Following its recent republication, Gemma Pearson reviews Stephen Gregory’s 1986 horror classic, The Cormorant.
“When they had taken the body away, the bird heaved itself onto the deck of its master’s boat. […] It only blinked and cleaned a few morsels of soft flesh from its beak. This was the bird that we inherited.”
On a cold winter evening on the Ouse, a lone river-boater narrowly avoids colliding with a drowning bird. Floating helplessly midstream, bogged down by weeds and oil, the fledgling cormorant is lifted to the safety of Uncle Ian’s cabin. At first, the creature ‘responded to Ian’s ministrations, his cleaning and feeding’. But by the spring, having grown stronger, the bird is ‘arrogant and vicious and unpredictable, as preoccupied with the business of eating and shouting and shitting as any first-year cormorant’. By summer, Uncle Ian is dead. Having suffered a fatal heart attack, his body is found cold and mangled, disfigured by the bird’s sharp beak. With no close family members left, the responsibilities of the seabird’s care fall on The Cormorant’s young protagonists, an English couple with starry-eyed notions about their new life in the Welsh hills. Inspired by his own experience of a bleak winter in Snowdonia, Stephen Gregory’s debut 1986 novel — a Somerset Maugham Award Winner when it was first published — is ripe with gripping intimacy, visceral imagery, and an unshakeable feeling of dread that lingers well after the final page.
Gregory’s novel opens as the family, one of many who had ‘fled the northern cities of England to find a cleaner and less frantic way of life in the Welsh hills’, are settling into the cottage bestowed upon them in Uncle Ian’s will. But, tinged with quiet suspense from the very first line — ‘The crate was delivered to the cottage at five o’clock in the afternoon’ — the lives of the young couple and their infant son are soon turned upside down. While Ann continues to keep a cautious distance, her husband develops an intriguing relationship with the bird:
‘I knew that I was only an escaping school-teacher who had run from the routine of the suburban Midlands to bash out another ordinary textbook. But meanwhile I would enjoy my role as the man with the cormorant. […] Only I could approach Archie without its frenzied threats.’
It is when Archie attacks the family’s beloved pet cat that Gregory’s capacity for vivid and disturbing prose reaches new heights, however. Mutilated beyond help, ‘its face a mask of blood’, the cat is left with ‘no eyes, only a cowl of scarlet, glistening wet in the firelight’. Finally, ‘the cat lay still. The room was silent’. Amidst the horror of the scene, however, the couple’s young son is elated: ‘Harry’s chuckles rang out. his face was brilliant with exhilaration, ablaze with pleasure’. Burning with an inextinguishable desire to meet, touch, and play with the cormorant ‘at the slightest opportunity’, readers are drawn into a menacing narrative of slow-building obsession and inexplicable attraction.
While Gregory’s prose is generally restrained and spare, The Cormorant is a methodical and considered text that lends itself to many classic gothic novels. It is therefore easy to see why it has earned comparisons to writing by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Perhaps not for the faint of heart — one passage in particular, an extremely uncomfortable incest scene, has garnered something of an infamous reputation among horror fans — Gregory’s debut novel is relentlessly grim. Nevertheless, expertly weaving timeless psychological terror with an enduring feeling of unease and ambiguity, The Cormorant certainly nests itself among gothic heavyweights.
Gemma Pearson is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.