“There’s been a breakdown at the BBC”: the rural horror of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’

It’s my birthday today. I’ve always liked that I share it with two favourite writers: poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie (born 1962), and the master of mid-20th century English gothic, Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989).

I’m going to take a brief look at du Maurier’s short story The Birds, which can be read as an almost idiomatic text within the related – though not necessarily interchangeable – areas of rural horror and hauntology. It could have been written in 2017 as a pastiche – or homage – to the idea of the hauntological. It utilises every trope and ticks every box you’d care to name. Benevolent State institutions? Check. Malevolence manifesting itself through natural forces? Check. Et cetera, et cetera.

The Birds was first published in 1952. The world it depicts is that of the post-World War 2 settlement: an era – almost unimaginable now – in which nationalised industries were taken for granted, the welfare state was seen as a necessary part of a civilised nation, and homes were being built for a booming population (“the new council houses”). This era’s death-knell was sounded with Thatcher’s election victory of 1979, but the cultural assumptions and attitudes displayed within the story would have been recognisable to a reader in the early eighties.

The basic premise is simple, and familiar to those whose only knowledge of du Maurier’s story is via the Hitchcock adaptation: people, and the places where they shelter, are attacked when birds – all birds – turn on mankind in a systematic onslaught. People die, off-scene but still horribly. Gannets plunge in suicidal divebombings. Beaks peck out eyes; talons wrench at barricades.

Nat Hocken, the protagonist, is a war-disabled farm labourer. Both intelligent and imaginative, he is the first in the locality to spot the behaviour of the birds, to link it to the action of the tides, and to understand the threat it poses.

The folk horror resonances should be obvious from the start. I say “folk horror”, as although there are no instances of folklore or occult magic, the faith which the cowering populace place in the possibilities of science is still faith, and the central act of Nature turning on mankind is enough to place it squarely within the rural horror tradition. This is – or appears to be – nature as Other, bringing terror from the fields, skies and seas of rural Cornwall.

The deference to institutions of state – the fidelity to the BBC and the (civil service) scientists whom Nat assumes are working on a solution to the crisis – dates from a period when society viewed science and progress as not only intertwined, but as a galvanising force for civilisation.

That such an attitude should seem (from the viewpoint of today’s hyper-capitalist dystopia) quaint and almost touching, is key to the hauntological narrative. Hauntology is nostalgic in the true sense of the word, but its sense of longing is for a future which never actually occurred. It holds within it a recognition that the narrative was wrenched aside in 1979, and that something has been lost in the years since Britain was, at a fundamental level, reconfigured according to monetarist principles.

But the post-war era was not an idyll, and The Birds betrays its Cold War origins. The Russians are suspected of being to blame. The reference to “foreign birds” shows the island mentality which initially extends to the Cornish peninsula, but soon to all of Britain and ultimately “all Europe”, with the desperate hope that America will come to the rescue. Britain’s own “back-room boys” have failed the test.

Communication breaks down: news reports become sporadic, then cease. People are trapped inside their homes. Only the birds are connected: “[species of crow] were bound on some other mission. “They’ve been given the towns”, thought Nat. “They know what they have to do.””

At the end, Nat, his two children, and his curiously unnamed wife are barricaded inside their house. There is a moment of bathos in the face of extinction when his daughter Jill berates her brother: “you should learn to wipe your mouth”. Nat saves a final cigarette for “a rainy day”, but realising that such a day has dawned, he is smoking it as the story ends. And it ends in utter hopelessness as he turns on “the silent wireless”. The death of the BBC is the end of civilisation.

I said earlier that the story “appears to be” about mankind facing a malevolent Other, which must be tamed, destroyed or banished. But it is clear that through mankind’s scientific progress it is we who have become the Other. That Nat belongs to the very countryside that is rising against him – he knows his birds, knows the weather, knows the tides – makes it all the more horrifying.

The story will always be overshadowed by Hitchcock’s loose adaptation (though it’s easy to imagine a version set in Cornwall such as Hammer might have made in the early 70’s: how cheap the effects! how very red the blood!), and Virago are to be commended for their efforts in repackaging and – for want of a better – rebranding du Maurier over the last decade. Their smart reprints have also done much to restore her reputation after the awful Arrow editions, the covers of which would lead the casual browser to expect a West Country Catherine Cookson.

Du Maurier herself said she only wrote one romance (Frenchman’s Creek, though her debut The Loving Spirit is a kissing cousin), and there is a bitterness and darkness to much of her work that is profoundly unsettling. Few epiphanies that her characters experience will feel like a blessing and – unlike much gothic or horror fiction – where there is an Other (birds, a malignant apple tree) often it is neither conquered nor purged, but in the ascendant. She is a far from reassuring writer, and in this respect is more transgressive than many writers whose superficially more gruesome work became popular in the 1980s “horror boom”.

 

Sources:

Du Maurier, Daphne. The Birds and Other Stories (Virago, 2004).

photo credit: Jamie Gorman

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