I met John West in a Facebook group that we are both a part of called “Indie Authors Networking.” We share an interest in writing short stories and he was nice enough to chat online for a short time about a project of his that’s available on Amazon.
Entitled “Dancing in Valhalla,” Mr. West answered four questions for me and the readers of this site regarding his 13 short stories. They are posted below and may help readers decide if West’s eBook or Paperback is the right choice for them.
Me, Shane Lambert: “I saw that you called your short stories ‘twisted tales.’ Would you put them in horror or suspense categories as well? If someone liked the “Tales from the Crypt” comic books, do you think they would like your 13 stories?”
John West, author: “These stories bounce between horror and suspense, Shane. But they all have twists in the tale. Hence “twisted.” Although that could also apply that to some of the events and characters in the stories. And the lunatic who wrote them. I like to think that “Crypt” fans would definitely enjoy these. So did the Cryptkeeper. He told me so over drinks the other night.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “I see. I wonder how his breath was? On that matter, should someone read your stories if he or she has a weak stomach?”
John West, author: “I don’t write for people with weak stomachs. Anyone who struggles with the first story in the collection should stop reading immediately and consult a medical practitioner. Or pour a stiff drink and soldier on. Best keep the bottle nearby for emergencies.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “I guess when it comes to that kind of writing, if your reader pukes real bad — it means it’s good. Speaking of your readers, one of your fans, in his review, was happy with your work. However, he said that he didn’t like the South African slang in some parts. It does seem that if a story was set in South Africa, then realism requires slang common to that area so maybe the criticism isn’t entirely fair. But can you offer a quick glossary on the terms he might be referring to as a service to your future readers? Even just 2-3 South African slang words.”
John West, author: “I wrote this one for the South African fans who came out to buy my first novel at book fairs around Johannesburg. So, yes, I pushed the SA slang aspect this time, based on mates from 1980s Hillbrow (you know who you are).
Bra = brother/friend. Oke = guy. Make out = see/understand. Tune = tell.
All in all, it makes about as much sense as the rest of our delightful English language.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “Thanks for that. I think ‘Bra’ is common in my knack of the woods at least for meaning ‘brother/friend.’ Now, completely off topic. One of your short-story descriptions mentioned Jack the Ripper. As far as you can ‘tune,’ any guesses on what his identity might have been? What if I narrowed your choices down to Aaron Kosminski and Charles Lechmere? Hint-hint: an article about a short story with one ‘Charley Lechmere’ is the most popular blog on this website.”
John West, author: “Not John Williams? I’ve read theories ranging from Masons to demons. So Polish barbers and meat cart drivers are well within the realm of possibilities. If I had to choose between Aaron and Charles? I wouldn’t. I don’t believe records from the time are accurate enough to definitively prove it one way or another. Let Whitechapel keep its secrets.”
John West’s “Dancing in Valhalla” has a publication date at Amazon of April 21st, 2019. As for the reviews, it seems that those that have read it have enjoyed it. Described as “13 twisted tales of music, magick, mayhem & murder,” the eBook is available on Amazon on a variety of devices. It’s also available in a paperback edition.
I completed a short story in early 2018. At first, I didn’t know what to do with it. When I started writing the short story, it was more like I was scratching an itch than thinking about a final product. However, when I finished it I definitely wanted it to be read by others. I self-published it at Amazon and part of this process involved creating an eBook cover.
I don’t know much about art, at least not the kind involving painting or drawing. All the marketing tips I read said that I should have a nice eBook cover to represent the book, something I agreed with wholeheartedly. So, I went to the freelancers online to try and create something that might draw in some readers.
But, before I did this, I had to think of a cover design that I wanted to be drawn. I didn’t want an artist to have to read the short story and then think of a cover by himself or herself. That would be time-consuming and, I assumed, it would then cost more money to get the job done.
While I’ve made a lot of extra money over the years writing, as of yet self-published eBooks haven’t really brought me in that much. My writing-related income comes mainly from writing for websites. Since my first attempts at self-publishing back in 2012, I’ve only sold about 1500 eBooks. That doesn’t mean that the effort, for some of them, hasn’t been worth it but you can see how it has not really been a clearly successful venture for me.
Due to this, I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on an eBook cover. Instead, I decided that I would try to find a talented artist who needed to establish himself or herself, someone who would be willing to work for an hour on this project for something very affordable.
