“The Obscure Bird” by Nicholas Royle

This story from Black Static #18 marked Nicholas Royle‘s second appearance in the magazine, after “Salt” in #4, and from memory Royle was a regular contributor to The Third Alternative. It was picked by Ellen Datlow for The Best Horror of the Year #3, one of only two stories from Black Static‘s 2010 campaign to make the cut.

The story concerns the relationship between Gwen and Andrew, and is told from the viewpoint of the former, though she is mainly an observer while the apparent changes in his life drive the narrative.

The couple are going through a rough patch. Gwen confides to a friend that they no longer have sex. Andrew seems distracted all the time, concerned about his pending professorship (or so he tells Gwen), concerned about plans to build a new tram line locally and the effect it will have on the environment, especially the bird habitat. He is always going up to bed late, always spending time on the computer (ostensibly on facebook or tweeting), and Gwen has caught him late at night standing in the middle of the back garden simply staring at the trees.

Looming over the story and setting its emotional weather, is the never specified illness of their baby Henry, an unspoken ‘evil’ that holds them both in its grip and will not let go.

Signs and portents litter the narrative. Gwen compares Andrew to a bird trapped in a cage. Their cat Duffy brings them a mouse which it then devours completely. Gwen is shocked to discover an owl pellet in the microwave (it’s never stated, but we can infer from this incident that Andrew’s academic role involves the study of birds). He talks in his sleep, using words that describe the traits of an owl. Gwen believes that she sees his head turn round while his body remains rigid, and she complains about the silent way in which he moves about the house.

In the deft way in which Royle provides these building blocks of the story, we start to see echoes of Kafka’s classic tale “Metamorphosis”, the hint of a similar transformative power at work, though never stated so overtly as in the case of Gregor Samsa. As with that story, “The Obscure Bird” can be read either literally or metaphorically.

Taken literally, Andrew is turning into some terrible owl-human hybrid, with the concerns of such a creature now to the fore of his mind and his human qualities being shed. Metaphorically, the changes in his nature as reported by Gwen, are her ‘externalisation’ of the way in which the couple are drifting apart, a symptom of the distance that has grown between them. If Andrew seems alien to her, then it is because he is drawing away. Underlying all that is a recognition of the terrible effect looking after a sick child can have on a relationship, the way in which it cuts into every aspect of life.

The two readings inform and bolster each other, and whichever interpretation you prefer, Royle provides a killer ending, one that is as shocking as it is eminently right – the thing that is consuming their life is itself consumed, and neatly parceled up for disposal.

There’s horror here (Black Static has published very few stories that are so creepy and with such an unnerving resolution), but it’s wrapped up in a subtle and quietly effective narrative that burrows its way into the reader’s subconscious before unleashing the terrors that were always lurking there beneath the surface of ostensibly mundane lives.

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