Weird Fiction Review (online).
⇒Brian Evenson is one of my literary heroes, so I was pleased to discover this new story of his, “The Din of Celestial Birds.” By “new” I really mean new to me; in fact, this piece first appeared in a collection that’s long out of print and selling for like $300 on Amazon. Thankfully, Weird Fiction Review made this piece available once more, so now we all can read and enjoy (or be horrified by) this amazing piece. My cursory research tells me there was also an experimental short film of the same name released in the early 90s, but I can’t tell if there’s any connection beyond the shared title.
Okay. Let’s discuss.
Take a look at this fascinating opening, which puts us right in the middle of the action:
When he returned, stumbling down the mountain and out of the jungle, he did not remember anything beyond having entered the stone hovel and seen, in the far corner of the dirt floor, a cage, partly covered in a feathered cloak.
This is a really effective way of opening the story, though it’s unusually complex as well. While the story as a whole is basically linear, traditional in its temporal approach, this opening puts us in the middle of a completely unexplained and out-of-context action–stumbling back down the mountain–then backs us up to the unnamed protagonist’s last memory, the discovery of the cage in the otherwise bare stone hovel. The effect this creates for the reader is a feeling of disorientation, of amnesia. It’s not that we the readers are confused–something an author wants to avoid if possible–but rather that the character himself is deeply confused. We know as much as the protagonist, it seems.
And what was this character doing in the mountains outside the village in the first place? We don’t know, and likely neither does the protagonist. What we do know is this: in that stone hovel in the mountains he discovered a bird cage covered in a feathery cloak, and when he uncovered the cage, “something” happened.
Four months have gone by since his disappearance, the village and his wife inform him.
A whole bunch of weird things happen once the protagonist has returned home: the nightmares, the barking/choking noises he makes in his sleep, the discovery of deep bloodless holes or pits in his body (as if he was pecked by vicious birds, we infer), and that’s just the beginning. When his wife discovers these wounds, she brings in a shaman, who pronounces the character dead. Our hero protests that he is not, in fact, dead. Things get increasingly dark, particularly once the murders begin.
And that’s as far as I want to take you, synopsis-wise.
This piece has many of the trademarks of Evenson’s literary-horror oeuvre:
- Dark and brutal scenarios? Check.
- Minimalist (often nameless) characters pushed to their very limits? Check.
- An overall starkness (of narrative language, of character and world) that gives the reader a sense of universality, as if reading a beautiful/horrific existential parable? Check.
- A clean, accessible voice with just a hint of old-fashioned diction to make us feel like we’re not reading a contemporary story but a tale, something with staying power? Check.
The piece has all the elements that make this author’s work so compelling, but then there are some details that stand out as wildly different from what some expect from his stories. Instead of that barren, Mormon-wilderness vibe we get in many of his stories (see his great collections Windeye and The Wavering Knife for examples) we are put in a South (or Central) American jungle village, one inhabited by both “whites” and “natives.” This is a very interesting trajectory, since it puts us firmly within a geographical and historical context (rather than a timeless, archetypal/generic no-mans-land a la Beckett).
So we have a colonial/post-colonial component to it that brings up things like racial/political strife, the bumpy transition to modernity, and even the conflict between superstition and science. Plus, the story contains hints of many different eras via the technology we see: guns and clocks could place us anywhere in the last several centuries, but then the story also features a neurologist, which puts us in a more recent time. But then there’s a doctor who prescribes for the protagonist an opiate tea (rather than a pill for his pain), suggesting we are in several different eras at once. This village, however much it draws from history and realism, is in fact a very timeless, the-rules-don’t-apply environment a la Garcia Marquez’s Macondo.
“The Din of Celestial Birds” is surely a possession story, but it’s handled in a very unique way (we get the story through the disoriented, walking-dead perspective of the possessed himself), in which the character seems to be carrying out a curse unleased upon the land’s colonists. And I suppose that’s what makes the story especially haunting: the inevitability of all of this, like the protagonist is enacting a natural process in which an organism rejects a foreign presence. This sense of inevitability is something we find in much of Evenson’s work. The violence and madness are frightening, sure, but scariest of all is the knowledge that it must be this way.