A Brief Flight through Horror: Birds of the Dead and the Damned

bloodySparrows

A tenant’s missing rent payment leads to a tough, street-smart property owner’s ghastly discovery. She enters the apartment unit to collect her money, but quickly realizes that she has stumbled upon a gruesome murder scene. Overcome with shock, the landlady screams. Then she faints. On the wall near a savagely mutilated body, a mysterious message is finger-scrawled in blood:

THE SPARROWS ARE FLYING AGAIN.

A ruthless homicidal rampage in Stephen King’s The Dark Half thus continues. It can only end with the inevitable showdown between the novel’s main character, author Thad Beaumont, and the killer George Stark (1). The connection between the two characters is complicated, with readers gradually finding out that Stark is much more than just Beaumont’s more successful and darker pseudonym come-to-life. As the story progresses, we learn more, too, about the mysterious and ever-growing number of sparrows.

“Back to Endsville”

The birds turn out to be escorts to the realm of the dead, an underworld which King at times calls “Endsville”. Such guides, known traditionally as pyschopomps, have historically taken on various forms in religion, folklore, and literature. These can include human or human-like beings. For example, Charon, the ferryman of the Greek/Roman underworld, is probably the most notable and familiar of psychopomps. Animals, angels, and other beings, however, can also fulfill these roles.

Another well-known psychopomp is the “ominous bird of yore” in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, who may be deemed a messenger from Hades or “Night’s Plutonian Shore” (2, 3). Has the raven not taken off with the protagonist’s spirit, swept away all hope of the narrator ever joining his deceased mistress (“my soul… shall be lifted—nevermore!”)? Or maybe something more sinister has occurred—perhaps the late mistress has been consigned to hell, and her lover learns from this ebony feathered “devil” that he, too, is to be ushered there but, as part of his torment, forever denied her presence. Having destroyed the thing that has sustained the speaker in his life, he is left at the very least in the raven’s “shadow” of despair, what could be interpreted as either a literal or metaphorical land of the dead.

“Screaming of vast flocks”

As one of the characters (a folklore professor and Beaumont’s colleague) in The Dark Half explains, whippoorwills and loons are among the birds most commonly identified as psychopomps. Swallows are also mentioned. And although ravens do not appear in the novel, King interestingly credits his inspiration to the sighting of a massive flock of crows, as well as to an H.P. Lovecraft poem (4). Psychopomps are a theme in several of Lovecraft’s works. For instance, whippoorwills assume this role in his short story “The Dunwich Horror”, of which below is a brief excerpt:

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandemoniac cachinnation which filled all the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down (5).

The story remains one of Lovecraft’s most popular works. His poem “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme” (perhaps the one to which King is referring) doesn’t mention whippoorwills, crows, or sparrows. Instead, it features a sinister “howling train” of wolves “that rend the air” to collect a dead boy’s soul from his parents (6). The description, though, is clearly evocative of the Wild Hunt stories often linked with Gabriel’s Hounds and the Seven Whistlers (7). These feared creatures were believed to ride out at night, particularly around the winter solstice, and snatch off with victims’ souls. Perhaps a combination of this poem and the whippoorwills of “The Dunwich Horror” actually influenced King.

“The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy”

As the name suggests, the Seven Whistlers consist of seven birds who make loud, frightful, piping/blowing noises. The types most often associated with the deadly flock are curlews, widgeons, golden plover, and wild geese (8). Many poets have expressed fascination with the legend. William Wordsworth, for instance, refers to it in his sonnet “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares”:

He the seven birds hath seen, that never part,
Seen the Seven Whistlers in their nightly rounds,
And counted them: and oftentimes will start—
For overhead are sweeping Gabriel’s Hounds
Doomed, …. (9)

As the ornithologist Edward Armstrong also notes, English poet Edmund Spenser in his 16th-century epic The Faerie Queene cites the notorious flock among the “fatall birds”: “The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy” (10, 11). The creatures are the subject of Victorian poet Alice E. Gillington’s “The Seven Whistlers” (12). However, despite the similarities in Whistler lore with the poem by Lovecraft, he does not mention any birds by name that were commonly thought of as Whistlers in his “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme”.

Of course, none of birds connected with the legends of the Great Hunt seem nearly as menacing as those in King’s The Dark Half. His sparrows brandish a viciousness reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, yet surpassing in their ferocious intensity. Who knew that birds could be so terrifying?

In the hands of great horror writers, any animal may well assume a frightening presence, in this case a small bird commonly found throughout the world and occasionally deemed a pest. The sparrow may be an appropriate choice for psychopomp due to its near-universal presence, a symbolic reminder that death, though it may seem hidden in the backdrop of our lives, remains close by.

So along with the haunting figure of Poe’s demonic raven and the screaming whippoorwills of Lovecraft, let’s not forget the flesh-devouring sparrows of Stephen King this Halloween.

Sources:

  1. King, S. The Dark Half. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
  2. Poe, E.A. “The Raven”, The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178713.
  3. Cross, R.T. “Psychopomp”, 11/29/2011, The Etyman Language Blog: http://etyman.wordpress.com/tag/psychopomp/.
  4. King, S. “The Dark Half: Inspiration”, Stephen King’s official web site: http://stephenking.com/library/novel/dark_half_the_inspiration.html.
  5. Lovecraft, H.P. “The Dunwich Horror”, The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/dh.aspx.
  6. Lovecraft, H.P., “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme”, The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/poetry/p139.aspx.
  7. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press. pp. 217-220.
  8. Armstrong, E.A. pp. 217-220.
  9. Wordsworth, W. “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares”, William Wordsworth: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (1999): http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww339.html.
  10. Armstrong, E.A.. pp. 217-218.
  11. Spenser, E. The Faerie Queene (Book II, Canto XII, Stanza XXXVI), Edmund Spenser: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (2010): http://www.bartleby.com/153/55.html.
  12. Gillington, A.E. “The Seven Whistlers”, A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895: Selections Illustrating the Editor’s Critical Review of British Poetry in the Reign of Victoria. Edmund Clarence Stedman (editor). Bartleby.com (2003): http://www.bartleby.com/246/1159.html.
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