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The Enduring Influence of Ambrose Bierce

October 10th, 2021

Earlier this year, after turning in the manuscript for a new collection of Ambrose Bierce stories, I was watching The Criterion Channel and engaging in an activity that screenwriter Josh Olson calls “eating your vegetables.” In other words, I was finally watching some of those classic movies I’d heard about but had never got around to actually watching.

I had just finished Carnival of Souls (1962), a stylish, low-budget horror flick that seemed to be a retelling of Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”; and next up was The Hit (1984), a British gangster flick in which Terence Stamp plays an informer abducted by a couple of hitmen played by John Hurt and a very young Tim Roth. The cast alone makes it a must-see, but as I watched this story of a man awaiting what is certain to be his execution, I realized I was in the midst of yet another Bierce retelling. This time, the uncredited source was “Parker Adderson, Philosopher.”

What are the chances? Two in a row. But it’s not surprising, given the way Bierce’s stories tend to take root in the unconscious. Read one, and it becomes part of you forever.

Thus, I suppose it’s possible that unconscious influence played a part in the writing of the screenplays, with each writer inadvertently tapping into the memory of a Bierce tale and mistaking its plot for an original idea. But both films seem more like uncredited homages — particularly The Hit, whose main character, Willie Parker, is likely a reference to the Bierce protagonist Parker Adderson.

Also this past year, I caught up with Richard Christian Matheson’s “The Damned Thing” (2006), which originally aired in Season Two of Mick Garris’s groundbreaking series Masters of Horror. As I wasn’t a Showtime subscriber when the series first aired, it took availability on streaming for me to see Matheson’s reworking of Bierce’s classic — an adaptation that moves the action to the present day and effectively amps up the tale’s horror. And, yes, this reworking gives credit to Bierce, as does the classic Robert Enrico adaptation of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1962) that aired as part of Season Five of the original Twilight Zone TV series. It may be one of the best film adaptations ever made of a short story.

All three tales — “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Parker Adderson, Philosopher,” and “The Damned Thing” — are included in A Little Blue Book of Civil War Horror, where you’ll also find nine more tales and vignettes by Ambrose Bierce.

You can read more about the collection here. Copies are available from Borderlands Press. Check it out, and please let me know if you come across any other films based on Bierce’s tales. It’s always good to have a portion of vegetables to go with a hefty serving of meat.