Poe’s Raven. The Birds in Hitchcock’s film of du Maurier’s story. Harry Potter’s Hedwig. Isabeau from Ladyhawk. Memorable birds from fiction and film that are now joined by a new flock of feathered friends. Black Feathers—Dark Avian Tales is an anthology compiled by the illustrious Ellen Datlow. The stories generally embrace the theme, but some adhere closer to it than others. Among those that did, five have been selected for discussion in this review.
Horror readers who are owl fanciers will shriek with terror and delight at Nicholas Royle’s “The Obscure Bird.” A man who ardently admires owls comes to identify closely with them. This is a head-turning shocker of a story, and to reveal too much about it would take away from the pleasure of the reading experience.
“Pigeon from Hell,” by Stephen Graham Jones, is a truncated titular homage to Robert E. Howard’s 1938 classic “Pigeons from Hell,” but has little else in common. Writer Jones gets underneath the skin of guilt. And the moral repercussions that happen when the primary culpable party successfully covers her derrière. A child dies in an accident, which provides lots of opportunities for remorse. The litanies of “if only” or “had I acted differently…” are psychologically endless. As the self-tormented protagonist states, “You don’t have to die to become a ghost.”
A kid’s death is also a motivator in the brilliant “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” by Seanan McGuire. An autistic savant counts corvids as a grounding mechanism. Her one source of human connection is her younger brother. He irons out the wrinkles in her ability to cope. When she is deprived of his support, she responds to what’s left of her world in an unconventional manner.
“Great Blue Heron,” by the always fabulous Joyce Carol Oates, feels like a trip into Daphne du Maurier country. And that’s a very good thing. A widow is plagued by those around her to do what’s socially acceptable in response to her loss. The beleaguerers’ strategy doesn’t offer latitude regarding what’s expected of a bereaved wife. Her brother-in-law has added expectations. A great blue heron represents to the widow all that she craves to be: a soaring and predatory creature of nature. The symbolism asserts itself into a defiance that offers a tenuous hope; a grasping at straws before the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Most of us can relate at least a tinge to this: “Consciousness is too painful a razor’s edge drawn against an eye—never are you prepared for what you might see.”
The final story in the collection is “The Crow Palace” by Priya Sharma. It’s a superbly executed avian riff on folklore. Julie has grown up remote and detached. She has feelings for her twin sister, who suffers from cerebral palsy, but even that sympathy is qualified. Julie’s parents were fanatic bird appreciators, fiercely bent on providing hospitable environs for the garden birds. Only at the denouement does Julie comprehend why. As noted from the opening lines: “Birds are tricksters. Being small necessitates all kinds of wiles to survive but Cordivae, in all their glory as the raven, rook, jay, magpie, jackdaw, and crow have greater ambitions than that.”
Featuring predominantly new works, Black Feathers—Dark Avian Tales consists of 15 stories and one poem. Published by Pegasus Books, the compilation takes the reader on riveting macabre flights of fantasy that address winged victories and human fallacies.