Thursday, January 22, 2009

On "Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories" by Ambrose Bierce (17,528 words) ****

I haven't read many of Ambrose Bierce's writings save the heavily anthologized "Hanging at Owl Creek Bridge" and a few scattered definitions in his Devil's Dictionary, but I can say that I'm going to read more. Give it a year or so, but he's on my list to be read with others of his era, and deservedly so. This short book of ghost stories is reminiscent of many a campfire tale. Or really, for me, I think of such stories not around a campfire but in a dorm at summer camp. The lights are out, and if there's anything, it's merely the eerie glow of someone's flashlight pulsing from underneath a sleeping bag. We're supposed to be sleeping. But instead, one of the folks in the dorm is up telling a story, trying to get us scared. And then . . . the counselor wanders by and we all get into trouble. When he's gone, we go back to telling stories--until he returns. I can't say our storytelling ever reached much of a crescendo, since most were interrupted by the enforcers. Still, these are the kind of stories I imagine being told, complete with endings.

One of my two favorites in this book is "A Man with Two Lives," the story of a man who is killed and returns to the dumbfoundment of those around him. The story has a surreal quality about it insofar as it's not really a ghost story but a story of a person who somehow manages to return to life. The other is "At Old Man Eckert’s," the story of three friends who agree to visit a haunted house--one of them doesn't make it. It's ending words are particularly creepy. All of the stories are short, easily read in five-minute bathroom sittings. You can grab a copy here at Project Gutenberg or even download the audio version here--it's quite well read.

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