Ambrose Bierce


I was reading about Ambrose Bierce today, after reading “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Not the greatest writing, but the story — and in particular the idea of a fantasy that immediately precedes the moment of death — apparently influenced a great number of people.   I knew Jacob’s Ladder was based on the story, but when I looked into it more, I found (and started connecting) a lot of others — Donnie Darko, Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, possibly the whole “Lost” series, The Sixth Sense. (Even Brazil, if I remember the ending correctly.)  Not all really followed the idea closely — some, like The Sixth Sense, were more posthumous fantasies than death sequences.  But I was amazed at how influential the story itself was.

I remember being very affected by Jacob’s Ladder.  It’s a disturbing film, the texture of a nightmare, but what I remember is the weird, exhausted melancholy of the closing scenes, as Tim Robbins’s character starts to break down and the truth begins to emerge.  His chiropractor is his gnostic angel, even telling him early in the film about Bierce, and about devils and angels.

There’s a link here with some of John Crowley’s work, I think, and even with Bruno’s 16th century ideas about love — the “chain of chains,” vinculo vinculorum (if I remember the Latin right).  Funny how things start to converge, and you make connections.  Is that because the connections are there for you to discover, or is it really that you shape the world as you go along, and (at least if you’re a certain kind of person) you isolate the connections that make sense to you and discard the rest?

Anyway, the idea in Jacob’s Ladder — and in the Bierce story, though it’s much less developed — is that death represents the loosening of the bonds that hold you to the earth.  And if you fight it — because of love, because you can’t bear to lose what you love — then it will tear you apart.  Crowley deals with this too, because his characters (especially Pierce in the Aegypt series) find that it’s love that even makes death possible.  Love enchains.  Bruno’s approach is more direct and manipulative: love enchains, so in order to control others, you have to appeal to their deepest desires.  Eros = love = power.  But while Crowley‘s characters approach this knowledge and learn that it’s a trade — you can’t have happiness if you aren’t willing to be hurt — Bruno’s approach is the opposite: you have to push aside happiness, any and all desire, if you want power over the world.

Mostly I’m just interested in how all these ideas start to converge, as I said.  As if there’s some shape to things, some true shape that has been hidden, and now and then you start to make out the outline.  Maybe it’s just one edge, one corner, but you see it.

I also read that Bierce actually owned a home at 18 Logan Circle in DC.  That’s what got me started thinking about convergence of ideas — and coincidence — in the first place.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

Add Comment

Leave a Reply

By Tom Howard


Get in touch

Feel free to follow me to get a follow back, and to say hello.

Follow me on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: