Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Dirty Bird

Small, succinct, chilling novel in the Poe vein (St. Martin's Press, 1986).

Set on the Welsh coast, a man inherits a strange, dirty bird (a cormorant). His relationship with the beast becomes an obsession, and it drives his loved ones away.

Gregory's writing is evocative and hypnotic. When I first stumbled across this book and its beautiful cover, I sensed that it was something special.

I had no idea that, twenty-three years later, its horror would still remain with me. It is an extraordinary piece of work.

I didn't know what a cormorant was until I read this. When I was done, I was repulsed by the very idea.

The writer's skill is convincing us that the destructive bird has a purpose in our hero's life. When everything around him starts disintegrating, this repulsive creature, the cause of the chaos, becomes a savior of sorts.

Clearly, someone at the BBC liked the book, too, because they went into production on a TV movie that earned a brief theatrical run in the US. It starred Ralph Fiennes.

The movie does not convey the putrid horror of the book, but director Peter Markham does manage to capture the source's tenor of obsession.

In '88, Gregory returned with another impressive tale of obsession and depression, The Woodwitch. It is a textbook example of how to conjure dread and paranoia with as few words as possible.

Even Ramsey Campbell raved about it, and rightly so.

In a previous post, I discussed the troubling, deceptively elegant work of Jessica Hamilton/Ken Greenhall (Elizabeth, Baxter). Gregory's work is in the same vein. TM Wright wouldn't be uncomfortable in the company of these writers, either.

And Poe, wherever he is, is probably toasting his students (I hear he liked a drop or two).

Virtually unknown in the US, Stephen Gregory's nightmarish tales of psychological horror are well worth tracking down.

In the 70's, there was a British TV series called Thriller (created by Brian Clemens). The Cormorant and The Woodwitch would have been perfect subjects for the show.

Not long after reading The Cormorant, I experienced a bizarre incident with a bird.

I was living in an old house with an open fireplace. Winter was approaching. During the Autumn, my ex-wife and I would often hear flapping in the chimney. Birds would nest in there for a while and move on. Most were small birds; they needed to be because the chimney was narrow. When their business in there was done, they would fly up and out. I made a habit of checking the chimney now and then. I'd slide myself in backwards and upside down to take a look. If I could see the sky, I was satisfied that nothing had jammed itself in there.

On the first cold night of Winter, I placed some wood in the opening and sprinkled some gasoline accelerant around to get the wood to ignite. I know that sounds like overkill, but the recommended synthetic fire lighters never did the job properly because an ungodly wind blew down the chimney, extinguishing small flames . Earlier that day, I'd inspected the space for birds. The sky was visible. It was clear.

I threw one of those oversized matches onto the gasoline-soaked logs. There was a sudden poof! as the logs flared. Great! We'd have some serious heat soon.

The flapping and SCREECHING started immediately. Ash and debris were being belched from the fireplace onto the wooden floor.

At first I didn't even comprehend what was happening; it all happened so fast.

Something was in the fireplace, and it was being consumed by flames.

With all the ash and crap that was being spat out of the opening, I couldn't see a thing.

The flames were leaping high and bending as they were fanned by the thing in my fireplace.

Its SCREECHING became banshee-like, hellish BELLOWING.

I'd never heard anything so sad.

Then it dropped onto the logs and stood there for a moment.

It was a large, burning bird. Its wings, flapping frantically, were on fire. They were such large wings that they were preventing the creature from escaping its tomb.

I'll never forget it looking directly at me as it burned to death.

Strangely, its tiny head was untouched by the fire. Its eyes communicated sheer helplessness.

I couldn't even look at the thing.

It was horrible.

I ran to the kitchen and filled a saucepan with water. I raced back and hurled the water at the bird. By then, it had given up hope. It rested on its black, roasted wings on the logs, its head slightly tilted. It was still looking at me.

In the months that followed the incident, I kept seeing the bird staring at me and I wondered if there was blame in those eyes.

Had I let this creature down?

Should I have checked the chimney again before lighting the fire?

I picked the bird up and wrapped it in newspaper. Its charbroiled wings were still smoking. Its thin bird face was black.

I buried it before my wife got home.

After I'd spent an hour mopping up the mess, I walked into my study and took out The Cormorant.

I studied the cover and ran my finger across the raised graphic of the bird.

I immediately understood something about the relationship between man and bird.

Like the cormorant in the story, my bird, even in its dying flurry, desired a brief connection with me.

That's what Stephen Gregory's book was about. A connection. A connection so strong it turned a blind eye to evil.