It’s been a good few weeks with family and friends, even if it was a tad on the hot side in Orlando, Florida, USA. Still, my years in the American South prepared me well, and survive, I did, enjoyably even.
(And, oh, yes, a couple of unexpected surgical procedures for family members, but all are doing much better, thank you, and all are more than ready to move on.)
Throughout this time I’ve been reading various short stories written by the late 19th/early 20th-century American author Ambrose Bierce, journalist, author, adventurer—and combat veteran of the American Civil War. One of his more famous anthologies was Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, published in 1892. Some have compared Bierce favorably to a more famous fellow-writer of an earlier generation, Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed, Bierce’s stories have a horrific quality to them, much as do Poe’s. Ask, for example, the protagonist in one of the most-often anthologized stories in the collection, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“: Peyton Farqhar, a Confederate civilian who is to be hanged by Union forces—and who gives new meaning to the term twist ending.
Not only has that story often been anthologized, it has often been performed as well. Previously unbeknownst to me, though, was a fact that brought back memories not only of my childhood, but also of many hours of my adulthood: a French short-film version of the story had once run as an episode of Rod Serling‘s early-1960’s classic series, The Twilight Zone.
I have a special spot in my heart for The Twilight Zone. As I recall all these years later, so did my parents, who must have spent many a Friday evening watching murderous, talking dolls; lonely grandmothers with habits of postmortem telephone conversations; a younger Colonel Kirk losing it somewhere in a sky much closer to Earth; and a hitchhiker who still gives me chills every time I think of seeing him in my rear-view mirror. To this day I can while away hours on Netflix watching them. The endings get me every time.
What also was unbeknownst to me, though, revealed only via the magic of Wikipedia, was that like Bierce, Rod Serling was also a combat veteran, having served in the Philippines with the United States Army during World War II.
The editor and writing guru Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid, considers horror stories to be an end-of-the-line version of the thriller genre, stories that live out the values of life and death by eventually placing the hero at the mercy of the villain, with the winner of the contest determining whether you’ll either have a). a commercial success on your hands or b). a decent review in The New York Times.
In the horror story, though, the villain is not just your average, bigger-than-life bad guy. The villain is an Evil greater than any of us can imagine. Even when the hero survives, there is no turning back to a world that existed before the inciting incident. There may be denouements after most climaxes, but some denouements, apologies to Orwell, are more denoue-ing than others.
As I said, ask Peyton Farqhar. Or any combat veteran, for that matter.
As I read literature by combat veterans (and even as I think about watching old black-and-white dramas by them), I remain struck by the shifts between the language of the story-as-going-on with the language of the scenes-where-time-stands-still. I often find the shifts in vividness and tone between them to be jarring. Since I am a civilian, I can only assume what the veterans I serve tell me: they are jarring because, in fact, combat jars, not only the body, but even more the mind and soul housed within.
Neuroscientific, trauma research only verifies what veterans such as Bierce and Serling have long shown us in their art: when time stands still—even as, in the worst of ways, it does not—the body records sensations in the most minute detail. Words might fail those sensations at the moment itself, but if the veteran can one day return to that moment (never just in mind, but always, to some extent, in body) and craft words around those sensations (never altering them, merely giving them new form), the veteran can create within a few paragraphs sensations that will change us civilians forever, give us a denouement the experience of which we owe to all those who were willing to take actions that we, in one way or another, participated in calling them to take.
In the short-story form, whether written or staged, writers do not need to face the challenge of war writers of longer forms: the challenge of somehow finding a way to link, with language, memories that (quite likely, literally) lack neuronal linkages in the minds of the protagonists (and perhaps authors?) narrating their tales. Consequently, Bierce and Serling can become masters of the moment, the moment itself when War/Death gives merely a glimpse of itself, a glimpse sufficient to turn off not only the hippocampus, but also the very Self.
Peyton Farqhar, Ambrose Bierce, Rod Serling: go ahead, ask them about that moment.
But only if you’re prepared to listen.