My short story, which can now be found on short-stories-online.com, is about a well-meaning man who decides to pick up a hitchhiker. Subsequently, he wonders if the hitchhiker, who is female, is suspicious of his intentions. That manifests into a concern that others, people the hitchhiker talks to at a rest stop, might actually think that the man is a serial killer.
In the end, the man develops what could be viewed as a paranoia over his image. Others might see the man’s concern as reasonable and not the result of paranoia. That’s a question posed in the story.
My question was how do I represent the short story in an eBook cover in a way that might intrigue people?
At one point, I thought that I could put anything on the cover and just let the reader run wild with metaphorical interpretation. However, I abandoned this idea when I found an artist that had some significant ability and was willing to work cheap. I described the scene to her that should be on the cover as follows.
Three people were to be illustrated as pushing a car off of a cliff. The vehicle was to have a terrified male driver sitting at the wheel. The three people doing the pushing were to be depicted as a female hitchhiker, a member of the public, and a police officer. In the background, I instructed that a Ted-Bundy-like serial-killer character is supposed to be engaged in sardonic laughter as the driver of the vehicle suffers for something he, the actual serial killer, did.
It was all was supposed to show, metaphorically, how four people were involved in stifling congenial behavior in society. The driver of the car stopped to help a stranded traveler as an act of kindness but this act was instead distorted. You may have to read the story to understand the point in view. But as for the eBook cover, to make sure we were on the same page I offered this juvenile sketch to my hired help:
The setting of the story is in the Canadian Rockies, as depicted by the rocky ‘waves’ in the background. The sign in the sketch is a common one that highway users see when they travel. That sign is a part of the story but I won’t get into that here too much. I just wanted to point out that everything in the sketch is relevant to the plot — nothing is arbitrary.
The next step in the cover design was getting some work back before the artist did too much on her own. She sent a first draft after both getting my instructions and seeing the simple sketch above. Importantly, the sketch below, while not completed, is far better artwork than I could draw myself.
What you are looking at is a man being pushed over the edge of a cliff in a car. However, my opinion was that the car looked more like a small pick-up truck and that was taken up with the artist.
The driver is the protagonist, someone I call “Fictional Me” because I often write fiction in the first person. The woman with the backpack on (pictured on the right) is the hitchhiker and she’s giving an ironic thumbs-up as she aids in pushing Fictional Me and my car over a cliff.
The man in the middle is a guy she speaks to at a gas station, ‘alerting’ him to the fact that Fictional Me is an individual who picks up female hitchhikers. He’s pushing the car with one hand and scrutinizing Fictional Me with a magnifying glass with the other.
The police officer is both finger-wagging and helping to kill Fictional Me. In the background, you can see the actual serial killer who is enjoying the mess that he created. The serial killer finds twisted humor in the fact that someone else is being tormented for what he, the serial killer, did.
The next draft looked like this:
Was this the final draft? At this point, I had some opinions — all of which were entirely irrelevant.
Part of me didn’t think the three ‘pushers’ looked active enough in pushing. I also didn’t think that it made sense that they could push so hard as to get a car through the rail on the side of the highway.
On another matter, I thought the outline of the car was a little wonky as it looks like the front is the back and the back is the front to me. Lastly, the mountains seemed red and arid while the setting of the story was in an area where the mountains were tree-covered and dark or silver.
The reason my opinions were irrelevant was because I’m a reasonable person and I knew that I couldn’t push someone too hard at revisions when I was only paying $25US. Unwilling to spend more, I was happy with what I got for what I paid, I left the artist a great review, and I put the eBook cover up as a better cover than the site-generated ugly ones. Even if I end up -$25US on the project, it definitely made me smile to work on it.
I’ve recently been on the editorial team for a short story anthology, not for the first time, and have been noticing some common mistakes that can trip up an otherwise good story. If you’ve been submitting to anthologies or thinking about doing so, please take note of some of the recurring pitfalls that can cause […]
Ambrose Bierce (1842 to ~1914) was an American writer. One of his enduring literary works is called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a short story that was published in 1890. This story will be looked at in this article so be warned now that the following sections CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS. If you want to read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” with the ending preserved, then use this exit link here. The point that I want to make about the short story will follow.
