The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, Part 5

by Brett Schulte on August 31, 2006 · 2 comments

CompleteShortStoriesBierce <em>The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce</em>, Part 5 The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press; Reprint edition (January 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 0803260717

Brett’s Horror Book Collection

This is a recurring weekly series covering around ten short stories of Ambrose Bierce, Civil War veteran and well known satirist. This week we’ll start to take a look at Bierce’s war short stories. The author was present during quite a few fights and was greatly affected by the Civil War, especially “the crime at Pickett’s Mill” during the Atlanta Campaign. In a short forward to Bierce’s war stories, the editor suggests that on this particular topic Bierce was nearly second to none in his unsparing, bleak depiction of warfare. In fact, he suggests that the reader read the author’s 25 short stories on war as a sort of novel, “so grimly realistic” that they should be compared with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The editor goes on to suggest that these war stories are at their heart modern day parables. If time permits, I should have all 25 war stories finished for this week’s blog entry below.

NOTE: I have provided links to the various stories in this series. Simply left click on the title of each story to read it for yourself.

Part II: The World of War

“One of the Missing”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 9/10
Quote: “Jerome Searing, you are caught like a rat in a trap–in a trap, trap, trap.”

Comments: Scout and “orderly” Jerome Searing meets his maker, but not from a bullet. Fear is what kills Searing.

“A Baffled Ambuscade”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “Don’t know sir; he seemed might restless. Guess he was skeered.”

Comments: Trooper Dunning provides an otherworldly warning to his comrades. This one just as easily could have been placed in the horror section had it not involved war.

“The Affair at Coulter’s Notch”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 9/10
Quote: “This house belongs to me, sir.”

Comments: A cruel and unforgiving division commander inflicts an unthinkable punishment on a captain commanding one of his artillery batteries.

“A Son of the Gods”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “It is a hero’s salute ot death and history.”

Comments: A staff officer rides alone to determine the possibility of an enemy presence on a yonder hill, hoping to save skirmishers’ lives. It is all in vain.

“One Kind of Officer”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 10/10
Quote: “I know nothing.”

Comments: In yet another of Bierce’s ironic endings, an officer discovers too late that his determination to follow his stubborn and insulting commander’s less than intelligent orders might result in his own death…

“A Tough Tussle”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 9/10
Quote: “Gad! It is Byring.”

Comments: In this particular story Bierce again deals with the almost universal human fear of death, in a way somewhat similar yet also different from the story “One of the Missing”. Lt. Byring was so unnerved by the presence of a dead man near him in the solitary darkness that he ends up fighting the corpse…with disastrous consequences. I recognized Cheat Mountain as a landmark in this one. Bierce himself participated in this early war campaign to free western Virginia from Confederate control.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 10/10
Quote: “How far is it to Owl Creek Bridge?”

Comments: Peyton Farquhar, a southern gentleman planter, longed to join the Confederate Army. Instead, he contented himself with solitary guerilla activity, but he faced his toughest challenge yet at Owl Creek Bridge, where he had been caught and was just now about to be hanged!

“Chickamauga”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 10/10
Quote: “He recognized the blazing building as his own home.”

Comments: I had never read this one before, and it was excellent! Some of the facts presented at the beginning of the story make this seem as if this is going to be a ghost story. The ironic twist ending is Bierce at his best.

“The Coup de Grâce”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 10/10
Quote: “Sir , I invite you to accompany the movement. A mounted officer would be a conspicuous mark, and I have long held the opinion that it would be better if you were dead.”

Comments: Bierce, tongue in cheek, follows up on the quote above by dryly mentioning that “the art of repartee was cultivated in military circles by 1862.” I vaguely recall having read this story at some other point, and it as usual features one of Bierce’s twist endings. A man finds his lifelong friend dying in terrible agony and decides to ease his pain by administering the eponymous coup de grâce. What happens next is for you to find out…

“One Officer, One Man”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “Suddenly he grew calm.”

Comments: Bierce here depicts the interior struggle of a man facing combat for the first time. The man, commanding a company though he had never been in battle, is rather unsuccessful in his struggle.

“The Story of a Conscience”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 9/10
Quote: “Ah, but if I had suffered the penalty of my crime–if you had not generously given me the life that I accepted without gratitude you would not be again in the shadow and imminence of death.”

