“There’s definitely a dark side to the avian, which is not surprising considering that they’re currently believed to have evolved from dinosaurs.” – Ellen Datlow, Black Feathers.
Whether it’s low-flying seagulls, pigeons pecking at rotting carcasses, or spinning headed owls, birds have lurked in horror’s psychological evolution. From Fred F. Sears’ sci-fi monster Z-movie, The Giant Claw (1959), to James Nguyen’s crowd-funded catastrophe, Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), birds are a visual manifestation of the collective troubled psyche. Recently, we can note how horror has shifted from the otherworldly creatures of vampires, bats and castles, to middle-aged alcoholics, crows and motels. Discussing Alfred Hitchcock’s unobtrusively bird-abundant Psycho (1960), philosopher Kelly Oliver considers this: “horror lies within the mundane rather than the supernatural, that it haunts rural landscapes and picturesque homes rather the cemeteries and laboratories.” Birds have flown into the literary world again as the subject of a forthcoming collection from serial horror anthologist, Ellen Datlow. Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales (Pegasus) deals almost exclusively with mundane daily life, with birds as a sinister reflection of what lies beneath. We caught up with Datlow, and talked birds, horror, and the perils of social media.
Datlow’s introduction promises that “you will encounter the dark resonance between the human and the avian.” And you do indeed. The anthology kicks off with Sandra Kasturi’s O Terrible Bird. Kasturi, a poet and ChiZine publisher, devastatingly expresses an individual’s dark, sorrowful kinship to birds.
She is joined by 15 rather illustrious contributors: An immerse tale of mortality from Pat Cadigan, while Stephen Graham Jones tackles “pigeons from hell”; we delve into nature with the orphan bird and Alison Littlewood; and Joyce Carol Oates terrifies our senses with “Great Blue Heron,” collectively uncovering the dark obsessions and resonance between humans and the avian. However, while the title conjures the ravens and crows of Edgar Allan Poe and Brandon Lee, Datlow doesn’t actually believe the bird horror trope is that pervasive:
“I don’t think they are a popular trope in horror, which is why editing an anthology of horror stories revolving around birds interested me. As an anthologist, finding themes that are not overdone is always a challenge. The only other fiction anthology about birds with which I’m familiar with is Murmurations: An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds edited by Nicholas Royle, published back in 2011.”
As one of the many ideas “percolating in [her] brain,” the concept for Black Feathers started in early 2015. After meeting the publisher of Pegasus Press through a mutual friend, they bought the proposal within a month. The multi-award winning editor reveals the process of her legendary anthologizing: “Of course, it takes ten months to a year to actually commission, read, and edit the accepted stories. We pushed around a few titles and although my favorite was Black Wings, I couldn’t use that because there’s a Lovecraftian anthology series using that title. But…I’d read a story called ‘Black Feathers’ by Alison Littlewood a few years earlier, and thought that might work just as well.
“Anyway, once I have a theme, and before I propose the anthology to an editor, I first contact some of my favorite writers to ask if they might be interested in writing something, if I sell the anthology. In the case of Black Feathers, I knew I would be reprinting two of my favorite bird horror stories: Nicholas Royle’s ‘The Obscure Bird’ and M. John Harrison’s ‘Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring.’”
On the general state of the horror genre, Datlow points out that there are “so many sub-categories in literary horror these days.” She lists them as, “the uncanny, the weird, psychological horror, terror tales, supernatural, conte de cruelle,” while flagging up Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney as the wonderful literary novels being released by mainstream publishers. Coincidentally, horror heavyweights Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, and R.L. Stine have all written short stories titled, “For the Birds,” but those bird stories are buried beneath their prolific careers.
“Obviously the most famous ‘bird story’ is Daphne Du Maurier’s novelette ‘The Birds’” (1952), adapted into the Hitchcock film. Datlow continues, “There’s also a novel by Stephen Gregory called The Cormorant (1988) about a family that inherits a cottage, along with a very nasty bird. And of course The Raven of Poe’s famous poem,” adding, “but the bird itself isn’t horrific.” In Black Feathers, Royle’s own short story (which is one of Datlow’s favorite bird stories) “The Obscure Bird” shows how avian horror has manifested into the digital absurdity of modern life. Andrew, a nocturnal regurgitating professor, is described by his wife as “like one of those birds stuck in his cage tweeting to other lonely people trapped in their own cages.” Obviously a bold Twitter reference, yet it discreetly reveals our eternal disconnection and isolation.
“Everyday life has always been horrific for many people. In fact, I’ve always said that horror fiction rarely, if ever, “scares” me-it’s more of a fiction of profound unease and discomfort, and good horror to me conveys a creepiness that I love.” Datlow says, “Horror is knowing that people around the world have to live with war, hate, starvation, child and animal abuse –these are the modern horrors, just as they were the historical horrors. Most everyone is afraid of death, dying, pain, and loss of control. That’s a constant that never changes.”
Between reading for her Best Horror of the Year: Volume 9 (Night Shade) and finishing up two original anthologies: Hallows’ Eve (Blumhouse) with Lisa Morton, and Mad Hatters and March Hares (Tor) an anthology of stories inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Datlow still finds time to tweet. With most of her writers living around the world, Datlow does not feel that Twitter has turned us into preying “caged birds.” “Social media has been for me, mostly a boon, connecting me on a regular basis with friends who I don’t get to see in person very often.
“Of course, there’s ugliness on social media. Hate can thrive there as much as beauty and friendship,” she says. “Trolls can make the experience of interacting on Twitter and Facebook, a horror.”