Ambrose Bierce was an American Civil War veteran. As a Union soldier Bierce fought in many battles, was wounded, and went on to become a pioneer in the horror genre, helping introduce the psychological thriller to the American story.
American tradition is steeped in rich horror and veterans like Bierce who have taken their experiences in war and service and twisted them into terrifying tales for the public are a staple in that tradition.
Edgar Allen Poe, a king of the American gothic, had a stint in the Army, enlisting under a fake name and age in 1827. Rod Serling, the creator and host of The Twilight Zone, fought in World War II, earning a bronze star and purple heart before going on to terrifying millions with dark, otherworldly frights on TV.
These are some of the few, but impactful authors who have transposed the horrors of war into macabre fiction – and today, that tradition continues.
On this episode of Fire Watch, we explore that tradition through contemporary authors – who are also veterans – in a reading of Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
This episode contains adult themes, violence and swearing.
Sound effects courtesy of Zapsplat.com.
- Drew F. Lawrence gives a brief history of veterans in horror and introduces today’s guests.
- Guests Briane Keene, Jonathan Raab, Dacia Arnold, Russell James, Weston Ochse read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce and discuss their path from service to scare.
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Appearing in this episode:
Weston Ochse, Russell James, Dacia Arnold, Drew Lawrence, Jonathan Raab, Brian Keene
Welcome to a very special episode of Fire Watch. We are very sorry to pull you away from our regular programming, but some extreme circumstances have -- This is an emergency the broadcast of Fire Watch. Lock your doors. If you hear a knock, do not answer it. Do not look at the creatures i- Sorry about that. Ignore it. Forget about it, actually, and relax, pull up to the fire. Because on this episode of Fire Watch, we are going to tell you a different kind of story. Ambrose Bierce was an American Civil War veteran. As a Union soldier Bierce fought in many battles, specifically the Battle of Shiloh, an experience so terrifying for him that it contributed to many of his postwar works of fiction, most of which was drenched in what we would call horror. Bierce is one of relative few, but popular writers who took their military experience and turn them into terrifying stories served in fiction format. Edgar Allan Poe, a king of the American Gothic had a stint in the Army, enlisting under a fake name and age in 1827. Rod Serling, the creator and host of the Twilight Zone, fought in World War II, earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart before going on to terrify millions with dark, otherworldly frights on TV. The tradition of veteran storytellers in the horror genre is a long one. It's also a rich one fraught with terrors of war and military service brought to a sometimes unwitting public, one that may not have known the horrors they were getting into before they turn that first page or clicked on the TV. And on this episode, we want to show you that this tradition continues An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce is one of the most famous short stories in American history. And today you will hear contemporary horror authors -- who are also veterans --retell it here on Firewatch and then join us afterwards for a discussion about their service and writing. In order of appearance, you'll first hear Brian Keene, a Navy veteran and author of over 50 books, including The Rising which is often credited as helping resurrect today's pop culture boom in zombie horror. He's also taken his macabre talents to the screen, having written for shows like The X Files and Doctor Who. Jonathan Raab, an Army veteran is the author of several works, including The Haunting of Camp winter Falcon, a chilling tale about a group of psychologically tortured veterans who arrived at an experimental rehab facility, only to find it is riddled with cosmic and occult hauntings. Dacia Arnold is a best selling author of dark fiction. As a soldier assigned to an emergency room in Baghdad, she saw unimaginable tears many of which she has artfully transposed into her writing, including in a novel called Dirty Bombs, which is about a staff sergeant in Iraq who is faced with undead terrors of her own. Russell James describes himself as going from flying helicopters with the US Army to spinning twisted tales best read by daylight. He's written several short stories and collections. His latest book Demon Dagger is set in Los Angeles where demons from hell crawl from their pits to eat the souls of the living. And last but not least, you'll hear from Weston Ochse, author of dozens of books, one of which SEAL Team 666 you may soon see on the big screen. His latest book Red Unicorn follows a Vietnam veteran in a mad descent through the Falkland Islands, where he's met by a six fingered American Girl Nazis, cults and sorcerers. Ochse was also in the Army, deploying to places that he says he didn't even know existed to begin with. So thank you for joining us on this frightening tale. And today for Military.com, my name is Boo Lawrence. It is October 28 and this is Fire Watch. It appears I'm needed at the door. So excuse me while I greet our guests and enjoy the story.
