When Uncle Ian dies, he leaves a nephew his cottage in Wales along with the stipulation that his nephew look after his prized bird. This is the opportunity the family has been looking for, to leave behind lives as teachers—professions they hated—and to pursue new lives out in the middle of nowhere. When they aren’t busy trying to write a history book, waiting at a local pub, or tending toddler Harry, they can suck all that is the marrow from life . . . or so they believe. This dream starts to come apart when the box containing the bird arrives, and their charge is revealed. No parrot or canary, Uncle Ian rescued a water fowl: the titular cormorant. When the box holding the bird first cracks open, the occupant gives them a taste of the responsibility they’ve accepted by going absolutely nuts in their cottage’s living room. It breaks things, scares their cat, and bites people. All the while, it jets streamers of feces all over everything. As the narrative progresses, the cormorant will become something more to each of the family members, it will become a menace to wife Ann, a weird little companion to the unnamed narrator husband (he even calls the bird Archie), and an object of purest fascination for young Harry. What begins with a scene of gross out comedy that plenty of filmmakers would give their eyeteeth to be able to lens soon turns into a rather wry and chilling psychological exercise. One part realism and one part psychological horror story, THE CORMORANT is a canny example of fiction that slips weird elements into the everyday and remains ambiguous as to whether or not the supernatural has actually intruded upon the seemingly normal or if a series of strange coincidences have been at work . . .
Stephen Gregory’s first novel shows the author’s gift for controlled prose. This is perhaps a tad surprising, given the novel’s initial release during the heydays of the horror boom—this sucker was first published in 1986, after all, and it fits the bill of some of the paperback originals at the time: a family moves to a small town only to be confronted by a strange creature tied to their history, and soon enough the family threatens to come apart at the seams. This is the sort of storyline that Zebra Books authors would have field days exploiting to gruesome effect. It feeds from the same inspiration spring that led to many a Stephen King knockoff of small town horror, so one could imagine it will become a grand guignol in no time flat.
Instead, Gregory delivers an understated and psychologically rich story about a husband’s tattering relationship with his wife and son, the strange bonds that develop between black sheep family members, and the seductive power an intrusive element can have in pulling the frayed edges of a marriage or sanity apart.
This is not to say there is no grand guignol. That shows up in the vast quantities of bodily fluids sprayed and splattered in the pages. Not blood and guts, this is more often bodily waste. Birds have no sphincter muscles, after all; they lack the control required to hold their shit and piss and therefore let fly whenever the need arises. In the pages of Gregory’s first novel, the need arises pretty often. This becomes part and parcel of the bird’s character, of course, as is made evident when we learn the history between deceased Uncle Ian and his pet.
It began with the man rescuing the bird from an estuary, looking after it. At first the cormorant was grateful for the man’s efforts, but once it regained its strength, the bird changed its character:
Where it had at first been passive, it grew demanding and rude, aiming its murder-beak at the hands of the old man who proffered fish and meat. By the spring, it was as arrogant and vicious and unpredictable, as preoccupied with the business of eating and shouting and shitting as any first-year cormorant. Ian doted on the bird. It seemed to him to have many of the characteristics of his colleagues in the staffroom and the pupils that he taught, yet without the hypocrisy which threw up a veneer of good manners. The cormorant was a lout, a glutton, an ignorant tyrant. It affected nothing else. (8)
In this early piece, we glean some elements that will come to haunt the narrative. Uncle Ian and the narrator are either both cut from similar cloth or the narrator is projecting elements of himself onto his deceased relation. The narrator will come to dote on the bird, as well. He will come to enjoy how unpretentious and raw the bird can be, and whether this shift in him is due to some external force—the dead Uncle exerting some kind of influence over him or the bird itself utilizing some kind of weird power—or it is due to internal factors that have been present all along, ticking away like some psychological time bomb is a matter of interpretation.
