Let’s talk turkey: This isn’t Daphne du Maurier’s 1952story “The Birds,” the partial basis of the celebrated Alfred Hitchcockfilm of 1963. But Frank Baker’s premise is much the same, and his eerie yet satirical and rather metaphysical novel first appeared in 1936. Did du Maurier or Hitchcock know the book? Probably not, but in his introductory essay to this greatly welcome Valancourt edition — which prints the author’s later, preferred text — Ken Mogg points out some intriguing parallels between the film and the novel.
Baker’s plot is this: An old man, living in a pastoral farming community, reminisces to his granddaughter about the time “before the birds came.” That era, it turns out, was the early 1930s when the narrator — like Baker himself — was employed as a maritime insurance clerk. One hot August day, hoping to escape temporarily from his soul-killing work, he climbs out on the roof of his office building to contemplate the city:
“My eyes were on the river, that fair Thames which at the port of the City widens out to the sea. I saw, trailing in the air above a small barge, a dense moving cloud as small as a man’s hand. Travelling towards the bridge it grew larger as I watched it. An intense lassitude overcame me. The air was very still, smoke hung like cloth in the sky. I was aware that a group of people had gathered on the roof of a building opposite, and were pointing to the growing cloud that sailed along above the river.”
It is, in fact, a flock of small birds, about the size of starlings but otherwise unknown to ornithology. They eventually land and spread out in the area of the Royal Exchange. There are thousands of them:
“Their behaviour was interesting. Lined in thick ranks up the steps, they did nothing but sit there, looking at the people who studied them, with almost critical intensity, as though they themselves were studying us. Indeed, the longer I watched them, the more I felt that it was ourselves, rather than the birds, who had no place in this City.”
Strangely enough, when an old woman throws out a handful of seed, it is ignored. At just that moment, however, the Exchange clock strikes 2:30, and “one bird suddenly rose from the centre of the flock, impelled as it seemed by some individual urge, and flew straight towards that section of the crowd where the old woman was standing.” She flees in terror, ultimately rushing into a telephone booth, but not before the bird has flown in with her. Inside there is a furious battle. Though eventually rescued, the badly injured woman dies in the hospital. The bird disappears. “Not a feather was left as evidence of its presence.”
That night, the young insurance clerk returns home, tells his self-centered mother about the day’s bizarre events and then goes to sleep with “a dreadful sense of the instability of the mock-world we had set up in place of the real world which was our heritage.”
As the August days slip by, the smelly, ordure-spattering birds turn increasingly bold. In Trafalgar Square one afternoon, they swoop down and mangle the homeless sleeping there. Invariably, they manage to elude all capture. Nobody ever sees them eat. Naturally enough, people soon start to grow uneasy, even fearful: “What were the birds going to do? What were we going to do?”
To reduce their numbers, the government authorizes a dozen crack shots, backed by a dozen gun loaders, to take up positions in Kensington Park. When beaters rouse the birds and send them straight toward the waiting hunters, the flock appears to divide into 12 sections. Then people “heard the first and second volleys break the stillness of the early morning. . . . But why was there no third volley?” The hunters and loaders are all found dead, their mutilated faces almost unrecognizable. Newspapers around the world report similar avian retaliation to any human aggressor.
Meanwhile, the unusual heat drags on, bringing with it both drought and an uncanny lethargy. The once-small birds increase in number and in size; they now seem as big as ravens. Their eyes are unnervingly “deep and cold.”
As these reminiscences continue, Baker’s aged narrator regularly pauses to explain the society of his youth, damning its sexual hypocrisies, denouncing the movies and the myriad other ways people sought to escape from reality, especially the cinema. Yet the novel also depicts, in an almost painterly fashion, the romance of London life:
“There were short days in winter when the City seemed to glitter with half-revealed secrets. Days when it rained steadily; when lights were lit early in shops and offices; when the shining streets were domed by the humps of glossy umbrellas. On such days a common goodwill seemed to fall naturally from harassed people, hurrying here and there to catch bus, train, or tram. In face of discomfort, a vision of home, with firelight, tabby-cats, and rich cups of mellow tea, seemed to buoy up men and women.”
As the summer heat continues, our hero escapes to Wales for a short holiday, then later returns to London and falls in love with a young but preternaturally wise Russian woman. Meanwhile, like ghosts or diabolical guardian angels, the now ubiquitous “pests of the air” have grown increasingly menacing. More and more often, an individual bird will suddenly imprint on a single person and never let him or her out of sight, always fluttering nearby. People go mad or commit suicide. Sometimes they are found savagely clawed and pecked to death. Inexorably, “The Birds” builds to a spectacular, cinematic finale, half holocaust, half apocalypse.
While obviously suspenseful, “The Birds” is much more than a scarefest; Baker is clearly proffering a critique of modern life. Our civilization has alienated us from our true natures and from Nature. Above all, to achieve psychological wholeness, each of us must confront what the psychologist C.G. Jung called the Shadow, the darkness within our own hearts. We must face the “deep and cold” eyes of the birds.
Frank Baker (1908-1983) is an unusual and appealing writer, at times quite similar to that grandmaster of the supernatural, Arthur Machen, whom he knew and whose 1917 novel, “The Terror,” he has said, partially inspired “The Birds.” Still, Baker’s most famous book remains the superb light fantasy “Miss Hargreaves” (available from Tartarus Press). In it a pair of young men, on holiday, jokingly invent an imaginary old lady named Miss Hargreaves — and then, one afternoon, she comes to call.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By Frank Baker
Valancourt. 186 pp. Paperback, $16.99