Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Perhaps . . . a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning."

Aside from John Bellairs, I don't think any writer cost me more childhood sleep than Robert Arthur. Arthur wrote ghost stories and mysteries, as well as episodes of the suspense radio drama "The Mysterious Traveler," but it wasn't his own works, good as they were, that kept me up at night. Rather, it was his work as a unnamed editor of a legion of Alfred Hitchcock anthologies from the 1950s and '60s--especially a series of anthologies aimed at young readers that were republished in the early 1980s. Through those volumes I made acquaintance with any number of writers whose works I've continued to enjoy through the years, including Lord Dunsany, Agatha Christie, E. F. Benson, Eric Ambler, Shirley Jackson, Robert Bloch, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ray Bradbury.

But the story that affected me the most, read first when I was about ten and turned to again and again over the next several years, was Daphne du Maurier's "The Birds." Long before I saw the movie--which, when I did finally watch it, disappointed me greatly--I read and re-read "The Birds," to the point where I knew large stretches of it by heart.

Why did I fixate on this story, of all the stories in the volumes, many of which were far more blatantly creepy or surprising? I think it's likely that I was responding to rural isolation of the Cornish farming community that du Maurier portrays so well, the sense that, when nature unexpectedly--and inexplicably--turns against farmhand Nat Hocken and his family, they have little to fall back on but themselves. Though the rural landscape in which I grew up possessed none of the dramatic wildness of the Cornish seascape of du Maurier's story, there was always a similar sense, even in the age of television, that we were at the edge of the world, far from the important dealings and decisions of big cities. So while there was much in the story I didn't even understand--I remember struggling with "pension," "council houses," and even "wireless" when I first read it--I instantly grasped the terror of feeling cut off from the world, and not having a reason to expect anything resembling rescue to come over the horizon.

And then there's du Maurier's relentless return to the physical, her foregrounding of sensation over theme or speculation. Though I was asked to do very little work on the farm as a boy (my father's memories of having to do too much work on the farm at that age having convinced him to shield us to some extent), I knew the bone-penetrating cold that could overtake you in a field in the bitterness of spring, which gave the opening of a passage like this a familiarity and force that then naturally carried over to its more gruesome aspects:
When he reached the beach below the headland he could scarcely stand, the force of the east wind was so strong. It hurt to draw breath, and his bare hands were blue. Never had he known such cold, not in all the bad winters he could remember. It was low tide. He crunched his way over the shingle to the softer sand and then, his back to the wind, ground a pit in the sand with his heel. He meant to drop the birds into it, but as he opened up the sack the force of the wind carried them, lifted them, as though in flight again, and they were blown away from him along the beach, tossed like feathers, spread and scattered, the bodies of the fifty frozen birds. There was something ugly in the sight. He did not like it. The dead birds were swept away from him by the wind.
Which suggests another reason this story stayed with me: death in "The Birds," whether avian or human, is concrete and horrible. It takes something beautiful and right--a living, moving, even graceful creature--and it replaces it with a broken thing, a perversion, an object of horror. It is irreversible, and, as the tension mounts, page by page, it seems increasingly inevitable. To a child, that knowledge is as chilling as anything. I read the story again and again, knowing the bleak ending would never change.

I recently reread "The Birds" for the first time in years, possibly even decades, in the new collection of du Maurier's short stories from the New York Review of Books, Don't Look Now (2008), and was pleased to find its power hasn't diminished. If anything, du Maurier's refusal to provide an explanation, or even to hint at one, impressed me more than it did years ago. And while it's unquestionably the best story in the collection, the whole volume is impressive. "Don't Look Now," on which the Nicholas Roeg film was based, is a tight, creepy suspense tale, while both "Split Second" and "Kiss Me Again, Stranger" reminded me of Muriel Spark's ghost stories. The most inventive story is also the most sadistically chilling: "The Blue Lenses," in which a woman who's just undergone eye surgery wakes to find that everyone has the head of an animal--and her husband's animal head is not one that inspires trust.

Aside from "The Birds," I think the last story in the collection, "Monte Verità," is the one most likely to stay with me. An almost novella-length tale of a pair of friends and the beautiful, ethereal woman they both loved and lost, it is shot through with longing and an almost naive mysticism, a willingness to believe that the hidden places of the world and the bounds of human potential have not necessarily all been mapped. Its sense of interwar rootlessness brings to mind Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel writings, and it is told with an asperity and patience that seem suitable to its remote mountain setting.
They told me afterwards they had found nothing. No trace of anyone, living or dead. Maddened by anger, and, I believe, by fear, they had succeeded at last at breaking into those forbidden walls, dreaded and shunned through countless years--to be met by silence.
Even though it's sitting on my shelf, safely bound, I think of "Monte Verità" as the sort of story you happen across in a magazine and are completely swept away by, your whole afternoon dissolved into its enchanting strangeness. But you fail to note the name of the author, and for years afterward, you mention it to friends here and there, breathlessly relating its seductions, but you never meet with anyone who recognizes it. You begin to doubt your own memory . . and then one day in a used bookshop, you pick up a musty anthology--maybe even a Hitchock anthology edited by Robert Arthur--and there it is, a treasure returned. A life of bookstore browsing offers few better moments.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

1 comment:

  1. There is a whole essay somewhere inside of me about Hitchcock's The Birds and how disappointing, boring, and cliched it seemed when I first saw it in high school: an Animal Attacks movie, and not a particularly gory one.

    Of course now I adore it. The awkward silences among the characters, the odd glares they give to each other, walking that line between camp and melodrama, or between camp and horror. Its complete rejection of the need for any central theme, or for any central metaphor. And of course I love the random brutality of it. I think it may be Hitchcock's most sadistic work, certainly his most misogynist. The way that Rod Taylor is more or less a big piece of walking cheese but all of the women wind up reduced to clinging to him in desperation for what seems to be no other reason than that he's the only man around. And how hesitant he seems in donning that mantle.

    Tippi is fucking fantastic in this movie - and even better in Marny, whose climax is, unfortunately, a bigger hunk of cheese than Rod Taylor.

    And that green Edith Head outfit with the matching purse. When are you getting me that Barbie doll?

    Or would my essay only be stating the obvious? In conclusion, I don't think I could possibly read the DuMaurier story upon which it is so loosely based.