One thing that readers should note is that I am going off of the version of the story that first appeared in the July 13th, 1890 edition of The San Francisco Examiner. This published version is different than later versions in some small ways.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – Plot Summary, narrative Criticism, theme, and Bierce’s method for creating a twist ending
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a short story with a twist ending. That means that the ending takes the reader in a different route that the one that seemed to already be established.
How Bierce accomplished this is actually pretty simple when you break it down into a procedure, something I will do at the end of this article. However, this goal is little more than just a motivator to look at the story in some depth. A complete look at the twist ending involves summarizing the plot, examining the narration, and exploring the theme. All of this will be done en route to understanding how to use Bierce’s simple procedure to set up a twist ending.
A front-to-back summary of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” can either tell you where the twist is when the first seeds are planted or leave that until the end. Since I’ve already warned you of plot spoilers, I’ll take the former path in this article.
Bierce’s story, broken into three short parts, is set in northern Alabama during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Bierce, in real life, was a veteran of this war, a war which was between Abraham Lincoln’s North and the Confederate States of the South in the United States of America.
In Part I of the story, we are in the present. At this point, we quickly learn that we’re about to read of a man who is about to be hanged. He is standing on the titular bridge, awaiting his fate.
In Part II of the story, we go the recent past. At this point, we learn what it was that lead to this man’s fate: Farquhar, the man who is about to be hanged, had claimed to someone who he thought was a Confederate soldier that he, Farquhar, wanted to sabotage the North’s advance into the South. However, this soldier ended up being a spy for the North and it is implied in the story that this is what lead to Farquhar’s arrest.
In Part III of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” we, the readers, are taken back to the present. It’s at this point where we are presented with Farquhar’s escape, at least before the twist ending reverses that understanding of events. In the final statement of the story, we learn that Farquhar only imagined his escape in the moments before his neck was snapped.
There is some jumping around as the presentation of the story is not linear. However, while the plot is simple enough, the narration in the story is a little more difficult to grasp. It has been referred to as “Stream of consciousness” narration which, in my opinion, seems to be little more than the tool of a writer who can’t really grasp on to a steady narrative perspective.
The narrator in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in fact, could called a third-person narrator that lacks omniscience or, perhaps better, a third-person narrator that toggles in and out of omniscience. That’s a little different than the conventional third-person narrator for the day and so this story is significant to look at.
The following narrative excerpt comes from Part I of the story. The “platform” mentioned should be understood as being on the bridge that Farquhar is on, one that he will be thrown off of with a noose around his neck. The first usage of the word “him” applies to Farquhar. The statements below are not from the protagonist but from the narrator.
Ask yourself: what perspective does this narrator have? I would submit that the perspective is inconsistent within this short passage.
From one point of view, the narrator seems omniscient as he knows the rank of an officer to be “a captain.” From this point of view, the narrator might seem all-knowing because he knows details of peripheral characters, even details that don’t seem that important.
However, in this same passage there’s uncertainty about the roles of the sentinels. The narrator claims that it “did not appear to be the duty of these two men” to know about the hanging. Furthermore, there is some question as to the “civil life” of the sergeant. Importantly, a truly omniscient narrator, a literary entity that knows everything about the fiction he’s presiding over, wouldn’t have doubts about anything. Doubts are reflected in the passivity of the narrator’s claim when he said “did not appear” (my emphasis). Normal people talk like this when they aren’t sure of something so, at first glance, it’s a bit odd for a narrator that already seemed to know some trifling details to be un-authoritative on others.
In contrast, the final sentence of the quoted passage would best have been written: “These two men did not have a duty to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge,” if, in fact, that was true. An omniscient narrator that has doubts is absurd and this passage is part of the reason I see the third-person narrator as toggling in and out of the all-knowing state. You can call that “Stream of consciousness” narration if you want but I see it as contradictory and that type of narrating style simply legitimizing writings where an author may not be good enough to stay in mode.
That the third-person narrator in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” isn’t all knowing is clearer if more passages are looked at. But first, I want to show that the narrator has omniscience in some contexts. In the following passage, the narrator has access to the main character’s thoughts. It occurs near the end of Part I, where Farquhar is thinking about how to escape. The pronoun that starts the excerpt refers to Farquhar.
Having access to someone’s mind is either due to a first-person perspective (ie. access to your own mind) or an omniscient one. In this case, it must be the latter or else “he thought” would be written as “I thought.” From this excerpt, the narrator is clearly omniscient.