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners -- two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as "support," that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest -- a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground -- a gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway up the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators -- a single company of infantry in line, at "parade rest," the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good -- a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat. He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgement as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his "unsteadfast footing," then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift -- all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by -- it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatience and -- he knew not why -- apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. "If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance."
As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure to perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
"The Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order."
"How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?" Farquhar asked.
"About thirty miles."
"Is there no force on this side of the creek?"
"Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge."
"Suppose a man -- a civilian and student of hanging -- should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel," said Farquhar, smiling, "what could he accomplish?"
The soldier reflected. "I was there a month ago," he replied. "I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder."
The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened -- ages later, it seemed to him -- by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness -- of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river! -- the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface -- knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. "To be hanged and drowned," he thought, "that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair."
He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. 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. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. "Put it back, put it back!" He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf -- he saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat -- all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking at the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning's work. How coldly and pitilessly -- with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men -- with what accurately measured interval fell those cruel words:
"Company! . . . Attention! . . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready!. . . Aim! . . . Fire!"
Farquhar dived -- dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream -- nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning:
"The officer," he reasoned, "will not make that martinet's error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!"
An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken an hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
"They will not do that again," he thought; "the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me -- the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun."
Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round -- spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men, all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color -- that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream -- the southern bank -- and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of AEolian harps. He had not wish to perfect his escape -- he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
A whiz and a rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.
All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman's road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which -- once, twice, and again -- he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue -- he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene -- perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon -- then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
Thank you for listening to a retelling of An Cccurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce, as told by Brian Keene, Jonathan Raab, Dacia Arnold, Russell James and Weston Ochse. Stick around, because we're going to talk to some of these authors about their work, the transition from veteran to writer, and all the spooky details in between. Thanks for listening. And I want to start with a question for Weston and Brian here. And it's it's really just generally, if you could kind of walk me through the transition from being in the military, being a veteran, to going ahead and writing horror?
Well, I mean, yeah, there's a through line with all of my fiction that has to do with being a soldier, whether it's a male or female, it doesn't matter. I mean, if you served, I mean, you've experienced and that there's a certain amount of stress, that's pushed upon us, that we have to live with and, and the external people call this PTSD. You know,whatever you call it, we call it experience, we call it being in the military. And what, what I try and do when I arrived, is I try and imbue my characters with that PTSD, and have them, gosh, live through it. Because, I mean, when I was a young man, and I read all the science fiction and stuff like this, it was clear that the people I was reading hadn't been through in the military, very few of them because there was not that feeling that we have, when you've been through what we call the shift. And, and once you've been through the shift, you know, once you've been through it, you know it, and when you write it, and you read it, you know it, you know that that writer is authentic in what he's saying. And so I really wanted to give those people and those readers the authentic feeling of how it is to be, you know, in in that sort of environment.
Yeah, I would agree. You know, like Weston said, he's got a a through line in all of his stuff. I would say I have a through line as well from the military and that would be brotherhood, camaradery. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was eight years old but I didn't get serious about it until I got out of the military. And that's because I think I hadn't really lived life until I enlisted. You know, I grew up in a very rural small town in Pennsylvania. The only people of color I knew were Gordon on Sesame Street, and you know, Luke Cage in the comic books. You know, I didn't know any Muslim people, I didn't know anything outside of, you know, a three state area of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland. And, you know, graduated high school at 17, go in the Navy, and suddenly, you know, you're with guys from Compton, and you're with guys from New York City, and you're with people from, you know, the bayou of Louisiana. And you think at first you have nothing in common, and yet, you find yourselves bonding together. And you know, of course, we all know, it's not like the movies, there are people you're never gonna friggin bond with. But, you know, it's, it's a microcosm of who we are as a society and, and who we are as a people. When you're, you know, regardless of whether you're living in the barracks, or living on board ship, or a sub. You know, it really, it really is a microcosm of who we are and our interactions. I've always thought that horror fiction, especially, it's not effective unless the reader is invested in the characters unless they're invested in the characters' motivations. They don't have to agree with the character, they don't even need to like the character, but they need to care what happens to the character. And, you know, I think serving certainly taught me how to develop those characters. And, you know, my, the guys I served with, we get together for a reunion about every 5, 10 years and they laugh, because every one of them has popped up in one of my books at some point, and they've all spotted it, you know.
