Here was something, in the castle car park, attached to the bumper of a small van, which was more than the everyday sea-crows on the brown waters of the estuary. It came and went in the company of a man, not his slave, for they had seen him retreat from the wild beak, but in the company of people. It was more than the cormorants along the shore, much more than the swans which preened themselves in their muddy reflections, immeasurably more than the biggest of the black-backs or the oldest raven. The gulls swooped down to see. They recoiled from something they could not understand.
The Welsh horror writer Stephen Gregory published his first novel in 1986, to moderate acclaim: titled The Cormorant, it won the 1987 Somerset Maugham Award, and was adapted into a BBC film a few years later. He’s continued to write, and a half-dozen novels later, he’s established himself as both a master of literary horror and one of the genre’s most underrated authors. Several of Gregory’s other books also deal with birds, or have themes of nature, naturalism, and decay, and has earned many comparisons between his work and Poe’s.
A young English family has inherited the Welsh cottage of Uncle Ian; the narrator, a disillusioned high-school teacher, hopes to use this freedom to write his masterwork novel. Yet Ian’s gift came with a strange clause: they can have the cottage as long as they provide for his pet cormorant and keep it alive. The bird is a terror; after being released from its cage, it demolishes the living room, spouting jets of shit everywhere. They give it the surly name of Archie, confining it to a pen in the backyard. As the narrator becomes fascinated with the bird, teaching it how to fish, his wife Ann fears for the safety of their young son Harry. And for good reason: Archie’s flashing beak and powerful wings make short work of his prey. Strange happenings seem to follow the cormorant, as the cottage is surrounded by hostile gulls on more than one occasion. At the epicenter is always Archie, with soulless black eyes and a powerful stabbing beak and the reek of a thousand dead fish…
Perhaps it’s because the “horror” of this novel is a mundane creature portrayed in a realistic manner, but the novel is all too believable. The sea bird is horrible, reeking of dead sea life and rotting kelp, but it doesn’t act out of character: at the end of the day, it’s still a cormorant, a violent bird of prey dropped into the quiet confines of domestic civilization. For me, the horror came across less from the bird, but more the strange goings-on around it. Harry seems fascinated by the cormorant, losing track of himself as he stares at the majestic sea-crow in its reeking splendor, until he’s startled awake by one of his parents or the crackling fire snaps him out of it. He starts to imitate it rather than his parents, stabbing at his mother with the bird’s molted feathers. And halfway through the book, the protagonist encounters an unknown presence reeking of old cigar-smoke—an ally, an enemy, or perhaps some of both?
Gregory’s deft writing and wonderful language make for great reading; further, his sense of the macabre and ability to turn this mundane but savage bird into a being of pure dread are potent. Little wonder that his novel of earthy terror is compared to Poe. Both authors are confident and sure, crafting dread out of the ordinary by way of psychological suspense. There is a feeling that something just isn’t right here, that the bird is a harbinger of a terror to come. Between the bird’s deadly beak and his torrid jets of green shit, it captures your immediate attention, yet there is something strange and perverse here. Everyday happenings take on a surreal, dreamlike quality, only to be shattered by the intrusive bird. When things return to the peaceful surreal, they are even stranger than before—take the disturbing family bath scene, for example.
The Cormorant is a elusive and withholding novel that does not explain itself—but does it need to? It moves with a slow, methodical pace and is relatively free from gore, two reasons that it may be unfairly overlooked by horror readers. (It’s also short for an ’80s horror novel at under 200 pages.) It is a puzzling read, odd and mysterious, that will frustrate readers who demand to know the answers to life’s mysteries: what was the cause, what was the point, what was real, what was just the product of a drunken imagination? It’s because of these inexplicable unknowns that The Cormorant is so effective at stimulating dread and fear, where a wild bird is the sinister source of dank unease. Readers who enjoy slow, atmospheric, cerebral horror should give The Cormorant a try—it’s the most effective and literate horror I’ve read in a long while.
Title: The Cormorant
Author: Stephen Gregory
Publisher: Valancourt Books
Release Date: 2013
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $5.99
ISBN/ASIN: 1939140374 / B00CKYZY2S
First Published: 1986