But then sticking with Part I, the narrator previously had described Farquhar as “apparently about thirty-five years of age.” The use of the word “apparently” is strange here. It’s as though the narrator is looking at Farquhar and offering an opinion on his age based on how he looks. Yet, if the narrator is omniscient, then Farquhar’s age could be stated with certainty.
If we imagine some kind of third-person narrator that’s not omniscient then the statement kind of makes sense but then how does this person know what Farquhar’s thinking so much? If the narrator is Farquhar then we’re into the Twilight Zone because it would mean a character in a story has overtaken the omniscient narration. But even then, you’d think an uppity man like Farquhar would know his own age. All that really follows is that the narrator is a little bit weird. Maybe Bierce wants to establish a narrator that doesn’t tell the whole story and/or isn’t immaculately credible.
Clearly, Bierce is using a narrator that, at least, holds back on the readers. That’s done most clearly in Part III where the narrator doesn’t divulge that Farquhar started to fantasize about an escape but simply allows us to believe he has genuinely escaped. Thus, the twist ending is dependent on the reader trusting the narrator to be comprehensive yet, as we’ve seen with some details, the narrator in this story is not.
If Bierce’s toggling in and out of omniscience is not deliberate then he could be viewed as a writer who isn’t of literary quality. It could mean that he doesn’t know how to employ an omniscient narrator properly or that he didn’t refine his work. If the toggling in and out of omniscience is to be viewed as deliberate, then we can look at why. Doing that, I submit, requires looking at Farquhar’s fantasy.
In the moments before he is executed, Farquhar, as presented by the not-so-omniscient narrator, escapes from the claws of death. The narrator allows us to believe that the rope broke when he was dropped from the bridge. A truthful narrator might instead state that Farquhar couldn’t face the stress of being executed via hanging so he fell into the world of illusion, which is actually what happens.
That the narrator isn’t square with the reader creates a bit of an Easter Egg hunt: we can look for clues that we’re watching something that sets up the twist ending. One big clue to the fact that there is deception going on is perhaps the mentioning of a snake.
When Farquhar seems to escape from his executioners, he falls into Owl Creek and a snake passes him in the water. Snakes are often a symbol of deception in literature, maybe because of their forked tongues or maybe because of the Garden of Eden as presented in the bible. A fox on the shore would have worked just as well as they, don’t ask me how, have a reputation as being tricky.
The snake isn’t the only clue that suggests that readers shouldn’t trust what’s going on. The title itself says “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (emphasis added). “An Occurrence” would be to focus on a single event and one that occurs at the single location, that being the bridge. This isn’t a short story that traverses the country side — it is bound to what happens on the bridge. It’s a tiny clue that anyone that buys into the story of escape of from that bridge is going outside the scope of the actual story.
Another Easter Egg just has to do with the head-scratching part of the fantasy-line plot where Farquhar manages to escape. In the fantasy line, Farquhar is actually dropped from the bridge to be hung. However, luck intervenes in his favor and the rope breaks.
If you actually know something of hangings, then you know this kind of luck is not actually incredibly fantastic. There are botched hangings in history so a breaking rope is not difficult to accept.
What’s hard to believe is that Farquhar got out of his predicament after he fell into the water below. He has a tightened rope around his neck, his hands are bound, and he is near the bottom of a shallow creek. Even if he avoids drowning, he would still have to avoid strangulation from the tight rope around his neck.
With this predicament, Bierce faces a challenge at this point. If Farquhar magically escapes from the bonds then the realism of the situation might not remain intact from the readers’ points of view. Yet, borderline magic is actually what is needed for Farquhar to live.
In order to save himself, for starters, he needs to free his hands. Mr. Bierce doesn’t make things difficult on himself at this point as author of this story. Instead, the following passage explains how Farquhar freed his bound hands while at the bottom of creek with a tight noose around his neck:
“What splendid effort!–what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light.”
If you ever write a short story and paint your protagonist into a corner then just write the crap in the first sentence to get him out of his spot: “What splendid effort!–what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo!”
That Bierce might be a little bit weak here is one possibility. From another point of view, that Farquhar has done something so completely fake could be viewed as a clue that we’re reading something that is likewise fake. After all, “superhuman strength” could be something that belongs to the fantasist.
