It’s no wonder that the best known of Bierce’s Civil War tales, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is a kind of ghost story. The hero, a Confederate civilian about to be hanged for attempting to sabotage the bridge, apparently escapes his fate and makes his way home to his family, but the final, curt paragraph reveals that his deliverance, which Bierce has so meticulously and so movingly described, is no more than a dying man’s fantasy. This is the most melancholy of Bierce’s rabbit-out-of-the-hat endings, and it works better than the others because of the sense of the uncanny that it casts, retrospectively, over the tall tale we’ve just read: we had thought we were still in this world, but we were elsewhere, in a no man’s land between the natural and the supernatural. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” this strange country feels like an appropriate, and deserved, refuge from the grim facts of war. Elsewhere, Bierce’s trick endings seem less fully earned. In the more realistic war stories, his ingenuity often feels like a strategic retreat from the field of battle, a last-minute flight from the genuine terrors of the conflict.
In his ghost stories, though, these limitations turn to virtues. If there’s a genre Bierce was born to, it’s horror.