Book Review: Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales: An Anthology edited by Ellen Datlow

“With this anthology, Datlow has further cemented her reputation as an editor with an eye for quality and her finger on the pulse of the horror genre.”


If you ask most horror authors of any sub-genre which editor they would most like to work with, the name “Ellen Datlow” is almost always top of the list. With many years of experience in the publishing business and many, many awards (including multiple Hugo, Stoker, Shirley Jackson and International Horror Guild Awards) celebrating her editorial work with magazines such as OMNI and Event Horizon as well as over ninety anthologies, it is clear to see why she is held in such high regard. Indeed, the impending release of an anthology helmed by Datlow has become an event that horror fans everywhere anticipate with a fervent hunger. Here we take a look at her latest anthology featuring dark stories with an avian theme.

The anthology opens with a poem from Sandra Kasturi, a poet with two collections and work in various publications. ‘O Terrible Bird’ sets the tone for the book wonderfully well, describing the sinister side of the bird and hinting at their evolutionary path from those terrible lizards. The imagery employed by Kasturi in telling the story within the poem is vivid and striking.

In ‘The Obscure Bird’, author Nicholas Royle uses the ordinary and everyday midlife problems of a couple, Andrew and Gwen, as the perfect setting for this ultimately creepy tale. We know what kind of anthology this is, and we know that there is something more sinister lurking beneath this suburban setting. The strength of Royle’s story is his ability to lull the reader into a false sense of security before hitting them with the truly terrifying ending.

‘The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids’ by Seanan McGuire is told from the point of view of Brenda, a young girl who attributes special meanings to certain numbers.  If she counts a certain number of birds each day, it will determine what kind of day she will have. Forced to live by these rules, as well as the indifference of a step-father who sees her as a burden, she takes solace in the love of her younger half-brother. But what happens when she can no longer count on that grounding relationship? What happens when the numbers don’t add up? Another story that delivers a harrowing ending.

Paul Tremblay’s ‘Something About Birds’ veers into some weird territory. It begins with an interview between a mysterious and somewhat reclusive horror author and a hopeful online journalist with a horror website and a dream of leaving his day job behind. He thinks that an interview with the renowned author will open certain doors for him, but when he receives a special gift from his subject this leads him on a stranger and disturbing path. Tremblay intersperses the storyline of the interviewer with passages of the interview to heighten the tension and subtly hint at the creepy and weird finale.

One of the longer stories in the anthology, ‘Great Blue Heron’ by Joyce Carol Oates, also feels like one of the most personal. Claudia is a grief-stricken widow who wants nothing more than to be left alone in her home by the lake. Here she has her memories of better times with her husband, sharing a common interest in the wildlife of the lake. But she is harassed by her late husband’s brother, who claims to want to help, but who seems to have ulterior motives. The imagery and powerful description utilised by Oates add to the melancholy tone of the tale. We feel Claudia’s grief and we can’t help but care for her. Wonderfully rich storytelling.

‘The Season of the Raptors’ by Richard Bowes is another slightly strange story. It begins with the unnamed protagonist describing the appearance of a couple of mating Red Tail Hawks in New York one summer, to the delight of everyone. But it leads to some disturbing bird-related memories from earlier years; from an altercation between an eagle and a seagull on a childhood trip to visit some cousins, to a strange encounter in the apartment of a drug dealer when he is in college. Bowes links these seemingly unconnected memories together in a way in keeping with the weird tone of the story, leading to a satisfactorily weird ending.

Alison Littlewood’s ‘The Orphan Bird’ is about a young, reclusive artist by the name of Arnold who prefers solitude to society. Littlewood leads us to feel sorry for Arnold, perhaps even pity him given all that he has been through and the bullying he has had to endure. But this author knows what she is doing as the story soon takes a much more menacing turn. Littlewood utilises flashback scenes from Arnold’s childhood encounters with bullies to offer insight into the adult character, and this also works to help slowly build the dread and atmosphere of the story. The ending is also suitably haunting, leaving the reader squirming with unease.

The next story, by Jeffrey Ford, boasts one of the most enchanting titles. ‘The Murmurations of Vienna Von Drome’ seems to have a historical-fantasy setting, the city of Pellegran’s Knot, where the main modes of transportation are street car and horse and carriage. The main story is a mystery, but it is far from cosy, as a murderer seems to stalk the streets, brutally killing someone every few winters, and always in the most horrific way. The case falls to the narrator, an investigator for the constabulary, and the latest murder seems to have had a witness. But Vienna Von Drome doesn’t talk, allowing her pet starling, Mortimer, to talk for her. The hunt for ‘The Beast’ becomes a fixation for the investigator, his obsession captured wonderfully in Ford’s prose, as the story flies towards its thrilling finale.