As the story carries on, we’re taken through Farquhar’s imaginary escape. This fantasy ends with a reunion with his wife.
Then, right at the very end of the story, Farquhar is back on the bridge and his neck breaks from being hung. It’s at this point that we learn that his escape didn’t actually occur in the story line and we’re left to conclude that we were party plot events that were nothing except the fantasy of the protagonist.
I don’t like the narration in this story. I think the so-called “Stream of consciousness” narration is for the weaker writer that can’t surmount the challenges that come with sticking to the conventions of either a first-person or third-person narration.
Yet, the inconsistencies in the story’s narration are probably best viewed as contributory to the story as opposed to goof-ups. For the thinking reader, catching the ‘omniscient’ narrator (remember — the narrator has access to the main character’s thoughts) not knowing stuff is a hint that that we can’t trust it, the narrator. Thus, Bierce has created a backdrop of quasi-narrative-goofs that allows us to accept the part where the narrator doesn’t let us into the know when it comes to revealing that Farquhar is a fantasist as opposed to a realist. This lines up well with a theme of the story: deception.
A more particular theme for the story could definitely be self-deception. From this point of view, Farquhar is facing something that’s too harsh to face — his imminent death. Anyone that is faced with something that one can’t confront might go a little bit crazy. The entire section of the story involving his escape can thus be viewed as the imaginations of someone who goes temporarily insane in order to avoid the mental anguish of reality.
There is definitely a lesson to be learned from this story, in fact, I think it’s one that’s very pertinent and for me it rescues the short story. Consider that Farquhar is able to live vicariously in a dream world, one where he is free and one where he is back at home with his wife. This dream ends when his neck breaks in the real world.
The lesson, then, is that you can live in a dream world only so long as the real world allows it. When Farquhar’s neck breaks, then fantasy time is over.
Thus, there is a good point to be made about not living in a bubble just because you find it more comfortable. It’s something that we might all note as we’re probably all a little guilty of comforting self-deception from time to time, whether in regard to trifles or important matters.
I would say that this short story is therefore on the didactic side. It’s certainly not as didactic as the literary writings of George Orwell but a point can be taken away from the reading, one that is valuable to life. I would also state that the point that can be extracted from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is relevant to all human cultures.
For a real-life example from history, we can imagine that some people who lived in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius might have been happy where they lived and, because of this and only this, they ignored the warnings of the impending volcanic eruption. However, the dream world can’t be lived in when the real world kills you. Dreams of Vesuvius not erupting end when you get covered in lava because then Cather’s the picture-making mechanism stops working.
As for a literary comparison, let’s stick with the Civil War fiction. Scarlett O’Hara was a naive rich kid of the South who paid no attention to the news of the advancing army from the North. That ignorance kind of ran into a brick wall when she almost starved to death. Her character didn’t die but the boundaries of self-deception can still be explored: she could pretend all she wanted to but a lack of food in your stomach is such a strong dose of reality that it can only be bubble bursting.
Additionally, I think there is a real-life point for those that deny human-caused global warming to take note of. The dream world, the one where we can pollute the atmosphere and deforest the world with no side effects, could end if your section of the real world becomes uninhabitable. Better smarten up.
That Bierce has made a good point about the potential futility of living in a dream world can be taken away from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I would say that a writer that creates work with a point that transcends his life by several generations is definitely worthwhile. However, I do think his narrative style is that of a lesser writer. The writer that feels as though he can toggle in and out of omniscience as needed is not as talented as the one’s that work within the confines of more rigid conventions.
What Bierce did
One writing technique that you can note from this story is that a tongue-in-cheek narrator can set up a twist ending.
Step one: use a narrator that appears to be authoritative, if not omniscient.
Step two: lie to the reader with it.
Step three: make a statement that emphatically contradicts the ‘omniscient’ narration when you want the twist employed.
What will result is a reader who is turned right around and that’s basically what the twist-ending is supposed to do.
The following snip is a re-blog, meaning the opening was taken from another site. You’ll have to follow the link at the end to read the full article. One reason this content was chosen to re-blog was because we recently looked at Willa Cather and “Paul’s Case.”
This story reminded me of A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich. In both stories a woman of culture and talent marries and moves to the Nebraska territory where her life becomes an endless drudge of mind-numbing and back-breaking housework, child rearing, and farm chores. At least that is how it looks from […]