A.G. Exemplary? Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “A Vine on a House”

In this recurring feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Today, I return to Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

 

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

At the start of this classic 1890 tale, main character Peyton Farquhar, an “original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause,” stands on the verge of execution by Union forces after being tricked by a Federal scout into declaring intentions of sabotage. This scene of imminent demise allows Bierce to critique the inhumane nature of the Civil War: “Evidently this was no vulgar assassin,” the narrative states. “The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.” The Gothic quality of the story is also accented by the fact that Edgar Allan Poe’s influence is writ large here. Vivid description of the physical experience of hanging from Farquhar’s own perspective recalls a Poe “tale of sensation” such as “A Predicament.” The hypersensitivity of Roderick in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is echoed by Farquhar’s “preternaturally keen and alert [physical senses]. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.” A nod towards Poe’s “A Descent into Maelstrom” can even be detected when Farquhar plunges into the river below the bridge and finds himself “caught in a vortex.”

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” remains famous to this day for its twist ending–the final-line revelation that Farquhar never actually escaped execution. Less appreciated, though, are the haunting paragraphs just preceding this conclusion, which describe the sinister, uncanny landscape Farquhar traverses in his fugitive flight back home towards his family:

At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in the lesson of perspective.  Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which–once, twice, and again–he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

The Civil War has furnished material for countless works of American Gothic fiction, but none better than this early example from Bierce.

 

“A Vine on a House” by Ambrose Bierce

Bierce sets this brief 1905 story firmly in Gothic territory, focusing on “a rather picturesque ruin” in Norton, Missouri, that is regarded as a haunted house with an “evil reputation. Its windows are without glass, its doorways without doors; there are wide breaches in the shingle roof, and for lack of paint the weatherboarding is a dun gray.”  Misgivings about this deserted and decrepit domicile no doubt trace back to the time when it was still fit for habitation: the previous occupants “were rather tabooed by their neighbors” for defying the “moral code of rural Missouri.” Robert Harding was “seen too frequently together” with his sister-in-law Julia Went instead of in the company of his wife Matilda, “a gentle, sad-eyed woman lacking a left foot.”

In 1884, when Matilda fails to be seen on the premises, Robert claims that his wife has gone to Iowa to visit her mother. But Matilda “never came back, and two years later, without selling his farm or anything that was his, or appointing an agent to look after his interests, or removing his household goods, Harding, with the rest of the family, left the country.” About five years after this, a pair of travelers stop to rest on the porch of the house, but their conversation is cut short when the vine growing up the front of the house at once grows “visibly and audibly agitated, shaking violently in every stem and leaf.” More locals are drawn to observe this “mysterious phenomenon,” and finally they all decide to get to the bottom of the “manifestations” by digging up the vine. Doing so, they discover that the rootlets in the earth have woven themselves into a shape with “an amazing resemblance to the human figure.” There is “a grotesque suggestion of a face,” but the most telling detail is that the “figure lacked the left foot.”

A dark deed seemingly has been brought to light by supernatural means. The replanted vine thereafter remains “orderly and well-behaved,” but the house deservedly “retains its evil reputation.” If American Gothic is concerned with the horrors hidden behind closed doors and shaded windows, then Bierce’s tale of adultery and murder certainly proves a representative piece.

 

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