The Birds, The Birds, and No More Birds

In early April I’m releasing another ebook into the wild, Volume 2 of my Dark Matters series. It’s called ABSENCES, and as with most of the titles I’ve published this year, it contains a pair of themed stories. In this case the theme is apocalyptic… more or less.

I want to stake a claim for a sub-genre (or maybe a side-genre) of post-apocalyptic fiction by naming it, so I’m inventing a portmanteau word to describe these two stories (here, if not on the cover…):

Intrapocalyptic”

These are tales about the world as it is ending: not after the apocalypse, but during it. I don’t mean to claim that I’m the first to write such a thing, of course, but I think there is an important difference between the situations.

As you might guess from the title, the stories in this book focus on loss – something that is very much at the heart of post-apocalyptic fiction. But coming to terms with what has been lost is not the same as discovering that unexpected absence, searching in vain, facing the hard truth.

The first story in ABSENCES was partly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror movie The Birds. I wanted to write an homage to his work, but also something that contradicted it. In my story, The lines, the trees, the cliffs, the eaves, the issue isn’t that the birds have gone homicidally insane: it’s that all the birds have vanished, and when confronted with this impossible, inexplicable loss humans start to lose their minds instead.

Before writing this post, I read Daphne du Maurier’s quite brilliant source story for the very first time. Then I watched Hitchcock’s film, probably for the first time as an adult, certainly the first time in decades. My recollections of the movie were hazy outside of the central concept, but I was surprised by how different it was from my expectations, and in where its power lay by comparison to the story.

du Maurier’s The Birds is what I will now label forever a perfect “intrapocalyptic” story. It is solely focused on the beginning of a large and lasting process, exploring how one man and his family discover and are confronted by the prospect of a terrible, challenging future – but it doesn’t explore that future for us. It gives us the traumas of the first clash, hints at the crumbling of the world we know, shows the hero reacting and making preparations for survival, his plans for the struggle to come. But it ends with all that future left open and unexplored. This isolated family are not yet post-apocalypse. They will be soon enough, but that’s another story.

Hitchcock’s The Birds is something else – not least because [spoiler coming] we are told pretty definitively that this isn’t the end of the world at all, which made the otherwise tense final minutes also, for me, disappointingly anti-climactic. The open-ended finish that worked so well with du Maurier’s story felt flat and dull in Hitchcock’s final frames [spoiler been and gone]. Instead, what struck me most about the film was all the strong female characters – and all their negative aspects. This is the best kind of strength in female characterisation: not just meaningless ass-kicking pseudo-manishness (ridiculous enough in itself), but depth.

With the exception of Mitch’s straightforwardly happy younger sister Cathy, almost every woman in the film is noticeably flawed, the principles especially: Lydia, the superior and jealous mother (still wounded by widowhood); Annie, the half-reconciled, half-smarting ex-girlfriend, happy to help a rival (first into Lydia’s line of fire, but later more genuinely with well-meant advice); and then there’s wealthy socialite Melanie, who takes pleasure in playing trivial tricks, wants to be taken seriously but rarely does anything to deserve it until circumstances present her with an opportunity to demonstrate she’s more than what she appears. Really, the whole film is about the women. Poor Rod Taylor there is just eye-candy with a strong chin, flapping back at the bad-guys while the ladies wisely duck…

…until they don’t. Rich as I thought the female characters were on the whole, there were a few beats in the film that I found problematic. Melanie’s entering the room filled with birds late on seemed like it represented an urge to self-punishment, which I thought was bad fit – a choice forced on her by writer and director, perhaps to reprimand her for being so independent, to make her need Big Mitch, to soften her up, so she could pliantly plug the gap in his family unit.

In the great documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Zizek (whom I’d happily unleash upon any subject and listen) made some observations about The Birds struck a chord for me in relation to what I attempted to do with my story: express something powerful through a radical altering of reality. He argues Hitchcock’s raging birds are an embodiment of subconscious passions; I wanted the absence of them to reflect, and inspire, anxiety and madness.

The lines, the trees, the cliffs, the eaves let me do what I wanted: play off the themes of The Birds as a salute to one of my favourite directors. However, to my surprise the other story in my ebook may have more in common with Hitchcock’s version of du Maurier’s tale. It’s called The Blade, and I’ll talk about its intrapocalyptic inspiration in my next post. Hope you’ll read it.

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