A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 30 – A Horseman in the Sky

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day thirty – A Horseman in the Sky, by Ambrose Bierce

Read it online here:

A Horseman in the Sky

When I think of Ambrose Bierce, I think of carefully written, exquisitely detailed military stories – with the wild addition of fanciful magic realism. I suppose that, today, well over a century after he lived and wrote, his most well-known tale, An Occurence at Owl Street Bridge, fits that description.

He also wrote The Devil’s Dictionary – which is a little dated today – but is still valid in its bitter satire on life and its foibles.

To wit:
From The Devil’s Dictionary”

LIFE, n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay. We live in daily apprehension of its loss; yet when lost it is not missed. The question, “Is life worth living?” has been much discussed; particularly by those who think it is not, many of whom have written at great length in support of their view and by careful observance of the laws of health enjoyed for long terms of years the honors of successful controversy.

“Life’s not worth living, and that’s the truth,”
Carelessly caroled the golden youth.
In manhood still he maintained that view
And held it more strongly the older he grew.
When kicked by a jackass at eighty-three,
“Go fetch me a surgeon at once!” cried he.
—Han Soper

or, from the “S”:

SAUCE, n. The one infallible sign of civilization and enlightenment. A people with no sauces has one thousand vices; a people with one sauce has only nine hundred and ninety-nine. For every sauce invented and accepted a vice is renounced and forgiven.

(this is a fact that I agree with)

There is much to say about today’s short and simple story… but I want to point out one simple aspect. The story has, among other things, a surprise or twist ending.

This sort of story is hard to pull off. A successful surprise ending really has to be no surprise at all – at least no surprise after you have read it. Though you should not be able to see it coming, after it has passed you have to realize that things could not be any other way.

Bierce does all this in today’s. Through careful manipulation of point of view, time shifting, and judicious information release by the omniscient narrator the ending is concealed until the end, yet is foreshadowed to the extent that the reader knows that no other plot direction would be possible.

That’s especially tricky because this is the most common and hoary of all twist endings, still being done to this day.

Hope I didn’t ruin it for you. It’s still a cool story.

For an instant Druse had a strange, half-defined feeling that he had slept to the end of the war and was looking upon a noble work of art reared upon that eminence to commemorate the deeds of an heroic past of which he had been an inglorious part. The feeling was dispelled by a slight movement of the group: the horse, without moving its feet, had drawn its body slightly backward from the verge; the man remained immobile as before. Broad awake and keenly alive to the significance of the situation, Druse now brought the butt of his rifle against his cheek by cautiously pushing the barrel forward through the bushes, cocked the piece, and glancing through the sights covered a vital spot of the horseman’s breast. A touch upon the trigger and all would have been well with Carter Druse. At that instant the horseman turned his head and looked in the direction of his concealed foeman–seemed to look into his very face, into his eyes, into his brave, compassionate heart.

3 responses to “A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 30 – A Horseman in the Sky

  1. Excellent reasons for ‘doing it again’ I must say. Had a good chuckle.

    I know this story well, as I frequently feature it on exams (hope none of my students see this). I like it because it is such a clear exploration of theme, and opens up all sorts of opportunities for students to discuss moral obligation and duty in their final essay.

    • Cool, thanks for the comment. You’ve come in at the end – I’m going back to my usual blogging stuff for July. It’s interesting that you mention “hope none of my students…” – I can sometimes tell when schools are studying a certain short story because the hits for that blog go up. The most contentious one is my take on Joyce Carol Oates’ “Life After High School.”

      Thanks again, keep up the good work.

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