Bird Land

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.

All Things Being Equinox

The weather around here has been appropriately gloomy for the autumnal equinox.  Although Hurricane Florence gave us a day of rain, the heavy clouds have been part of a pattern that has held largely since May.  Given the gray skies, we opted to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds last night.  My wife isn’t a horror fan, but she does like Hitch.  We’ve watched The Birds together many times, but this is the first time since I wrote Holy Horror.  I was somewhat surprised to recall how much Scripture plays into the script.  This is mostly due to a drunken doomsday sayer in the diner.  After the attack on the school kids of Bodega Bay, he declares that it’s the end of the world and begins citing the Bible.  He’s there for comic relief, but the way the movie ends he could be right.

When I was writing Holy Horror I had a few moments of panic myself.  Had I found all the horror films with the Bible in them?  Could anyone do so (without an academic job and perhaps a grant to take time off to watch movies)?  I eventually realized that I was merely providing a sample in that analysis.  Several weeks after I submitted the manuscript I watched The Blair Witch Project.  There was the Bible.  The same thing happened last night under a glowering late September sky.  The Birds has the Bible.  Two weeks ago I saw The Nun; well, that one’s almost cheating.  But you get the picture—the Good Book appears rather frequently in horror.  That’s what inspired me to write the book in the first place.

Now that nights are longer, and cooler, the grass has somewhat poignantly relinquished its aggressive summer growth.  Most of the ailanthus trees have been cut down (I must be part lumberjack).  My outside hours are limited not only by work but by the fading light.  In the words of the sage, “winter’s tuning up.”  We moved to a house we saw in the spring as days were lengthening.  Now we’ve come to the dividing line that will slowly leech the light from our evening skies.  I suspect that as I go back and watch some of my old favorites again I’ll discover something I already knew.  The Bible and horror belong together because both are means of coping with the darkness.  Call it puerile if you will, but there is something profound about this connection.  It just has to be dark for you to see it.

A Kind of Happening

The roofers were here.  One of the things you learn only after laying down a ton of money is that those selling a house like to withhold information.  Moving during one of the rainiest summers in history, we naturally discovered leaks.  And so the roofers are here, like noisy angels banging above my head.  Given the orientation of our house, their access is outside the window of my work office.  I figured it was an opportunity to learn.  As the old shingles came raining down, however, I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening.  One of his more disappointing efforts, this horror film involved a memorable scene of mass suicide where people jumped off of a high building one after another.  Maybe other people would think of other comparisons, but the falling debris brought the film to mind in my case.

It’s a matter of framing, I suppose.  I’ve watched enough horror that it has become a framing device.  This is true although it has literally been months since I’ve seen a horror film.  (Moving proved to be its own kind of nightmare and one day I suspect we’ll be unpacked enough to watch movies again.)  Instead of losing the frame of reference, however, I find it intact.  If you spend long enough with Poe, he gets under your skin.  And changing states to M. Night Shyamalan’s eastern Pennsylvania might have something to do with it.  This is Bucks County territory, after all.  Another frame of reference, mediated by media.

As I watch the old shingles drop, I realize the window through which I’m witnessing this is another frame.  Like a camera lens, it limits my view.  At times it can be like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, seeing neighbors at their daily business.   Indulge me. For nearly the past five years I worked in a cubicle with no view of any windows whatsoever.  I was completely cut off from the outside.  (Which, for those of you who’ll admit to having seen The Happening, might not have been an entirely bad thing.)  Now that I have a window—my own framing device—I realize some of what I’d been missing.  At Routledge I had a window, but at such a level that the Manhattan outside seemed artificial.  You couldn’t see individuals down on the street.  The entire wall was a window—too much of a frame.  Gorgias Press involved working in a windowless room as well.  I’m professional enough not to let the falling material or the pounding distract me much.  There’s work to do because there are bills to pay.  And horror films prepared me for that as well.  It’s the ultimate framing device.

