Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Din of Celestial Birds, by Brian Evenson

The review for Petrified Forest will be delayed, I think. I've been busy and unable to focus on the story, its a bit more abstract then I'm used to. I'm quickly discovering I'm bad at reading books. I can't imagine where I picked up that habit from in the last, I dunno decade of dealing almost exclusively with computers.

In the meantime, a much shorter and great story! Spoilers for the story inside.

The story begins with an unnanmed protagonist, who will stay that way, coming across a lone hovelin the middle of nowhere. There's no signs people have been inside in a long time, Inside, he finds a strange cloak made of feathers covering a cage, but then hears something from under the cloak and pulls it away to look.

The next thing he knows, he's fleeing from down the mountain, covered in wounds, his clothes rotting, starved, and only now discovers he's apparently be gone for the last four months after talking with the natives. They claim they looked for him, but didn't find a trace of him, his wife and other Europeans had eventually given up an assumed he ran off to join the rebels. He has no memory of what's happened.

He returns to his life, but despite doctors saying he will regain his memory sooner or later, has trouble reintergrating. His wife and psychiatrist eventually become the only people that see him. He also has trouble sleeping, finding himself up for hours at night and only finally getting to sleep to wake up his wife with his thrashings and screaming.He has dreams of the cage, and strange sounds from inside he can't make out.

He also reveals, though he's kept this a secret, his wounds, strange bloodless pits and carvings in his flesh haven't healed, they've in fact been growing. Unfortunantly for him, the rebels get into town and cause some trouble, causing the national police to go about beating people, including him for information. He gets it particuarly brutally and his wife takes him home to clean him as he's not exactly concious, and discovers the wounds.

The doctors have no clue what could be wrong and none of their treatments help, so she's eventually driven to find a Cjlanuk, a type of local shaman. On only a small examination, he rubs powder on the wounds, declares "Xalagmua" and that the man is already dead, and should be burried, and his wife is in great danger. She thinks its some sort of disease, and gets no response on if its infectious.

The man becomes even more recluse, now going out to explore the jungles even more then he did before this started. He now started having dreams of strange ethereal birds, and couldn't eat enough to satisfy him, while gaining no weight. He felt like his body was some sort of cage. Then strange murders started happening at night, and he would wake up with blood on his hands.

The corpses, always European, rebels or loyalists were brutally killed, eyes gone, heads cracked open, gaping holes in their bodies, while he assured himself it was from the wounds on his body swelling and unswelling in the night, as they did continue to get worse. The indians claimed it was the return of Xalagmua, a spirit of some sort. The rebels were continuously blamed for it.

One night, the man finally wakes up mid murdering, finding himself near an Indian village, and that Shaman there. The Cjlanuk speaks to the man, calling him Xalagmua, but only gets a response from the man, tells him again that he is dead, and does a strange ritual, compelling the man to continue to walk towards him instead of any other direction despite trying, even though there's a fire in the way.

On entering the fire, he somehow only barely feels it, and the Cjlanuk continues his spell, causing the man to explode into a volley of wispy birds made of smoke, fire and his body, and he collapses. Somehow he survives this, but is horribly burnt. I'm guessing now he is a Mudoken from Oddworld. Physically, he's about as healthy looking as most of them at this point.

The burns have left him in a state where he'll live, but he can't continue to go out and murder explore. He still feels strongly compelled to do it, though, but with the last vestiges of his free will, he ties a rope around his waist and the bed leg and his wife gives him tea that will make him sleep and dull the pain.

The next day, he stayed in the house, but finally has murdered his wife, and has either been driven insane enough, taken over too much, or understands his situation well enough that he mentally can't blame himself for this, It was something else's fault. He hides the body, and starts to prepare to leave, he's caught by a doctor but convinces the doctor that his wife is just out, and he needs drugs to stop the pain but let him stay awake so he can be with her when she's back. On getting this, he lets the doctor leave, and goes back up the mountain from the beginning.

We point out here that he really is not in a physical state for this any more, and its solely the painkillers dulling the sensation enough to make it possible. When he makes it to the hovel, even that's gone, he couldn't survive a trip back down. Inside, he finds the cover of feathers, removes it, and discovers only an empty cage.

There's not even a few moments of his conciousness to reflect on this, before he collapses, falling apart into many birds, scattering from his body, battering his body away until nothing of him is left, and the story ends.

To me, wonderfully bleak, I know some of my friends don't prefer it in theirs, but this is my favourite way for one of these stories to end. Victory over the mythos, survival, or the 'good guys' 'winning' can be pulled off, but its a rare and hard to do in a way that I like. A song made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society put it very well in a song of theirs;

Who's always last to know? Who fills the air with cries? Who's sanity is blasted, and then who usually dies?

The author's spiel at the end is similar, and his story is an attempt to capture the same mood of Lovecraft's characters, who stumble into something and only realize far too late what it is. He also mentions the interesting fact that he also lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where Lovecraft did the majority of his work. While I'm sure this could work anywhere, I think I can see where a similar approach in describing environments may have come from, Lovecraft was fond of wandering around, looking for ideas of environments to set his stories in.

On much smaller notes, first, Its a very nice change to see named entities that are original, something that comes up far less then it should in the mythos, sometimes justifiably so, but something that always deserves praise when it's done. Secondly, I've always felt birds were underreprisented in the mythos, insects, sea creatures and reptiles are obvious, but birds are equal with any of those. They're dinosaurs. They have surprising levels of intelligence and some are capable of living over 100 years and capable of repeating the sounds made by people. I've always wanted to see a cult use Cockatoos as some kind of biological tape recorder to get the phonetics of aged gods and beasts right.

I loved this story, while like the crevasse it didn't explain everything, this time, I thought that worked with it. It leaves room for interpretation as to if the Indians thought that Xalagmua was a good thing or something to be stopped, how much of the protagonist lived or died, if he was a monster or a victim. Maybe my own interpretation is completely wrong and he ascended to some higher level, so far, this is definitely the first that I recommend, if you can find it and are interested in the Cthulhu Mythos, that you'd want to look up. Its a very, very short story, though I cannot find a place to read it for free online.

I think I'll try to keep one of these reviews a week or so, so I don't feel like I need to do one or nothing for posts, like I have lately. I really need to get back into the habit of reading.


  1. Sounds like a deliciously ghastly story!

  2. You make it sound interesting, but I'm not really into that genre

  3. What genre is this?
    +followed by

  4. +1'ed, even though Lovecraft is a bloody racist.

  5. @Last Days

    That he was, though this isn't by him. I've never really gotten hate for him because of that though. It comes across in a very small amount of his stories and whenever it does, that's bad, yeah but the majority of his stories have a general misanthropic tone to humans in general.

  6. Lovecraft may have been a racist, but he was a damn fine writer.

  7. @Timothy: Which is what makes me even madder! I was like "C'MON ARE YOU SERIOUS?" When I see some of the misanthropy and racial themes come up in his works it's a bit like finding out the hot supermodel you want to bang is only 16 years old. It just feels WRONG, and no matter what, you can't enjoy it without feeling like a sicko.

  8. This actually sounds pretty good. I'll have to check it out some time!
    Tech Me