode features a straightforward and entirely brief introduction, allowing the short film its own space and respectfully removing it from Serling's clasp.

The illustration included above is by François Vigneault, from an illustrated edition of the short story published by Scout Books (Portland) in 2012. You can discover more about the artist here.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's Patti Abbott's blog.

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As of 24 December 2015