‘Blyth’s Secret’ by Mike O’Driscoll is another harrowing tale that will leave the reader feeling uneasy. It opens with the protagonist, Wil, recalling the day he found his mother dead in the forest near their family home in Wales. Many years later, he returns to the house from an institution, the reason for his stay a mystery to the reader, yet hinted at later in the story. He is estranged from his father but has contact with his sister and her family. After a child goes missing in the forest, the police call at his door to see if he knows anything. It seems as though he does not, but he has ideas about using his research to communicate with corvids like his pet crow, Blyth, and others, to find out what happened to the boy. This is a very dark mystery and O’Driscoll isn’t afraid to shine a light on the gloomy nature of man to deliver a fine story.

‘The Fortune of Sparrows’ by Usman T. Malik takes place at an orphanage in Lahore, Pakistan that is ‘haunted by birds’. Told from the point of view of one of the inhabitants, the story revolves around one group of friends who are cared for at the orphanage before they are married off to suitable husbands. Malik weaves a wonderful tale of hidden doors and fortune-telling sparrows and strange dreams, all from the authentic voice of a young girl. Malik’s prose is dreamlike and his use of language is wonderful. Every character has a part to play, from the wise old woman to Mano, the wedding-cat. This is a very delightful story.

‘Pigeon from Hell’ by Stephen Graham Jones begins with the protagonist, an unnamed teenage babysitter, recounting the aftermath of a tragic accident and the details of the people involved and their dynamic, often complicated, relationships. We see the story unfold through the eyes of the babysitter, and Jones knows just how much detail to give the reader and the most effective possible time in the story, to keep us hooked. After we read her recollection of the actual night of the accident and the ensuing drama, we know the story isn’t going to have a happy ending, and Jones really ramps up the creepiness until the very last sentence. A superb story.

‘The Secret of Flight’ by A.C. Wise is the story of a seemingly cursed stage-play, the tragic past of its writer and the dramatic final scene. Wise adopts an epistolary structure to tell the story, using newspaper articles, scenes from the play and diary entries. Through these we see a dark tale of a troubled family and their nanny unfold, and how the story haunts one man for decades to come. Wise nails the voices of the characters and the tragic tone of the story, delivering a very effective and well-written tale.

Another addition of some length, ‘Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring’ by M. John Harrison tells the tragic love story of Isobel and delivery driver Mick. Harrison. Told from the point of view of Mick, from the first meeting it is clear that there is a spark between them. But Isobel seems to have body image issues and opts for surgery, which eventually leads to an experimental treatment involving avian chromosomes. Harrison uses the horror of the situation as a backdrop to the story, which is really the relationship between the two main characters. And he explores this dynamic wonderfully well, producing a very moving story.

In ‘A Little Bird Told Me’, Pat Cadigan blends elements of horror and fantasy to deliver a story about what happens to the soul when we die, and the people (the census-takers) who catalogue the dead for a higher power before the Reaper arrives. Told in first person from the point of view of one such census-taker, we see what happens when people try to cheat death and the important role that birds play. The author manages to pose some philosophical questions while telling a fascinating and entertaining story. Not an easy task, but one Cadigan manages with great style.

‘The Acid Test’ by Livia Llewellyn is the horrifying story of murder on a college campus told through a first person narrator who is tripping on acid throughout the story. Llewellyn opts to tell the story through poetic prose and very long sentences that meander and progress in a rhythmic way. At some moments it seems very much like a stream of consciousness as the protagonist tries to discern the real world from the disturbing visions she hopes are drug-induced. She follows as a friend disappears into the night with a strange man, and witnesses the horrific act which follows. But, as an unreliable narrator, can we trust any of the things that she sees? Llewellyn has managed to craft a compelling and terrifying tale which builds until the incredibly disturbing climax.

The final story, ‘The Crow Palace’ by Priya Sharma, revolves around Julie and her fractured relationship with her father and sister after her mother dies when she is only young. She reflects on how finding her mother’s body may have contributed to her cold and detached outlook on life, specifically the way she has distanced herself from her family. But, one day, tragedy strikes at home and she is forced to return. She must face matters of the past concerning her family and their neighbour, and the mysterious ‘crow palace’, a magnificent bird-table built by her avian-enthusiast father for the neighbourhood birds. Sharma delivers a strange and mesmerising tale of familial ties and compelling characters, and the complexities of the human condition.

With this anthology, Datlow has further cemented her reputation as an editor with an eye for quality and her finger on the pulse of the horror genre. She is regarded as a guardian of the speculative fiction community and as someone who can bring the best from the authors with whom she works. Here she has assembled a stellar line-up of some of the very best writers in the field today, every one a published and accomplished master of the craft. With such contributors there is no question that the anthology would be good. But under the stewardship of Datlow, the stories take wing and fly.


Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Hardback: 336pp
Release Date: 7 March 2017

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