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The Unflinching Horror of Stephen Gregory
His are not books of euphemism and subtlety.
STEPHEN GREGORY BURST—if such a word really applies here—onto the horror fiction scene in 1986, with the publication of his first novel, The Cormorant, which was based on his short story of the same name. The novel won the Somerset Maugham Award, a distinguished literary prize that had previously been won by such respected writers as Kingsley Amis, Doris Lessing, B.S. Johnson, and Seamus Heaney. It was well deserved: The Cormorant is an excellent novel, establishing themes and a style of folk horror (Gregory seems to have an obsession with birds; subsequent novels include The Plague of Gulls and Wakening the Crow) that are uniquely his own.
But after the publication in 1988 of his well-received second novel, The Woodwitch, Gregory’s output began to slow. The Blood of Angels hit shelves in 1993 and was not followed by a fourth novel until The Perils and Dangers of This Night appeared fifteen years later. Some of that time was eaten up by going to Hollywood, at the behest of William Friedkin, who liked The Cormorant, to work on scripts. Yet Gregory’s only film or TV credit that I was able to find was as the author of the source novel for a British television production of The Cormorant (starring Ralph Fiennes, this is something I’d very much like to see). So obviously his Hollywood sojourn didn’t pay off the way he or Friedkin must have hoped.
Since 2008, though, Gregory has been much more productive, especially between 2013 and 2015, during which time he published one novel a year, and then a slim collection of stories, called On Dark Wings, in 2019. The last few years have also seen almost all of his work come back into print (the one exception is The Perils and Dangers of This Night; not enough birds, perhaps?).
Let’s start at the beginning. The Cormorant, a slender little book, is part of a horror tradition, one that, so far as I’m aware, has never been named. Essentially, a British family (or American, though in its purest form the tradition seems, or feels, British), living in the country, has introduced into its life one exceedingly strange element, one that might appear normal at first, but finally leaves the family in tatters. In the case of The Cormorant that strange element is a cormorant, a large, fearsome-looking bird that was bequeathed to this family—the unnamed narrator, his wife Ann, and their toddler Harry—by the narrator’s Uncle Ian. As the novel begins, the bird, packaged in a large, white, wooden box, is delivered to their new home. Upon opening the box, Ann and her husband are alarmed by the beast:
Ann and I recoiled. . . . Shedding its covering of straw, shaking itself free of its bedding, the bird rose out of the pit of its crate. The cormorant emerged in front of the fire. It lifted its wings clear of the box, hooked its long beak onto the top of its wooden prison. Aroused from its slumbers by the direct heat of the flames, it heaved itself out of the box and collapsed on its breast on the carpet of the living room. I felt Ann’s hand at my arm, tugging me backwards. . . . And the cormorant picked itself up, straightened its ruffled feathers with a few deft movements of its beak, stretching out its tattered, black wings and shaking them, like an elderly clergyman flapping the dust from his gown. It sprang onto the sofa, where it raised its tail and shot out a jet of white-brown shit which struck the wooden crate with a slap before trickling towards the carpet.
And we’re off! In order to keep the cottage that was now their home, which they also inherited from Uncle Ian, they need to keep and care for the grotesque bird (which they took to calling Archie). If they stop doing that, they would lose the cottage.
Harry, their toddler, becomes strangely, unpleasantly obsessed with Archie, but so does the narrator, who throughout the book seems to be conducting a battle of wills with the cormorant. As the novel progresses, a bizarre sexuality begins to seep in. One of the narrator’s fights with the cormorant leaves him naked and bloody, to be discovered by a shocked Ann. Later, in an even more disturbing scene, the narrator is giving his wife a bath, the little boy takes part, and, well, let’s just say it goes way too far. Also, taking the role of the narrator at face value, as the writer of The Cormorant, I had to wonder why in the hell he wanted anybody to read about the things that went on in that house.
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In his introduction to the 2013 Valancourt Books reprint of the novel, in which he calls the book “too uncomfortable for a squeamish reader,” Gregory writes that along with notes of praise, he also received “vile, anonymous hate mail,” one piece of which arrived in the same batch of mail as the letter informing him that he’d been nominated for the Somerset Maugham Award:
I had a scrawly, handwritten note to wish that I would rot in hell for writing such an obscenity. I was excited by both.