Comments: Poor Brune. He had numerous instances to escape from Captain Hartroy, as unworthy a man as ever lived for numerous reasons.

“Parker Adderson, Philosopher”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 6/10
Quote: “The general’s mind wanders.”

Comments: A man is tranquil in the face of death by hanging…until that form of death is so rudely denied him!

“An Affair of Outposts”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 8/10
Quote: “And it is the hand–”

cppbanner <em>The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce</em>, Part 5

Comments: A man fights heroically to save one who has done him a great wrong.

“Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 10/10
Quote: “One major-general.”

Comments: This is parody at its finest. A foolish politician turned brigadier general manages to obtain ANOTHER promotion as a result of one of his most foolish ideas. I loved the way Bierce makes fun of the tendency of men writing reports to greatly exaggerate what has happened to them and their forces.

“A Horseman in the Sky”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 9/10
Quote: “Was there anybody on the horse?…Yes.”

Comments: Carter Druse was told by his father to do his duty…and he did it!

“The Mocking-Bird”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “He had found his man.”

Comments: Private Graycock demonstrates quite capably the truthfulness of the term “brother versus brother”.

“George Thurston”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “It’s his way of mastering a constitutional tendency to run away.”

Comments: George Thurston folded his arms tightly across his chest when he was scared in an effort not to succumb to fear. This was Bierce’s first published war story.

“Killed At Resaca”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 10/10
Quote: “He was bitten by a snake.”

Comments: A beautiful well cultured snake… In this story Bierce tells the tale of a man with unparalleled courage, a man who died for one who was wholly unworthy of his attention.

“Three and One are One”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “I could not find the right way to tell you.”

Comments: This particular story could have just as easily been slotted into Bierce’s collection of horror stories. A soldier separated from his family finds them unchanged when he visits them at night. In the daylight, however, he sees drastic changes.

“Two Military Executions”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 9/10
Quote: “What the devil does it mean?”

Comments: In another of Bierce’s war stories tinged with the supernatural, an executed man gets his revenge from beyond the grave.

“The Major’s Tale” (not found online)
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 9/10
Quote: “You can’t fool me!”

Comments: This is as close to straight comedy as you’ll ever get from Bierce I suspect, and an excellent tale it was.

“A Resumed Identity”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 6/10
Quote: “Here we have another ghost story, though this time from a different perspective.”

Comments:

“A Man With Two Lives”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 8/10
Quote: “I’d give something to know.”

Comments: Dave Duck was killed in the hills by hostile Indians near the time of the Fetterman Massacre…or was he?

“The Other Lodgers”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: 7/10
Quote: “Sir, that Breathitt House, in Atlanta, is a beastly place! Don’t you stop there.”

Comments: A man staying at a “hotel” in Atlanta instead encounters a room full of dead men. A later explanation makes it all too clear what he has seen…

“A Bivouac of the Dead”
By Ambrose Bierce
Rating: N/A
Quote: “Is there a man, North or South, who would begrudge the expense of giving to these fallen brothers the tribute of green braves?”

Comments: Bierce discusses one of many quiet places, this particular one being Traveller’s Repose, West Virginia, where men lie in mass graves, their memories unknown to the masses.

I was able to read through Bierce’s war stories in one sitting of several hours, just as the editor suggested. These tales are a mostly grim lot, filled with disaster, ruin, and death for many. In spite of this, Bierce seems to almost relish the opportunity as narrator to relate what had happened in these defining few years of his long life. We see references to some of the places Bierce had been (West Virginia in 1861, Shiloh, the siege of Corinth, and Stones River in 1862, Chickamauga in 1863, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and Nashville in 1864) and in some way pieces of situations Bierce had actually experienced. When you read Bierce long enough, you learn to recognize some of the clues leading up to the usual big twist at the end. Despite knowing what the twist is going to be, the reading is still enjoyable to an extreme. Bierce is absolutely one of the best writer’s of short fiction I have ever read. In my estimation, he is right up there with men such as Hawthorne, Irving, Poe, and Lovecraft. Join me next week as I take a look at the third and final chapter of Bierce’s Complete Short Stories, his Tall Tales.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 – Part 6


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