Corpses, ghosts and hangings…
If you look at any list of great horror writers the name of Ambrose Bierce is always there, so a quick download of the Collected Works is bound to be packed full of terrifying goodies – isn’t it? But where to begin? As always, I began with other people’s reviews – on this occasion Goodreads. Several people had named the stories they found creepiest, though in truth my heart sank when I saw how many reviewers were expressing disappointment. However, nothing daunted, I picked a couple that were recommended for this week’s…
A Watcher by the Dead
When three doctors agree that no man could spend the night locked in the same room with a corpse without losing his courage, a mysterious Mr Jarette takes on the challenge. The following morning when two of the doctors turn up to unlock the room, a crowd has gathered round the door, attracted by the screaming from inside. When the door is opened, one man, his hair turned white with fear, rushes from the room and disappears into the still dark morning. There is still a corpse in the room, but no longer peacefully laid out – this corpse appears to have died of terror. What has happened?
Sounds quite good, doesn’t it? But in fact it’s not terribly well written and the author gives the game away early on thus removing any suspense or scariness. There’s some fairly sardonic humour and a neat little twist at the end, but overall it didn’t send my pulse soaring at any point.
Present at a Hanging
A farmer is suspected of having murdered a peddler some years earlier. One night as a clergyman is driving past the farm, he sees the figure of a man dressed like a peddler standing by the road. He stops to offer a lift but the figure merely points silently at the bridge, and when the clergyman looks back the figure has gone. Next day, the clergyman returns to the spot and finds…well, that’d be telling!
He looked back and saw the figure again, at the same place and in the same attitude as when he had first observed it. Then for the first time he was conscious of a sense of the supernatural and drove home as rapidly as his willing horse would go.
A very short story this, straightforward, with no suspense and no chill factor for this reader, at least. To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought a story this short could possibly have bored me, but Bierce achieved this feat with no difficulty. Again, I found the writing as pedestrian as the plot.
So I decided to give it one last shot.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
As the story begins, a man is standing on a bridge with a noose round his neck, surrounded by soldiers. It is the time of the Civil War and we learn that the man is to be executed for attempting to sabotage the bridge. The order is given, the planks that support the man are removed and he begins to choke – but the rope breaks and he plunges into the river. Coming round, he tries to escape as the soldiers on the bridge fire at him with guns and cannon…
Now this story isn’t claimed as a horror story – it is however claimed by some to be the best short story in American literature, apparently. (Well, by Kurt Vonnegut anyway…) Hmm! Definitely better than the other two; the writing is better, the story is told well and it does achieve some suspense (no pun intended). There is a clever twist at the end, although it’s very abrupt. I’d rate it quite highly as a short story…but the best? I haven’t read too many American short stories, but I have recently read Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and this one doesn’t begin to compare to Poe’s skilful use of language and imagery in even the less good of his stories.
So overall I’m seriously underwhelmed by Bierce and think I’ll give up on him…unless you can recommend any of his stories that gave you chills…
Fretful porpentine rating: 😯
Overall story rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