Review: A Strange Gift and a Ghostly Bird – Stephen Gregory’s ‘The Cormorant’
Horror is seldom a genre for the faint hearted. If you have trouble sleeping post a true horror read, it’s simply not for you. These were the exact thoughts I had when I started Stephen Gregory’s book, ‘The Cormorant.’ A bird that I had known very little about, the title made me wonder why an author would wish to write about it and what peculiar characteristics of the cormorant intrigued him sufficiently to build a horror tale around it.
The plot certainly pivots around this eccentric bird, previously owned and cared for by a figure named Uncle Ian and passed on to his nephew and their young family after his death. In exchange for providing shelter and a safe space for the bird, the family inherit a cozy but remote mountain-side cottage in north Wales which proves to be just what the couple needed to start afresh, leaving their mundane routines in the Midlands behind. But, caring for the cormorant was no joke and at every subtle twist and turn in the story, I found myself torn between feeling remorseful for the protagonist, his wife and the bird.
From the very beginning of the novel, the author does a splendid job of painting a picture of the countryside in the reader’s mind. His true love for nature is vastly evident in the way he sublimely describes the surroundings, efficaciously creating an atmosphere that’s simply perfect for the setting of the story. “The hills surrendered the definition of their contours, the sides of scree, the gullies thick with the skeletons of bracken, the fields strewn with boulders and scored with the tracery of the dry-stone walls.” I was effortlessly able to envisage the ambience in my mind through such well written imagery, it felt poetic in a way. Though the story had some unpleasant scenes that made me cringe with repulsion, the writing is so robust and convincing that it almost makes you forget those scenes, bringing you back to the setting with a bang!
I could not decide if the cleverly built plot made the magnificent cormorant seem rather horrid and hateful in the book or the unsympathetic attributes of the bird added to the brutality of the plot.
The story opens with the cormorant being delivered to the cottage on a crisp October evening. The nephew (protagonist) quickly takes it upon himself to feed and entertain the bird in whichever way he can, promising to keep it away from his wife and son. The wife takes no special interest in its arrival, dismissing it as an ugly and monstrous creature, a little too unusual for a pet. “The cormorant was a Heathcliff, a Rasputin, a Dracula.” It is kept in the family’s backyard in confinement, alongside a white crate and some straw for warmth. Sadly, no amount of warmth seems to abate the true and raw nature of the bird as it injures the author multiple times in the story.
I thoroughly enjoyed the odd and unvoiced yet budding relationship between the author and the cormorant as the story progresses. Undoubtedly, the bird is no tame pet but it brings you closer to wilderness, compelling you to delve deeper into the world of the cormorant and other aquatic birds such as itself, understand their traits and habits, comprehend their intelligence and appreciate their unique features. The author, too, is initially repelled by its violent behaviour but quickly tries to fix his perception of the bird by establishing daily contact through means of food and eventually, building a kind of friendship with the malevolent creature. He names it ‘Archie.’
Sensing the cormorant’s desperation for the outdoors, the author makes the bird his regular companion on his firewood collecting trips and occasionally takes the cormorant out to the beach to swim in the freezing waters and hunt for fish. Somewhere between the lines, an unusual and dependent relationship is formed between man and bird as the cormorant would bring the author gifts of eels and dabs while out in nature. He soon begins to understand the bird’s distinctive habits and judge its behaviour.
Though the storyline certainly builds an eerie atmosphere, the fascination that the bird holds for the couple’s young boy and a lingering, paranormal presence of uncle Ian intertwined with the frustration of the author and his wife is what made the book unputdownable for me.
I personally wouldn’t term the story as horror only because I failed to find any true element of horror in it but, it most definitely evokes a sense of creepiness that keeps you hooked till the very end. I would call it dark fiction.
Towards the end, the plot takes a grim and sinister turn as a series of unfortunate events unfold, spiraling into chaos, vividly constructed and well-written. The story may urge you to feel sorry for the family, especially the wife as she tries to keep her only child safe from a bird that she believes is a ‘killer,’ I was filled with nothing but grief for the cormorant.
Painfully mistaken and partially neglected, the poor cormorant was after all, a fish-eating bird which could not be trusted. “Archie had come from Sussex to the mountains of Wales, like an orphan, lost and hurt in the company of strangers.” Thrown into captivity and kept away from its natural habit in all sorts of weather, it was bound to show signs of malice and violence.
The bird was on its best behaviour and truly content when diving into the freezing waters and catching prey but, that joy was short lived. With a desire to suppress its natural instincts, the cormorant in Stephen Gregory’s story was simply an object of awe. I understood why the bird as well as the family acted in ways that they did in the novel but, I could not convince myself of the grotesque ending. It shook me to the core.
An artful blend of subtle horror and vivid imagery, I would suggest this brilliant book to anyone who is a nature lover and up for an exciting and evocative read with an expected ending that is rather open to interpretation.
The Cormorant is published by Parthian, and is available here or from your local bookshop
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