Dacia, one of your books, Dirty Bombs is about a staff sergeant, female staff sergeant in Iraq, who is dealing with being in the military and being in Iraq as a soldier, but also the undead. And I can't help but think that someone who's walking into a bookstore looking for a zombie thriller, might pick up your book and learn something about your character and through your character learn something about you. When they do pick up that book, what do you hope that they learned about that character? And, you know, would they learn anything about you?
One thing is kind of how when we're faced in these potentially mortal situations, how we view mortality, and oftentimes when there is a constant threat of danger, how we're just kind of resolved to whatever happens. So for example, in the smoke pit, the serum goes off, and you're smoking your cigarette, and you're like, dude, do I take one last drag before I start running? I don't know. And then you wait for that first bomb to hit and you're like, Oh, that was too close and then you you make your choice to go. I think that that is one kind of one of the aspects of if the, maybe the cynical side of our own mortality, and how, you know, if it's our time to go, it's our time to go. But if it's not, you know, we just, we keep going. We keep going when it's ridiculous to keep going.
And, John, we've talked a little bit before and, you know, it's kind of a trope at this point to talk about the military-civilian divide, right? But from what I see you in this room right now are in a space to help bridge that and that comes with talking about some of the unsavory, nitty gritty details about being in the military. Do you agree that you know, horror is a good way to talk about those things and kind of give insight into the military and service to people who may not know about it or even care about it?
Yeah, I think horror as a genre is uniquely situated to show us the ugly truth that's beneath our lives. Whether you're a veteran or otherwise, you've dealt with horror in some way, shape, or form. As veterans, we have a very pronounced perspective on things like isolation, alienation, sort of being out of phase with yourself or with the environment. You know, coming home narratives, usually in popular fiction, tend to be sort of sunny after some, you know, adversarial challenges. But the reality is that that transition in that process isn't pretty. The experience people have in the military, whether it's in peacetime or wartime usually isn't always 100% positive and can be filled with things like anger and shame, maybe regret or even moral injury. And horror can take those things, those are raw materials to build a really strong, challenging horror story.
Jonathan, if you could just talk a little bit about your most recent work, which is A Haunting at Camp Winter Falcon, which is a really great story that I think, you know, encapsulates a little bit of what you're talking about with that anger, and some of that frustration, and a little bit of that shame. It's a good example, I think, of how to use horror to kind of explain some of these more complicated concepts.
Yeah, I appreciate that. And that novel, I wrote from sort of a place of frustration, in terms of, you know, being many years removed from my wartime service, or military service, and keeping in contact with the people I served with, you know, most of us are getting along and moving forward. But the reality is that the war doesn't end when you come home, the war doesn't end when you get a job, or start a family or go to therapy enough times, or go to yoga class or whatever. The brokenness and the damage that you can suffer can stay with you. And sometimes the veteran's story isn't one that ends happily, or is just sort of a nice, smooth, clean progression. So I wrote The Haunting of Camp Winter Falcon because I felt frustrated that this many years on I didn't necessarily feel like I was back to where I was before my service, or frankly, you know, even before my service, because the damage you take in is the damage you gotta take out and then it's compounded sometimes. So that story is really about a group of people who are very broken, they're trying to survive and trying to endure and trying to make good. And they sign up for a program that promises them, hopefully a path to healing. And they discover that it's anything but I didn't mean it to be totally cynical, right, but horror works best, I think, when it has an edge and when it's a little nasty, and when it is a little cynical, and that helps drive the points home.
And Weston, you know, I don't want to bring up this great group of people like it's some phenomenon, right? As we talked about with Ambrose Bierce, this, you know, veterans telling horror stories is a long standing tradition in America. And I'm wondering if you could, you know, talk to us a little bit about why that tradition is important to the American story overall, or the short story overall?
It's a total horror. So how do we write it in a way that people want to read it? Right? You don't want the 9-1-1 you don't want to 4-1-1 of anything that we've experienced, right. So we have to encapsulate that we have to figure out a way to package it, so that it's more, it's more palatable to the readers right. Ambrose Bierce was able to do it because he was the Harlan Ellison of his age. He was the most cantankerous writer of the 19th century. In that cantankerousness is a creativity that you cannot define. And so when you asked me to read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge I loved that because that was the first time that when I first read it many years ago, it was the first time that I ever experienced an unreliable narrator. Because he did it in such a way to where he wasn't trying to trick you. He was just taking you on a jounery, right? Because all the clues were stacked along the line. And in the best horror fiction, you know, if we want to talk about unreliable narrators, or we want to talk about PTSD or things like this, and we want to carry a story forward it's our job as writers to stack those clues along the line. And make you understand that yeah, it's a horror story. Yeah, there might be ghouls. There might be goblins there might be ghosts, but at the heart of it there is a soul to where the writer is trying to write himself out of a situation.
