Review: Black Feathers, Edited by Ellen Datlow

Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales is a dazzling anthology of avian-themed fiction guaranteed to frighten and delight, edited by Ellen Datlow, one of the most acclaimed horror anthologists in the genre (available February 7, 2017).

Is there any horror editor more acclaimed—and deservedly so—than Ellen Datlow? I’ve particularly loved her updated fairytale series, so when I heard she had an avian-themed collection of short stories coming out soon, I was practically shivering with excitement.

Horror stories are oftentimes crime stories exaggerated to grotesque proportions, with the supernatural and uncanny occasionally standing in for the unsolvable; as a genre, it’s a literary detour past thriller and a dive over the boundary into terror. Black Feathers is no different, with a collection of tales of murder and abductions and madness—with birds, helpful or sinister or often both, as its central theme—from authors as renowned for their non-horror writings as Joyce Carol Oates and Pat Cadigan.

It is however a lesser-known author who has written what is easily my favorite story from the collection. In “The Crow Palace,” Priya Sharma writes a cold-blooded tale of family and terrible secret bargains that features a scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie The Birds (itself based on a Daphne du Maurier novella). Here, a cat is being attacked in the narrator’s backyard by a pack of vengeful birds:

The birds are coming down in black jets, from all directions. The cat raises a paw, claws unsheathed, to swipe at its assailants. The ravens take it by surprise with a group attack. One lands, talons clutching the nape of the cat’s neck. It writhes and screams. The sound cuts through me. The birds are like streaks of rain. I can’t see the cat anymore. It’s been mobbed by darkness.

Other short story standouts for me included Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids,” about a young girl who counts birds as a way of preserving her fragile days, and Jeffrey Ford’s “The Murmurations of Vienna Von Drome,” one of the few stories set in a fantastic world. Relatable enough to crime fans, this latter story follows a police investigator on the trail of a serial killer. I also enjoyed the fresh narrative voice of the teenaged first-person narrator in Stephen Graham Jones’s “Pigeon from Hell.”

Of all the stories, the most classically, mind-bendingly horrific is Livia Llewellyn’s “The Acid Test.” On a college campus in the 1960s or 70s, a young woman drops acid and sees a horrific crime … or does she? There’s a man like a bird who could be her lover or a killer or the agent of an eldritch horror—or none of these or all of these and more. Ms. Llewellyn dives deep into her unnamed narrator’s consciousness with hallucinatory prose that seduces even as it scars:

I grab the worm erupting from between my brows and twist it letting the blood of my thoughts run down my wrists and the world grows red at the edges, red dragons that shake their heads and flutter down like campfire ash over my bare limbs and he is over me now, dark and wide and wings spread about like a canopy of black tears, and that sharp stinging tap tap tapping all across my numbing face, and he is somewhere inside me, and from a great distance I hear his voice warbling like a love bird, I knew you always had it in you, languid stone fox, secret garden, murderer of possibilities, but if he hears my response, he’s too deep inside the empty cup of my mind for me to tell.

Black Feathers is a tightly focused collection of short stories that is perfect for those with a fascination for the disquieting aspect of the avian, as well as for readers who enjoy a few supernatural thrills with their crime. There are several stories where the horror comes entirely from within—a good reminder of the all-too-human element that motivates crime—then tries to ascribe the unthinkable to the unknowable instead of admitting the human capacity for evil.

But supernatural or not, the long shadow of dark wings reaches across each page, making this anthology essential reading for the horror/crime completest.


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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.


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