Birds of a Fang Suck Together

It reads like a cross between a Hitchcock movie and a Lovecraft story — paleontologists have unearthed a fanged bird fossil from the Cretaceous Era. Despite the cartoonish images this news flashes into my head, the startling find also suggests that this turkey-sized predator was also venomous. The first known ancestor to the avian family that used poison to immobilize its victims. A venomous bird.

Don’t let the cherubic Sinornithosaurus fool you! (From Wiki Commons)

Martin Luther is rumored to have said that you can’t prevent birds from flying over your head, (but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair). This new discovery suggests that there might be poisonous birds hovering around out there. And of course, Creationists must make room on the ark for this extraordinary creature. Since all critters, according to Genesis, were on the ark, our Sinornithosaurus must have lurked in some dark corner. I wonder how old Noah classified them — were they nestled among the birds or were they roaming about in the dinosaur wing? These toothy pterosaur wannabes were closely related to the velociraptors and microraptors that once served as the tetrapod mosquitoes of the Cretaceous Park world, stealth biters who’d glide down upon you undetected. The Creationists railing against transitional forms are scratching their theologically inclined heads.

I welcome the discovery like an early holiday gift. Although no one will ever see a living poisonous reptilian turkey soaring down from a Cretaceous canopy, we can all wonder and imagine. Fangs bared, venom dripping, it drops into our comfortable world and makes us reconsider. Apparently poisonous birds did not make the evolutionary cut, but I, for one, will be keeping a closer eye on the sky when I’m out in the woods or jogging around town early in the morning.

For the Love of Aqhat

It seems that a new season of The Simpsons is upon us. With the release of season twelve on DVD last week, recession-ridden families everywhere are piling up on their couches to be entertained. Initially I had a hard time accepting The Simpsons; I had seen too many failed adult cartoons to give me much encouragement that this would be something worth wasting my time on. Surprisingly, it became clear after just a couple of seasons that The Simpsons was witty, smart, and surprisingly ethical. This final point was so pronounced that Mark Pinsky wrote a book focusing on it entitled The Gospel According to The Simpsons (Westminster John Knox, 2001). As to be expected in a book with a foreword by Tony Campolo, it was a little devious, but still retained a kind of sugar coating. Nevertheless, I found the book worth reading.

Bart after the birds?

Bart after the birds?

The Simpsons frequently pokes fun at all of us who take ourselves too seriously. Most of the time it is evident that the writers have done their homework as well, pulling in sometimes obscure references to classical or biblical literature. Recently while watching the episode entitled “Bart the Mother” I was struck by an ancient theme which was surely accidental. In the episode, Bart, trying to prove himself to the neighborhood bully, shoots a mother bird with a b-b gun. Guilt immediately sets in and Bart is haunted by his cold-blooded act. In a dream he sees a bird tribunal doling out the punishment for his crime — having his face pecked off. I’m sure this owes more to Hitchcock than to Ugarit, but I can’t help shaking the idea that the scene is somehow informed by the Epic of Aqhat. In one of Ugarit’s classic stories, Aqhat is given a divine bow that is coveted by the goddess Anat. When he won’t relinquish it, Anat has Aqhat pecked to death by raptors, “twice upon the noggin, thrice upon the ear!” Ugarit remains shrouded in cultural obscurity, so no easy cultural reference can point to it. Everyone has seen Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The story of Aqhat, although sadly broken, is a classic of ancient literature. So much more to pity is that it remains nearly as unknown today as it was while buried under the ground for three and a half thousand years. A colleague of mine approached Penguin a few years back trying to pitch the idea that they sell a translation of the Ugaritic texts in their classics series. They flatly turned him down on the basis of “no public interest.” If the publishers won’t put these world heritage classics out there, how will there ever be interest generated? Perhaps those of us bitten by the Ugaritic bug simply circulate in circles too small to have any impact on what the world thinks. Beyond a few souvenir-hawking vendors in Syria and a few crusty scholars sheltered away in dusty academic libraries, nobody knows the story. It seems that Aqhat’s fate is equally grim — pecked to death by birds and completely forgotten because the story just doesn’t possess sales potential.