“Owl Creek Bridge” is Bierce’s masterpiece. There is almost no scholarly dissent to that argument. Concerning its legacy, fellow Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote, "I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is '[An] Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,' by Ambrose Bierce. It isn't remotely political. It is a flawless example of American genius, like 'Sophisticated Lady' by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove." Both in themes and execution it has a uniquely American quality: the breaking with linear narration, the cynical study of the eternal optimism of the individual, the condemnation of warfare and collectivism, the literary realism, and the psychological surrealism all conspire into a brilliant work. While some may take issue with its inclusion in a collection of horror stories, I am hardly alone: Dover, Wordsworth, and Tartarus Press are just the most notable of nearly a dozen excellent anthologies of Bierce’s Gothic fiction which included the story (and Tartarus Press even used it as the title). While there are no goblins or ghouls prowling its plot, and while no murders or gory secrets are uncovered, it strikes me as the ultimate horror story: the horror of human mortality.
Admittedly, if asked to tell my top five favorite “horror” stories, this would probably not make the cut, but there is something positively archetypal and universal about Peyton Farquhar’s cruel fate, something with which all readers seem to sympathize. Since its publication, the plot has been tremendously influential to writers and filmmakers of every succeeding generation. Robert W. Chambers utilized a similar narrative in his psychedelic “Key to Grief,” as did H. G. Wells in “The Door in the Wall,” and “The Beautiful Suit.” Later on it would be influential to modernist and postmodernist writers like Wolff (“Bullet in the Brain”), Cortazar (“The Island at Midday”), Borges (“The Secret Miracle”), and Nabakov (“Details of a Sunset”). Films like “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Lost Highway,” “Stay,” “Mulholland Drive,” and “Identity” also borrow from it. What all of these novels, stories, and films share is a deep tragedy surrounding the subjectivity of the human mind and the mixed appeal of imagination: the mind can lift us out of our limitations, which is good, but it can also delude us from accepting reality, which is bad. Poe frequently explored these themes as well (e.g., “The Oval Portrait”), where he eccentric, intellectual anti-heroes are so blinded by their idealism that they let life and love pass them by. Bierce’s protagonist is not an eccentric, however, or an intellectual. He is a regular, relatable family man whose principle sins are idealism, a hot temper, and a thirst for glory.
The story opens in 1862 in Northern Alabama, during the second year of the American Civil War, and we are introduced to a sinister tableau which is laid out in a darkly commonplace – even boring – manner: on a railroad bridge above the rushing waters of the fictional Owl Creek, six private soldiers belonging to the Union Army are preparing the execution of a captured Confederate saboteur, a civilian planter, and slave owner, named Peyton Farquhar (pronounced FAR-kwarr). He is bound and standing on the end of a plank which is jutting out over the river, and his neck is in a noose slung above him. He is guarded by a detail of six soldiers: two privates to carry out the execution, a sergeant to oversee them, a captain to oversee the sergeant and two private soldiers – one at each end of the bridge – to prevent interference with the execution. Off to the side stands a full infantry company and an artillery crew with a field gun, watching obediently.
Farquhar seems to be stupefied by the ordeal, not panicked or defensive, but definitely in stunned shock: his thoughts float around his wife and son, annoyance at having been caught trying to burn the bridge down (in defiance of a notice from the Union commander that any civilians caught messing with the bridge would be summarily executed as saboteurs), and confusion at a loud, rhythmic clanging or thumping that he eventually realizes – with Poe-esque gallows humor – is the ticking of the watch in his pocket as it marks off the final moments before his death.
As his mind clears, he begins to plot out how he could escape: by slipping out of the noose, jumping off the bridge prematurely, and swimming for the river bank opposite to that occupied by the soldiers and their cannon. Just as he decides on this course of action, though, the two soldiers – whose weight has been holding up the plank on which he is perched – step away, and he plummets towards the river…
We then flashback to sometime before this – whether days or hours before, it is unclear – where Farquhar is spending a relaxing evening with his wife when their calm is arrested by the arrival of a Confederate trooper who informs them that the Union Army has captured the Owl Creek Bridge – which rebel partisans had tried to destroy – and repaired it. However, the trooper points out, a patriotic Southerner such as Farquhar could have a good chance of burning it down if he were to slip past the Union pickets (although it is known that any civilians caught meddling with the infrastructure will be hanged). Farquhar ponders this (he was too headstrong and difficult to make it in the Confederate Army but has always had visions of grandeur and heroism for himself. Meanwhile, the trooper heads down the road towards the rebel lines before turning around and sneaking back to the Union forces at the bridge: he is a Union scout in disguise, apparently hoping to lure partisans out of hiding…
Back in the present, Farquhar’s wildest hopes are realized: he slips out of the noose after the rope breaks in his fall, and he plunges into the healing water below. Ripping his hands free of his bonds, he swims to the surface and makes a bee line for the bank opposite of the Union positions, keenly aware of the explosions of musketry as the captain directs volleys of musketry after him, peppering the water around him with spent bullets. His senses are strangely heightened:
“He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon-flies' wings, the strokes of the water-spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.”
