Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie The Birds from 1963 is very loosely based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novella of the same name. Hitchcock’s first American film and international success had been an adaption of her Gothic melodrama Rebecca, and later Nicholas Roeg would adapt du Maurier’s eerie story Don’t Look Now, which became a staple on the late-night movie circuit in the 70’s.
du Maurier’s original story is more concerned with the revenge of nature, exemplified by the suddenly hostile birds working in concert to punish humanity for its hubris and arrogance. As such it can be seen as a fore-bearer of a particularly English sub-genre of ecological apocalyptic fiction, John Wyndham, J.G Ballard and Anna Kavan all produced work in this vein.
Hitchcock told the screenwriter Evan Hunter to keep the central premise of unexplained bird assaults but to develop new characters and expand upon the plot. Given the end result it is hard not to see The Birds as a symbolic take on the ungovernable nature of female sexuality, in all its myriad forms.
The Birds centres on the character of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren), a chic and irresponsible socialite who becomes a cuckoo in the nest when she impulsively follows love interest Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to his home in the small coastal town of Bodega Bay, California with a pair of caged lovebirds in tow. Mitch is defined solely in relation to the women in his life; his overbearing and jealous mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and his ex, the local school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). Soon after the birds begin to inexplicably attack the residents of the town, massing, with even birds of different species flocking together to launch aerial invasions. At one point a hysterical mother in the diner expressively connects the menacing behaviour of the birds with the arrival of Miss Daniels. Somehow her presence upsets a delicate balance, unleashing all the forces in nature inimical to humanity.
Below is a short clip of the school scene, a masterclass in suspense.
Although Anna Kavan is primarily remembered (when she is remembered at all) for her extraordinary apocalyptic novel Ice, shealso wrote a number of remarkable short stories and novels, including the compellingly grim Who Are You?and her most surrealistic work, the dream narrative Sleep has his house from 1948.
Taking its title from a poem by the medieval English poet John Gower, Kavan states the works intention in the brief introduction:
LIFE IS TENSION or the result of tension: without tension the creative impulse cannot exist. If human life be taken as the result of tension between the two polarities night and day, night, the negative pole, must share equal importance with the positive day. At night, under the influence of cosmic radiation quite different from those of the day, human affairs are apt to come to a crisis. At night most human beings die and are born.
Sleep has his house describes in the night-time language certain stages in the development of one individual human being. No interpretation is needed of this language we have all spoken in childhood and in our dreams; but for the sake of unity a few words before every section indicate the corresponding events of the day.
Sleep has his house raised little comment upon publication. Traditional English fiction of the time was obsessed by character and the class structure, concerns that Kavan didn’t share in the slightest. Here we are in the realm of universals and archetypes. As well as exploring the nature of dreams, Sleep has his house primarily deals with the mother-daughter relationship (it is safe to say that Kavan had mummy issues) although in the most abstract fashion possible. Kavan’s dream surrogate is simply named B while the mother is just A.
Dream narratives are notoriously difficult to sustain; dreams are by their very nature elusive, incoherent and intensely personal, however Kavan, in prose that is poetic, painterly and cinematic manages to achieve this near impossible feat.
Below is a short excerpt that gives a flavour of Kavan’s night-time language. Although she rarely directly addressed her heroin addiction, the preference for fevered, apocalyptic and macabre imagery shows her kinship with other opiated writers, namely Coleridge, De Quincey and later, Burroughs.
Sleep has his house
Are you afraid of the tigers? Do you hear them padding all round you on their fierce fine velvet feet?
The speed of the growth of tigers in the nightland is a thing which ought to be investigated some time by the competent authority. You start off with one, about the size of a mouse, and before you know where you are he’s twice the size of the Sumatra tiger which defeats all corners in that hemisphere. And then, before you can say Knife (not a very tactful thing to say in the circumstances anyhow), all his boy and girl friends are gathered round, your respectable quiet decorous night turns itself into a regular tiger-garden. Wherever you look, the whole night is full of tigers leaping and loping and grooming their whiskers and having a wonderful time at your expense. There isn’t a thing you can do about it apparently.
The wilder the tricks of the tigers, the more abandoned their games and gambols, the more diversely dreadful become the dooms of the unfortunate A in this dream. Her fugitive shape, black-swathed, varnishes at the end of every cul-de-sac. Through the cities of the world she pursues her fate, in streets where the dead eyes of strangers are no colder than the up-swarming lights which have usurped the brilliance of the stars. From shrouded platforms among the clouds she hurtles down. She plunges from towers strict and terrible in their fragile strength, delicate as jerboa’s bones on the sky, perdurable with granite and steel. Slumped on his stained bar, Pete the Greek, beneath flybown Christmas festoons which no one will ever remove, hears the screaming skid of wheels spouting slush with her blood. Limp as an old coat not worth a hanger, she is to be found behind numbered doors in hotel bedrooms; or dangling from the trees of country churchyards where leaning tombstones like feeble-minded ghosts mop and mow in the long summer grass. The weeds of lonely rivers bind her with clammy skeins; the tides of tropical oceans suck off her shoes; crabs scuttle over her eye sockets. Sheeted and anonymous on rubbered wheels she traverses the interminable bleakness of chloroform corridors. The sardonic yap of the revolver can be taken as the full stop arbitrarily concluding each ambiguous sentence.
The question asked by the Caterpillar of Alice, surely the most fundamental question of them all, which Alice truthfully admits that she cannot answer in any definitive manner, must have seemed especially pertinent to Anna Kavan whose wavering sense of self necessitated her to create a whole other persona . Continue reading →
Anne Kavan is inevitably smiling in photographs. It was that smile which initially intrigued me. I was browsing through My Madness when I saw the photo that served as the frontispiece. It shows a rather smart
middle-aged woman beaming away at the camera. The contrast between the blurb which alluded to drug addiction, mental breakdown and confinement in psychiatric institutions and the photograph of a lady who obviously lunched at expensive Kensington restaurants was too incongruous. Here, I felt, was a mystery. I brought the book and went home to found out something about the enigmatic Anna Kavan.