Brian and Dacia, what do you guys think about that?
Alright, I think that I would agree. I think that as military people, and just people who experienced trauma in general, become pros at disassociation. A lot of people just just try to, you know, I'm seeing this thing and I know this is what I'm seeing, but I'm not going to apply it to anything else in my life because if I do that, I'm not going to be able to let go of it later and go to sleep. But then us as authors, we then take all these things that we have disassociated from in the moment in our trauma until we were able, we felt safe. And we tried to reassociate this trauma, the horror, and the things that we experienced in a way that is palpable, or is relatable that people outside of that experience, can say, oh, it's like this, I've experienced this, so now I have an understanding of maybe what they're talking about.
I absolutely agree. And I think for every generation from Ambrose Bierce up to today, I think it's the responsibility of some artists, be they writers or filmmakers, to talk about these things shed a spotlight on these things. I always think about my grandfather and my father. My grandfather, served in World War II. He was Air Force. My father fought in Vietnam, 82nd airborne. And I remember, I was in high school, I guess I was a sophomore in '83 and they did not teach us about Vietnam- skipped right over that whole era of American history. And my father was incensed. You know, he's like, it happened. It happened in recent memory. And I remember my grandfather sort of teasing him and saying, Well, that's because, you know, we fought in a real war, you guys didn't. And my father, I only he was a tough guy. I only saw him cry once. And it was then. You know, and I think that impressed upon me early on, you know, somebody needs to tell these stories, if not the men and women who were there, then somebody who can talk to them and put themselves in their shoes and, you know, present it to the masses. You know, I think Ambrose Spears is doing that. I think we continue to do that tradition today.
What's that reassociation? It's we have horror in the world. And maybe this horror is exactly like that horror, but we're just gonna put a different mask on it so people can eat it better.
We've alluded to in the beginning, in the last 10, 15 plus years, that there's been kind of a change happening in horror as a genre. There are different voices that are coming in, including veterans. There are different ways that these stories are being told. And I was wondering if you for those who might not know that this kind of boom has happened in the last 10, 15 years, what are hallmarks of these changes? What are these different voices that are coming in?
What I have found in horror it is and this just might be my very niche experience is that it is far more diverse. Since I started writing, and I have separated from the military I think maybe eight years ago and since then writing, start beginning to write horror, I've noticed maybe not new faces, but more prominent faces that don't look like me. And being on this podcast today, I know that, you know, one of these things is not like the other and, and it kind of made me pause so I did my own search going into this to see if I could find a more diverse, you know, pool of veterans. And I, I really was hard up to find them. And so I wonder, while while the genre is still growing, does it still have more growing to do?
Yeah, diversity in the field has increased. Not far enough. But if I think of, let's say my top five horror writers, one of them would be Stephen Graham Jones, who's an American Indian, who is frequently in the New York Times bestseller's list at the top of his game. I think Gemma Files, a female, you know, a writer out of Canada who does amazing things. I think of other people who identify as queer or native or have, you know, minority populations. I think their voices are being discovered and amplified a little bit more because of the boom in one mainstream horror but also in the small press and micro press scene, due largely to sort of the democratization of desktop publishing tools where people like me can like start a press out of your apartment in Denver five years ago, even though you have no money and you just love the genre, and then put out a book because you can find like-minded people on the internet. So I do see things getting better, as they just said not not where it needs to be, but more people can access getting their work out there, whether it's on a website or self publishing, or a small press run by someone who's passionate in a way that probably wasn't quite as open as it was 20 years ago, simply because it's much easier to get your work out there. So there are lots of points of light out there and it is getting better. And it is great to see more people and different types of people, including veteran writers be able to find their audiences.
And the way I see it again, as an outsider is looking at all of you, you know, the US last year withdrew from Afghanistan, The Global War on Terror is dwindling ostensibly. You know, while we still do have troops deployed in, you know, typical places like Iraq and Syria, it's dwindling, iit's coming to an end for a lot of regular units.
Sorry, my face, I can't hid anything, it's just this problem.
No, go ahead.
