Since I like to blog about books, my usual reading practice is to stick with a book once I start it. This can be problematic for short story collections because often there’s one in particular I want to read. Somewhat embarrassed about it, I have to confess that sometimes it’s because I saw the movie first. So it was with Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds.” Du Maurier, the daughter of a father who also wrote horror, caught Alfred Hitchcock’s attention. Several of his movies were based on her works. Not all of them can be called horror—a genre that’s difficult to pin down—but they deal with gothic and thriller themes that had an appeal for Hitch. In fact some analysts date the modern horror film to the period initiated by this iconic director.
I have a collection of du Maurier’s short stories, written in the day when 50 pages counted as a short story rather than “product” that could be “exploited” in various formats. (Today it’s not easy to find literary magazines that will publish anything over 3,000 words, or roughly 10–12 pages.) In any case, “The Birds” is an immersive tale. The movie is quite different, of course, set in America with a cast of characters that can only be described as, well, Hitchcockian. Du Maurier’s vision is much closer to the claustrophobic pandemic mindset. A single English family, poor, tenant farmers, far from the centers of commerce, must figure out how to survive the bird attacks on their own. The suddenly angry birds attack their hovel in time with the tides (they live near the coast) so the family has to gather supplies between attacks and try to last another night of pecking and clawing.
The story is quite effective. Reading it suggests the importance of self-reliance and willingness to accept a changed reality on its own terms. No explanation is given for the birds’ change of attitude. Human intervention in the environment is supposed but how would a simple family living of the fringes of the fabric woven by the wealthy know? Forced to react, they try to keep the kids calm while knowing, at some level, this can never end well. The movie maintains the ambiguous ending, which is probably what makes it so scary. Corvid or covid, there are things out there that drive us into our homes where we must shelter in place. Although I didn’t read the whole book, this choice of story seems strangely apt for the current circumstances.