Sunday, June 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 54: Ambrose Bierce, A Horseman in the Sky (#98)

Ambrose Bierce, "A Horseman in the Sky" (1889) from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs:

When I was young, I took from my sister's room two books of Bierce stories: In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, his collection of non-supernatural stories, and Can Such Things Be? Since then, except for some regrettable moments of racism and sexism, I've loved everything about Bierce, from his enlistment in the Union Army to his disappearance in Mexico. I've loved his cynicism and boundless misanthropy and his louche sense of humor.

So going in to "Horseman in the Sky," I know where it's going, both because I know his style and because I've read this before: when a Bierce story begins with a father and son splitting ways and ends with one man killing another, I'm pretty sure that it's going to be either patricide or filicide. Rather fitting for Father's Day, if you take the Karamazovian/Freudian view that all children want to kill their fathers (and vice versa).

If you didn't know Bierce, then the final admission that the son killed the dad might work as a gut punch. I wonder how it would have worked if Bierce had given it a more "Lady or the Tiger?" vibe: start with the facts--that's my dad and if I don't kill him, I've failed my brothers-in-arms--and then move to the decision.

That counterfactual question aside, Bierce leads up rather nicely through the garden path, switching POVs whenever it suits him. So we get a bird's-eye view of the landscape, which is rather boring until you realize the moral meaning of it (another connection with Poe): it's a dangerous position for this army to be in but also the position they need to take in order to attack the other army. Then we get a little biography of the lone sentry and his sighting of a lone scout on the other side. Then we get the POV of a totally different guy, who sees the horse and rider go over the cliff in a way that looks fantastical to him. It's dizzyingly quick but never actually dizzying, even if we don't strictly need for the plot that third person--the witness and confessor to whom the son tells his patridical action. Is it the omniscience of the narrator that gives him that leeway? The focus on this one particular moment in time that everything is leading to or away from?

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