Which leads me to wonder if he was met with similarly whiplash-inducing reactions upon the release of his second novel.
THE WOODWITCH, ALSO EXCELLENT (depending on your level of squeamishness), isn’t appalling in the same way as The Cormorant. No, it’s appalling in brand-new ways.
The protagonist is Andrew Pinckney. As the book opens, he and his dog Phoebe are staying in a cottage deep in the Welsh woodlands. The place belongs to his boss, who sent him there for a month after an incident with Jennifer, a coworker. Andrew and this woman began dating, and got along very well, having much in common. Andrew kept pressing for the relationship to become physical; Jennifer was hesitant. Eventually, though, she agrees, and it all goes terribly. Andrew is unable to perform, and Jennifer, looking at Andrew’s genitals after they’d both given up, begins to laugh. So, filled with humiliation and rage, he punches her in the face. Knocks her out, messes up her teeth. Their mutual boss offers both of them a month’s sabbatical, because he doesn’t want to fire either of them. Jennifer, offended by the offer, refuses, and goes back to work. Andrew agrees, and ends up in Wales with his dog.
The fact that, at the beginning of the novel, Andrew is apparently delighted by the fact that Phoebe has found a dead, rotting badger, gives the reader an early sense that Andrew—who insists his violent assault on Jennifer does not reflect who he is as a person—is disturbed in ways that even he can’t quite recognize. Andrew continues to collect rotting animals, all as part of a plan to use the result of naturally occurring decay—like maggots and flies, for example—to sustain the four stinkhorns he is trying to grow as a present for Jennifer when he returns to Sussex. Now, a stinkhorn is a kind of plant or fungus, that, when it blossoms, closely resembles an erect penis (it’s true, look them up). Andrew sees this present as a slyly self-deprecating display that will please Jennifer, and perhaps even bring them back together. I don’t think I need to tell you how unlikely this outcome sounds. But that’s the plan. Andrew is clearly going mad, or, probably, he always has been.
There’s not much dialogue in The Woodwitch, a good chunk of it just being the weird adventures of Andrew and his dog, which isn’t really a problem. But it nevertheless is sort of a blessing when Andrew finally decides to go into town and have a couple of pints at the hotel pub, because he meets other people there. Specifically, he meets a brother and sister: Huw, a kind of punk kid who enjoys speaking in Welsh to mock people who don’t speak it, and Shân, a girl of about 15 or 16, very pretty, who flirts shamelessly with Andrew (and, in one scene, maybe her brother, too). She also has small, pointed teeth, which could make you think “There she is, we’ve found the woodwitch,” but not so fast.
Anyone who reads The Woodwitch will probably assume two big things will eventually happen in the course of the story. I won’t say what those big things are, because they do both happen. That the novel is predictable in this way is not important, because all that accurate prediction gets you is an added sense of dread regarding when and how these things will happen. And the book is already thickly laden with dread and suspense; the very slow-burn nature of Gregory’s storytelling has more than a little to do with that. So that when you get to those moments, the reaction is more “Oh no, I was right” than “Pffft, I knew it.”
The Woodwitch is also, as if you hadn’t already guessed this, quite disgusting. As with The Cormorant, violence is rarely depicted, but by the time, late in the book, you encounter the sentence “A squadron of flies, detaching itself from the badger’s anus, swarmed about his face and made him stumble on the logs,” you’re pretty much used to that sort of thing. Vivid descriptions of rot and decay abound in The Woodwitch, as well as animals suffering from nasty illnesses. All of which is viewed through the eyes of a man who, if you knew what he was thinking about, you’d cross the street to avoid.
As I implied earlier, Stephen Gregory is not one to be shy, or even subtle, about the horrors he imagines. He dives right in and lifts the horror up so it can be seen clearly. If you can’t handle it, that’s your problem. It’s common for blunt fiction or films, regardless of genre, to be described as “unflinching.” Well, Stephen Gregory doesn’t flinch.