If you haven’t read Daphne du Maurier’s short story, The Birds, you haven’t begun to see just how creepy an ordinary thing can be. This technique is sometimes called “The Freudian uncanny” – a way of investing ordinary things with creeping horror. Many writers have done it (including Ray Bradbury with tennis shoes, a children’s swing set, etc.) but du Maurier does it with absolute conviction and a terrible elan.
Anyone who knows The Birds at all is probably thinking of the noir 1963 film by Alfred Hitchcock, which is set in gentle, sunny California. The author intended to set the story in a place far from help or solace: It’s set on a wild Cornish coastline of blank fields and isolated farmhouses, set far apart. If you’re running from something – as the farmer Nat Hocken learns – you’ve got to run a long way before you come to shelter.
The story is this: Birds start to attack people. Birds are eminently suited to the task, light, powerful, sturdy little dinosaurs with sharp beaks and claws and the advantage of stealth and flight. They go for eyes and throats and, when they can’t trap people outside, they determinedly hack away at wooden siding and break through window glass. The writer wonders “what million years of memory” have finally turned them against mankind.
Du Maurier, best known for the dark classic Rebecca, was, she told a friend only happy “in the middle of Dartmoor in a hail storm within an hour of sundown of a late November afternoon.” I confess that I have some of the same leanings: Give me a dark and stormy afternoon and I fairly purr.
Here’s a link to another story by this maestra: It’s called ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger.’ Not many people are familiar with it, but it flip-flops the paradigm of the sweet little shop girl in a delightfully terrible way.
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