Only one thing is for certain: Gregory’s narrator is unreliable at best. All the information we learn comes through the medium of a first person narration, and though our narrator is himself obsessed with documented facts—he writes histories after all—even the best researched history is slanted through perspective. That old chestnut about victors writing history applies to both the work the narrator participates in as well as this novel. Once we reach the conclusion, which includes a few shocks along the way, we get to recontextualize the information we received in the beginning, seeing how some of the otherworldly elements could be little more than exaggerations or even outright lies to soothe a bruised psychology. Not only victors write histories, it turns out; survivors do as well.
Gregory’s prose is doom laden, rich with foreshadowing, and structured with a subtle but nevertheless clever mounting of incident and event toward the novel’s emotional payoff. While reading along, we get a sense of an inescapable fate at work here, and why shouldn’t that be the case? When reviewing the incidents leading up to a horror story’s payoff from the perspective of the subject of that payoff, everything would seem to clue a mind in to the outcome. The human mind is extraordinary at recognizing patterns out of seemingly unrelated materials, and if no patterns exist, the human mind is just as versed in making patterns whole cloth. As a species, we like to see a chain of events, a ladder leading toward those acts of greatness or destruction, and this is nevermore the case than in a piece of horror fiction. The randomness of our own universe gets to be recast into something “believable” achieving a verisimilitude that allows a reader to say, “This follows.”
Gregory understands this need for verisimilitude, and his novel builds incident upon incident like accruing evidence for a trial. The narrator opens not with family bliss or a situation normal, he starts with the arrival of the box holding the bird as well as its subsequent release and terrorizing of family and their cat before backing up a bit to give us a view as to why such an event occurred in the first place. It makes for some gripping reading, of course. Later, the narrator presents his own mental shifts, his growing obsessions, his budding allegiance with the bird over his neighbors or even his own wife and child. The novel follows both the trajectories of a work of psychology gone wrong and possession, showing us how few differences there can be between these two states, and all the while it hints at something otherworldly. The smell of cigar smoke where there should be none, a half-seen figure prowling the cottage grounds or in the town, a midnight congregation of gulls in the yard swooping around the crate where the cormorant waits, and more.
The novel’s voice may be quiet as it treads into some exquisitely dark terrain. However, it is not single-minded in these efforts. Sure there is darkness, but there are also human moments such as where the narrator develops a rapport with the cormorant, teaching it to fish. Here, the bird seems almost to be a surrogate for his own son, since Harry is too young to learn such a thing from his Dad. There is a sexualized quality to some of these passages, as well, particularly when Ann watches the bird doing his hunting thing and has a little verbal ejaculation while on the rocks.
She sat on a dry rock and felt the December sun fall on her hands and on her face. She tasted the salt on her lips. Quite nearby, I was standing up to my ankles in the water, the line streamed out to sea and there was the black shadow of the cormorant, motionless for a second on the sparkling tide before it dived below the surface. Ann gasped. It was beautiful. Archie was suddenly different, moving across the gentle swell and diving like a knife into the green depths. The cormorant dropped its hooliganism and went hunting; its filthy manners were nothing but an affectation. We had known boys and girls in school who had been the same, wo adopted the armour of the gross and the crass, who spat and puked and blew their noses on the curtains to disguise a sensitivity which had once been highly prized. Archie performed. In the water, the cormorant was healthy, vigorous, clean.
‘Go on, Archie!’ Ann was calling out.
And when it surfaced, with a silver fish wiggling in its beak, she jumped up from her rock with a little cry. She called to me as I was drawing in the rope, and waved wildly.
‘Wonderful!’ she yelled, and I could see the welling of tears in her eyes. It had been just the same at school. (64-65)
Of course, at this point in the narrative, sex between the marrieds is nonexistent, efforts to rectify this interrupted by sinister incidents or by mundane exhaustion. Then again, this all comes through the lens of a narrator who is stacking the narrative deck, building his case, as it were.
