I know two people who are terrified of birds. One can’t explain it, just, “birds freak me out.” Another says, “They’re dinosaurs just waiting to peck my eyes out.” Birds have a wealth of symbolism attached to them: piety, spirits, freedom, joy, sorrow, danger. They are a perfect theme for a horror anthology.
It’s hard for me to resist buying a copy of any anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. I’m pretty much a Datlow fangirl, so I acknowledge my existing bias—but I’m convinced my favorable opinion is backed up by other horror fans. With rare exceptions, her mastery of curating short fiction is evident in the way the stories fit together as a whole. Black Feathers is one book I need in hardcover because I don’t want to wear out the paperback with re-reads.
Here are a few of my favorites.
The one that gave me chills for days was “The Orphan Bird” by Alison Littlewood. I’ve grown tired of serial killers, but Littlewood didn’t reveal the subject until I was already hooked. I’m glad I kept reading. Yes, there’s a killer, but the story is so much more than that. All the hints, all the breadcrumbs to the trail that kept me up at night were laid so perfectly that I didn’t see it until the end. Bravo.
Joyce Carol Oates has always been a hit-or-miss author for me, but I loved “The Great Heron.” A newly-widowed woman is mired in grief and depression. She tries to hold on to her old life, reliving walks by the lake with her husband as if he were with her, and dreams of flying with the great blue herons she fears. Her vile brother-in-law hounds her to sell the house, looking to cash in on her misery. Her friends urge her to move on, but she has other plans. The birds become a powerful symbol of anger, grief, freedom, and self-determination.
I also enjoyed “The Murmurations of Vienna Von Drome” by Jeffrey Ford, mostly because I’m a sucker for horror stories that harken back to the past. There’s something terribly wrong with the mad scientist’s daughter, who hasn’t spoken a word since her mother died. Now that her father is gone, she has no one but a devoted servant and a pet starling that follows her everywhere. This story also features mysterious deaths, and a dogged constable obsessed with Vienna. However, the story didn’t go where I expected, and that made all the difference.
All of the tales create a dark and wondrous mood ranging from creepy to skin-crawling horror. Some stuck with me, some not so much, but fiction is subjective so others can find their favorites within.