Once he gains the shore, he is startled by the roar of the cannon and the sounds and smells of grapeshot as it clatters angrily in the trees around him.
However, he escapes the gunfire and grapeshot without injury, and plunges eagerly into the shelter of the Alabama woods, some thirty miles away from his homestead. Here things start to shift: while so far everything has been like a heroic fantasy, now things grow dimmer and stranger, like a surreal, half-waking dream. His journey seems to have lasted for endless hours as he is swallowed up by a weirdly featureless, primeval forest – the black trees are oddly arranged in seemingly-significant lines on either side of him – and is haunted by the sound of fleeting whispers in a strange, unknown language, and sight of unfamiliar constellations burning above him in the night sky.
In spite of all of this, he is motivated by the thought of returning to his wife and son, and presses on. He begins to experience strange discomforts as he approaches the house:
“His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it he found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue—he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!”
But this all seems to have been worth it: he now sights his house as he emerges from the trees, drenched in warm, morning light, and there he sees the beautiful form of his wife – pure, warm, welcoming, and archetypally feminine – waiting to welcome him at the gate. He steps up to her, but suddenly all his senses are overpowered and burned up in a searing, white light as he is rocked by a jolting pain in his neck. There is an explosion like the report of a cannon, and then – “all is darkness and silence!”
The story ends with this line:
“Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”
The universal appeal of “Owl Creek Bridge” probably lies in its brusque treatment of what we commonly call “cruel fate.” Like all horror stories, it is a cathartic and tragic reading experience that allows us to safely confront our monsters. But good horror doesn’t just shackle a psychological bogey in a literary zoo for our amusement: it requires us to experience the terror in virtual reality. We viscerally experience Farquhar’s dry throat, his pounding heart, his aching neck. We feel the water surround us as he falls, and taste the fresh air when he resurfaces. Finally, we experience the euphoria of his rescue and stiffen like a corpse in the misery of his fate. Reading “Owl Creek Bridge” allows us to confront our mortality, entertain our ludicrous and impossible plans of escape, play those plans out, and be confronted with the obvious reality that we are ultimately doomed.
There’s a lot cooking in the plot: everything from an indictment of warfare, to a paean to imagination, to an elegy for mankind. Although much has been made about Bierce’s seemingly pacifistic stance in “Owl Creek Bridge,” ultimately I think Vonnegut was right when he said that the story has nothing political to offer. Bierce wasn’t a pacifist: he thought war was what it appeared to be – vulgar, brutal, and animal – but rejected the lofty idealism of pacifism as yet another pipe dream (no more realistic than Farquhar’s elaborate escape plan). What we see instead is an indictment of mankind itself.
War, Bierce argues, only serves to emphasize mankind’s inborn nature as thoughtless destroyers. While a pacifist might see war as the organized destruction of humanity, Bierce would likely have termed it humankind’s organized expression – giving rules and license to our inner savagery. Farquhar, like the boy from “Chickamauga,” hasn’t seen enough war to understand this, and views it as a means of aspiration and glory. Too stubborn and disagreeable to fight as a soldier, he still longs for the honors of warfare, and eagerly jumps at a chance to be a hero. Little does he realize that he has learned of Owl Creek Bridge’s vulnerabilities from a disguised Union soldier. This is one of Bierce’s tidiest metaphors for warfare: it its dirty, vulgar, and unfair, and while Farquhar eagerly accepts a chance to win laurels for himself, he never pauses to suspect the scout of having an ulterior motive. We never hear how his is captured, if he was able to even start a fire, or what his trial was like. As Bierce is keen to tell us, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, he is condemned, and his life has been traded for a few seconds of delusional self-aggrandizement. Farquhar’s “cruel fate” is that he fails to accept his mortality and dies while consumed with an imaginary adventure – no more real or substantial than the fool’s errand for which he left home and found himself there.