Horla Review (April – May 2021)

 

‘Lost’ novel with cult following takes flight again 

MATTHEW G. REES on the new paperback edition of  ‘THE CORMORANT’ by STEPHEN GREGORY

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

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.)

Strengths

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).

Snow

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.  

Spell

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)

The great subtlety of this novel though is in the shifting relationship between the cormorant and its hosts (and the narrator, in particular).

I found myself thinking of such books as Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell and Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter.

Yet, all the while, Stephen Gregory – via his narrator – is busy fending off sentimentality – bargepole fashion – with pithy and scathing descriptions of the feathered protagonist: ‘malice of the sea crow… black, malignant priest… scavenging, unprincipled crow… a gangster of a creature… as ugly and as poisonous as a vampire bat’.

Warned

So that, even though we may think that at times we have entered calmer, warmer waters, we’re always being warned that something dark – and perhaps ultimately untameable – is submarining… and with who knows what intent?

Troubling for those who would prefer to see the world – and cormorants – in a simple beauty versus beast… good versus evil way, is the strange magnificence of the bird: its plumage not, as some might think, feathers of a single colour but, in fact, painted from a complex palette. There is also its awesome, scientific precision as a swimming and fishing machine (the latter being something I remember from my days as a newspaper journalist, receiving not infrequent ‘distress calls’ from the owner of a salmon-fishing beat on the River Wye, in the Welsh borders, protesting – rightly or wrongly – that cormorants were plundering the river’s fish stocks).

Film

Gregory’s novel is a relatively short one of just under 150 pages: tightly-drilled and intimate. It won him the Somerset Maughan Award in 1987. In 1993 it was made into a television film by the BBC (the publicity for which I vaguely remember, though I didn’t catch the screening).

This edition has an introduction written by Gregory in 2013. (It indicates he wasn’t entirely happy with what seems – in his eyes – to have been the film’s rather soft focus treatment of the story.) In his note, he mentions a previous reviewer describing the book as a fusion of Stephen King and the English nature-poet Ted Hughes. I would agree with that. (Hughes, in fact, wrote a poem, ‘A Cormorant’: ‘Here before me, snake-head… A deep-sea diver in two inches of water’.)

Gregory (pictured recently, below) describes his novel as ‘a brooding, confronting tale perhaps too uncomfortable for a squeamish reader’. I think that’s fair comment also. But it needs to be said that, while there are raw, bloody, brutal and cruel moments in this book, there is poignancy, tenderness and insight, too.

Competing contradictions are a theme, reflecting what Gregory points out to be ‘the paradox of the bird, its dual nature… its satanic silhouette’ (standing on rocks) ‘… its silvery sleekness’ (diving and hunting underwater).

He adds that in novels written since, he’s seen his mission as attempting ‘to capture the essence of other creatures as a way to open up the flaws and weaknesses of my human characters’. This also seems to me a fair way of summarising what’s at the heart of The Cormorant. It’s the human characters and particularly Archie’s keeper, the narrator, who are on trial… not Archie, the cormorant.

Trial

For obvious reasons, I won’t discuss the ending, save to say that it’s a powerful piece of writing. 

One pleasure of the book is the story’s plausibility. A cormorant in the backyard (albeit kept in a reinforced pen) at first seems truly outlandish. Perhaps it is. But I can remember, when I was growing up, a boy who had a fox. I can vaguely recall another with an owl. I had a pen of poultry of a more conventional kind, albeit their number did include a great and muscular gander, whose fierce, honking charges were very much best avoided: its manner only seemed to mellow when it was eating. Gander to cormorant doesn’t seem too big a leap of faith. I also remember – as a newspaper reporter – writing a story about a group of lads from Bristol, in the English West Country, who’d become separated from a ‘pet’ hawk that had been startled on high ground near Kington, in the Welsh Marches, until the bird and boys later somehow re-found one another.

I’ve found myself wondering if the book wasn’t inspired by an actual cormorant or some other avian – perhaps a gull or hawk – that its author knew or knew of. The seedling, according to Gregory’s introduction, seems to have been another item of fiction – an earlier short story by him, about a pub landlord with such a ‘pet’.

The only ‘fact’ in The Cormorant that I was faintly doubtful of concerned a coach said to run from Derby (in the English East Midlands) to Caernarfon (on the coast of north-west Wales). Perhaps public transport was better back then – in the 1980s. (I stand to be corrected.)

To conclude, I’m very glad that I finally caught up with this novel.

The prefatory notes state that Gregory and his wife Chris are re-building an 18-th century fortified farmhouse beside the River Vienne in France.

I hope that he’s finding time to write.

For The Cormorant is surely a modern classic.

This new paperback will, I hope, reach many readers. Well done Parthian Books and volume editor Carly Holmes. And thank you, Stephen Gregory. 

The Cormorant has been published in paperback by Parthian Books, price £8.99 www.parthianbooks.com/products/the-cormorant

***

Matthew G. Rees is the author of Keyhole (Three Impostors press, 2019), a collection of short stories tending to the supernatural and the liminal set in Wales and its borderlands. He explored the influence of mentally-held imagery on the writing of short fiction in a PhD at the University of Swansea. His most recent collection is Smoke House & Other Stories. He currently lives in Wales. www.matthewgrees.com

Image credit: left column image of cormorant by Sourab Biswas via  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International