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Arch Di Peppe reviews "Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary, Tales, and Memoirs"
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The time, a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the early autumn of 1861. The place, a forest's heart in the mountain region of southwestern Virginia.
IF you are of a certain age and inclination, it would not be difficult to believe that those two first sentences were written as an introduction to an episode of "The Twilight Zone." They were, in fact, published 68 years before that popular television series, penned by writer/journalist Ambrose Bierce in a short story titled "The Mocking-Bird." The connection is more than casual: "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling was well aware of Bierce's work.
Ambrose Bierce was long known as the master of the surprise ending. In "The Mocking-Bird," twin brothers separated at an early age and fighting on different sides in the Civil War end up simultaneously killing each other without ever knowing of the strange irony.
If you have ever heard of Bierce, you are probably either an English major or a cult-film buff. No less a personage than Kurt Vonnegut said that Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was "the greatest American short story." Vonnegut was far from alone in his estimate. Don Habibi of the University of North Carolina credits Bierce with inventing the literary device of combining distended time and the flash-forward in "Occurrence." He then traces its use throughout modern world literature and film in a who's-who of the giants of both art forms.
All of this brings us full circle back to Serling and Bierce, because the last "Twilight Zone" episode produced was a 1962 French adaptation of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." It won the equivalent of the British Academy Award for short film in 1963 and an American Academy Award for best short subject in 1964.
All of his future influence would have amazed Bierce, who at the end of his life was also at the end of his rope--without friends and family, largely by his own fault. He had married a beautiful and vivacious woman and did everything he could to ruin that relationship with his deep dark moods and his absenteeism from the home. His two sons died tragically, and only an adoring daughter survived him.