FOR a while now, I’ve been thinking about lost books.
By ‘lost’, I don’t mean volumes that I’ve misplaced. Or, for that matter, mysterious, missing books of the kind fin de siècle Decadents and occultists believed contained secret and all-powerful lore.
What I have in mind are books that ought to be to hand – in shops and on library shelves, yet (for a variety of reasons) aren’t. It worries me when I think a writer of quality or distinctiveness may be falling from the page. Before now, I’ve tried to speak up for Walter de la Mare, for example, and the all-but-vanished L.A.G. Strong, author of the striking short story ‘The Rook’ (perhaps a fitting reference given our subject).
Writers of much more recent work can, it seems, also become (if not altogether buried then) obscured in a literary landscape where publishers seem to either pursue safe bets or chase the fashionable, with the result that many contemporary books can seem drab and cut from the same cloth.
I heard mention of The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory some five or so years ago. It raised its head – in fleeting, off-topic fashion – in a class in creative non-fiction on a master’s course I was attending.
Intrigued, I called into the campus library – a large one – hoping to find a copy. A brief reference surfaced on a computer screen, confirming its existence. But the library did not hold a copy.
With an abundance of reading to be done, I thought no more about the book and left it… somewhere offshore.
A paperback has now been published in the UK by Parthian, a press in Wales, where the novel is set.
First published in 1986, the story tells of the move by an English family to an inherited cottage in Snowdonia, where – under the terms of an uncle’s will – they’re instructed to take care of a cormorant… that dark-feathered, prominent-billed breed of marine avian sometimes called a sea-crow.
The bird ‘belonged’ – after a fashion – to the uncle, having been rescued by him from drowning in estuarial waters on the eastern side of England.
The novel opens with its arrival in a crate at the young family’s snug and cosy cottage (whose bricks and mortar are theirs to keep – as long as they keep the cormorant).
The vivid and tumultuous opening scene in the cottage’s living room had me wondering what might become of this relationship.
I hope I’m not giving too much away when I speak of the novel as being closer to Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds (one powerful early passage by Gregory describes a strange summoning of seabirds to the backyard of the cottage – flocking, as if at the cormorant’s behest) than, say, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. (The Parthian edition is, in any case, tagged on its cover as a ‘terror story’, in an approving quote from The New York Times, no less.)
Without getting into ‘spoiler’ territory, I feel it’s important to point out that the relationship between the family and the bird is not one of fixed hostility. The fluctuating nature of this association – there’s even warmth, at times – is one of the novel’s strengths.
But there is no sentimental anthropomorphism here. Although the bird has a name – Archie – it is always an ‘it’. And ‘it’ defecates – a lot.
The story is narrated first person by the husband (who’s the bird’s principal guardian – he and his wife having thrown-in their teaching jobs in England for new lives in north Wales).
It’s a book that includes some entrancing writing.
There are accounts of Archie’s earlier days, pre-Wales (‘The bubble-beaded pursuit of dabs in the waters of the Ouse’), hunts for fish in the Menai Straits (‘It set off from the beach in determined fashion, as though late for an appointment, swimming low in the water, the beak tilted slightly upwards. Away from the land, it began to dive, shooting smoothly from the surface, clear of the water for a split-second, before vanishing without a ripple. Thirty seconds later, I saw the bird reappear…) and winter snow in the village in which the family sets up home (‘the blizzard outside grew and grew and engulfed the land. It wrapped its heavy white arms around the mountains and squeezed. The forest whimpered under the pressure of the polar bear’s hugging. 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 drystone walls. All this was erased by the deadening blanket of snow.’).
Indeed, this is a book that ought to appeal to readers beyond enthusiasts for horror fiction. There are rich rewards to be had for those who like to read about Nature – land, sea and riverscapes – as well as those who simply like fine writing, which this certainly is: literary fiction of the clear and accessible kind.
As with the best horror, there’s a pleasing thread of mystery. Our attention is drawn to a shadowy, cigar-smoking figure seemingly spying on the cormorant and its keeper, from the battlements of Caernarfon Castle (a fortress, it might be mentioned, with an ‘Eagle Tower’ – below).
There’s a strong psychological element. The husband and wife have a toddler son, who seems to come under the cormorant’s spell.
And there’s humour, of the sort that sometimes can’t be stifled in moments of shock and embarrassment, as when, for example, on Christmas Day, the family’s post-prandial nap – with guests also nodding-off – is rudely – and bloodily – interrupted: a Christmas Day to remember (not so much for the turkey, as for the cormorant).
(Continued next column)