New Welsh Review
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The cormorant is a strange-looking bird, with its thick, snaking neck; downturned, heavy prehistoric bill (yellow against the dark plumage) and blue-green sea-glass eyes. It is, of course, well known for its habit of hanging out its large goose-like wings to dry after diving for fish – a stance that can give it an otherworldly, oddly magisterial appearance. For novelist Stephen Gregory, the cormorant’s is a ‘satanic silhouette’, its spread wings a ‘cloak’. And, like the more familiar fauna of the gothic or supernatural tale – the owl, the bat, the moth, the raven – in Gregory’s 1986 horror novel, The Cormorant, in a new edition from Parthian, this bird becomes a kind of vessel or avatar of human, and particularly male, vulnerabilities, frustrations and fears.
At first, the novel’s first-person narrator appears, as he claims, ‘supernaturally lucky’. Disenchanted and unfulfilled in his life as a young husband, father and teacher in a secondary school in the English Midlands – ‘a double period of drama with thirty-five cynical adolescents’; ‘the suburban semi, the television, the lawnmower’ – he is bequeathed a cottage in mountainous north Wales by a solitary and eccentric uncle. The only condition is that he also adopts a cormorant that his uncle had found covered in oil and drowning in a river in Sussex, a year before his death. A friendship, the narrator speculates, without ‘the pitfalls of human companionship’.
Despite their apparently shared need to escape social interaction and find solace in wild locations and non-human creatures, however, both uncle and narrator succumb to the fundamental human need to relate – a need to know, define and understand the cormorant and its world, even if that knowledge is necessarily and limitingly humanin nature. Gregory’s narrator decides, for instance, that
The cormorant was a Heathcliff, a Rasputin, a Dracula. Or maybe it was just a sea-crow, corvus marinus, as the name suggested, just a scavenging, unprincipled crow. The name came to me in a flash: Archie. I would call the cormorant Archie. It was harsh, like the sound the bird repeatedly croaked. There was something cocky and irreverent about it.
There is also something vaguely comic about calling the bird Archie, who elsewhere is described as ‘a malignant priest’ with a ‘demonic arrogance’. And the novel is punctuated with blackly comic moments. Moreover, the narrator continues to both obsessively humanise the cormorant, and invest its wildness – its essential otherness – with a kind of paranormal malevolence. I regularly found myself feeling extremely sorry for the creature – for example, when the narrator concedes that ‘Archie looked vulnerable in its sleep: not a hunter or a stabber or an arrogant squirter of shit. Simply a bird, lost in dreams.’ His attitudes towards the cormorant are perhaps most damaging, however, to his sense of self and reality, and to his own ‘human companionships’ with his wife and toddler son, Harry. In this respect, Gregory makes effective use of the trope of the sinister or ‘possessed’ child, which has a long history in horror writing and cinema:
Harry bent for a moment at the foot of the [Christmas] tree, then he turned around with his prize. His face was ablaze, with a grin like a gash, his eyes were splinters of ice. And he lunged at me and Ann, jabbing us with his weapon.
It was a feather, a long, black feather, shot through with green and wet with shit.
Ann squealed and turned her face away, fending off her son with a cushion.
Gregory’s narrativeis often strikingly and atmospherically cinematic in its effects. And it is not surprising that the book caught the attention of director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin, when it was first published.
As Friedkin’s interest might suggest, there are some quite horrific and disturbing episodes in The Cormorant. But, as the author puts it in his Introduction, the novel is both ‘appealing and appalling’, capturing what he sees as ‘the paradox’ of the cormorant itself. Gregory’s prose, particularly when imagining the landscape of north Wales, has a quietly attentive, sensuous, almost reverent quality. The narrator observes a ‘mountain of slate with the feathery silhouettes of rowan’ where ‘a breeze moved the heads of the dry nettles’ and ‘the willowherb trembled’; ‘cries [of gulls] surging at my window like the surf on a shingle beach’; a fire’s ‘magic places, all the different shapes and colours, faces, animals birds’; ‘Autumn in the mountains, with its scent of pine resin’ where ‘the air clenched its fists’. These are haunted, elusive landscapes that are celebrated by people, and especially incomers such as the novel’s narrator, his uncle before him, the ‘English couples [in the village] who had fled the northern cities of England to find a cleaner and less frantic way of life in the Welsh hills’ – even, perhaps, Gregory himself – but which they feel they cannot fully grasp or comprehend. Ultimately, The Cormorant is much more than a horror story: it is a resonant meditation on relationships – with our inner worlds, with fellow humans, with other creatures – and with the environments that sustain us all.
Laura Wainwright is an independent academic and writer. She completed her PhD in English Literature at Cardiff University, and has published essays in the fields of Welsh writing in English and Modernism. Her latest book is New Territories in Modernism: Anglophone Welsh Writing, 1930–1949.