The author abets such a stacking of the deck. However, he is also infusing his narrative with additional emotional outlets. As mentioned, this is not simply a horror tale that broods and broods until the final revelation. In addition to the aforementioned human moments, the initial chapters are not without their moments of humor. The whole first section, revealing the bird in its ballsy, bawdy grandeur is an exercise in humor turned ninety degrees. This section brought to mind one of the funniest short stories in the English language, P. G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves and the Impending Doom”, which finds poor Bertie Wooster chased onto a gazebo room by a crazed swan. However, Gregory’s keen skills turn the hyperbolic “Impending Doom” into something much more authentic and the bird into something more devious than a water fowl seeking shelter from the rain and irritated all to hell by a pair of careless Englishmen . . . This humor is often undercut by either violence or a jet of bird shit, but it’s there regardless.
Let me pause for a moment to consider the setting. The remote region of Snowdonia, Wales caught in the grips of the winter season are front and center here in the book. The prose emphasizes the cold in the air as well as the landscape. The countryside is both inviting and yet aloof not dissimilar to the folk who populate the town. The cottage’s neighbors are intrusive, well-meaning but intruders nevertheless. Of course, this is complemented by the visuals of a man walking a leashed cormorant like a dog around town, so perhaps there is no surprise the locals are a tad standoffish. Still, there is a keen sense of the sinister at play in the area. Eyes watch, whispers are passed, and the locals judge these folks who aren’t from around there . . .
And what about that bird? It gets the title spot. It is the inciting incident in this family’s life. It is a doom crying banshee whose very presence seems to brings tragedy to the family (as well as gallons of feces). Of course, it serves many roles in the work. It is an antagonist (perhaps THE antagonist), but it is also an apt metaphor for the protagonist. It is an earthy being as well as some kind of agent to the supernatural, both a connection to the departed Uncle Ian as well as a possible power in its own right (the narrator even compares it to Rasputin and Dracula at one point). It is a hunter, gliding through the water in search of fish and eels with ease. However, it is also a scavenger, pleased to get scraps from the hands of its master (as well as the occasional nip of the master himself). It is an undeniably masculine presence, and yet it displays some of the jealousy and negative qualities associated with antagonistic females in film and fiction as well as the occasional oddly maternal quality. The bird is a rich presence in the work, fat with meaning that begs exploration in a critical work.
It is perhaps impossible for someone to write a horror novel featuring a bird without being burdened with comparisons to Edgar Allen Poe. After all, “The Raven” is one of those central touchstones for the public’s perception of the horror genre. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the work under consideration today draws plenty of comparison to Poe’s works from various reviews. While Poe’s writings and Gregory’s novel share some fascination with psychology gone awry and a laser tight focus on the ultimate effect they are trying to achieve, this novel is not quite obsessed with the same things Poe’s works are obsessed with. There is no death of a beautiful girl, say, which Poe dedicated quite a bit of his stories and poems to. However, the unreliable narrator that Poe so excelled at penning is alive and well within the confines of this book. The anxious narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the one making his case in THE CORMORANT are both cuttings from a single tree, though Gregory invests his character with enough individuality to steer him well clear from becoming pastiche.
Needless to say, I was quite impressed with Gregory’s first novel. THE CORMORANT is one hell of a read, uneasy and disturbing but beautiful in its own fashion. It’s a book I highly recommend to those who enjoy slow burn reads and who are not afraid to plunge into the abyss. It may not have the action and spectacle found in horror cinema, but fans of Arthur Machen, Ramsey Campbell, Tim Lebbon, and Stephen Volk will find plenty to savor in this overlooked novel.
Next week, we will tackle one of the funniest Dortmunder books Westlake wrote: WHY ME? is a fresh spin on the very first novel, which finds the bewildered career criminal in possession of a stolen gem he just cannot seem to fence . . . WHY ME? is available in an eBook edition, thanks to the tireless people at Crossroads Press and MysteriousBooks.com.
Gregory, Stephen. The Cormorant. St. Martens Press: 1986.
“His Eyes Have All the Seeming of a Demon’s That Is Dreaming: Stephen Gregory’s The Cormorant” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Excerpts and cover image are taken from the Valancourt Books edition of the work, which was released in 2013.