But right now, like we're probably closer to like a nucular war than we have been in the last 40 years. And to be honest with you, my biggest concern coming home from Iraq was that it followed me home. And now here we are, and holy sh–t, it f—ing followed me home. And I not only have to keep myself alive, but I also have to keep my two kids live who don't listen to a damn thing I say. So I have to figure out how to function when sh–t hits the fan, when I'm not a part of a unit, and I'm not a part of a team and I don't have a place to go and like a designated role to have when sh–t does hit the fan. I gotta make it all up myself. And the best way for me to do that is to create this crazy fictional world where sh–t hits the fan and the mom saves the day.
And by the way, and by the way, we're not going to pretend that you know, the leader of the evil world, just that cancer is about to die. It wants to make his his like, living will. The explosion of the entire universe because guess what, he'll be dead and won't have to realize it. So yeah, we're talking Putin, and it's a f—ing terrifying thing. But see Brian and I were alive when we, we huddled under desks in elementary schools, to think that that would save us from from like, nuclear fallout. It's always been there. Having to go and try and try and talk to your kids about what's right and wrong. And, and having to you know, you and you and them try to figure out well, I'll be okay, we, you know, no one's gonna die. That's what horror fiction is about. That's why we read this sh–t. Because guess what, Tolkien is horror fiction. I mean, I mean, look at it. It's horror fiction. It's about an evil coming to the world, right? It's horror. I mean, they want to call it fantasy. What the f–ck ever. It's horror fiction. Everything that's most popular is horror fiction. Y ou look at any one time and the top seven movies in the world are horror fiction. Why? Because we want to be scared, and we don't want to be scared in real life. We want to have that palimpsested on something else.
Jonathan, I want to take what Dacia just said about making some of the real world horrors palatable for others. Right. And I'm wondering, could you give me another example of that maybe through your own writing. I want to ask, you know, are veteran horror writers, in some ways, better suited to do that?
I feel like folks here have made some good real world contemporary examples. And I do want to give a plus one to all that. And I do want to emphasize that yeah, indeed, horror can be a genre in which serious things or important things all caps can be discussed and sort of refracted and turned into something else. I think that's all great and wonderful. I love the art house horror movies that are coming out. Most of them are very good. But I actually want to also say that I like horror because it's a ton of fun, even when it's not about serious things. It's just a great sometimes escapist, fun time to sit down and read something spooky and scary about vampires and the vampires don't necessarily have to be about current events or about trauma, capital T or anything else. I love it when a ghost is just a ghost and vampire is just a vampire. I think horror works best when you've got some of that real world analog stuff kind of below the surface a little bit. But the story, the narrative, the monsters, the fun stuff is fun and interesting and it's a good time. Because, yes, I agree with everything that people have said. And as somebody who writes this stuff, I put these deeply serious things into my work. I want to show you a good time first and foremost. Horror is more fun than any other genre, you can quote me on that it's more fun than fantasy, science, fiction, romance, anything else. You're gonna have a great time if you sit down and read one of my books, and I suspect any of these books by these fine authors as well. You're gonna have a great time watching even a bad horror movie, even a bad one, especially a bad one with your friends. So I love that horror is versatile in that it can be about those things, but it can also just be a lot of fun.
You know, I want to toss it back to Brian to is just because you're you're a veteran writing horror doesn't mean you have to write stories about being a veteran or in the military, or have you found that to be the case, Brian, that whatever background you come, you can write a book that's not about that background successfully.
Oh, yeah absolutely. I mean, you know, the five of us here are veterans. But you know, I, you know, I think of people like Bev Vincent, you know, he's a scientist, Michael Amo works in the fashion industry. My fiancee, Mary San Giovanni, she's a teacher. You know, I know of homemakers that are doing this. I know, rock stars that are doing this. Retired CIA agents. Retired Secret Service. This is for anybody. And again, I would come back to whether we're writing horror novels or romance novels or superhero movies, You know, if you want to hook your audience, what you're really writing about is the human condition, about those things that all of us can identify with. I think horror just does it in its own specific way. And I think veterans probably have their own specific take on that, because when you've served you've seen the human condition in this condensed form. You know, you see people with their absolute worst, you see people at their absolute best.
Thank you so much for tuning into this special episode of Firewatch. Special thank you to our spectacularly spooky guests, Brian Keene, Jonathan Raab, Dacia Arnold, Russell James and Weston Ochse. Thank you to my executive producers, Zachary Fryer-Biggs and Amy Bushatz. If you enjoyed today's episode, let us know and give us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening