Ornithologiae is an anthology with the theme of birds edited by Mark Beech from his Egeaus Press in the United Kingdom. The subtitle of the book is “Being a collection of weird and uncategorizable stories and poems on the subject of birds.” The volume is hardcover with black and white interior illustrations and color illustrated end pages.
The publisher describers the project as follows:
Herein, and alongside the more or less familiar, feathered avian varieties you will find creatures of pure myth, impossibilities; birds re-imagined, reconstructed; birds as symbols and metaphors for all that is both irreconcilably fascinating and alien to humanity.
The first thing I noticed about Ornithologiae is it that it is a beautiful book. Truly outstanding. It is a well-made hardcover done in an “old fashioned” style. Handling the book, one would think you are in possession of an antique treasure if not for the crisp, new well-designed interior pages and unblemished, sturdy cover. Not long after receiving my review copy I decided that I needed two other copies as gifts for readers in my life just on the high quality of the presentation and the “book-as-beautiful-object-factor” alone. The visual quality is that good. It is worth noting that I quickly learned that Egeaus volumes sell out fast and command high prices on the secondary market when available at all.
While perhaps I am guilty, or not-guilty, of judging this book on its cover, I am pleased to report the stories on the interior pages are also unique treasures and also of great delight to this reader.
There is part of me tempted to fill the rest of this review with bird metaphors; instead I will convey a few stand out stories.
“Pretty Bird” by Florence Sunnen could be said to be a tale of a possessed parrot. It could be said to be an exploration of isolation and human connection. Maybe it is both these things or maybe it is neither. For certain, the control and (intentional) ambiguity I saw in this story impressed and delighted me.
“How can something be translated if not understood?” the main character, who takes on a parrot as a pet while working remotely from home, muses at one point. The main character is referred to at times merely as “the protagonist” and dwells in multiple “worlds,” their solitary existence at home as well as two language classes.
The protagonist “sometimes wonders if he has stumbled upon a kind of communicative code, a set of words and phrases that unlock formerly hidden parts of people…”
As the story progresses these worlds are thrust together. And thereafter the reader cannot help but notice the words the parrot speaks have become wild and strange and unsettling. The language used referring to the bird’s “possessed body” gives the feeling that something supernatural may be at play.
With the intentional ambiguity and focus on the human element, the story operates for me as a “strange tale” within the meaning of the term and definition I ascribe to the tales of British author the late Robert Aickman. This is both a rarity to come across and is perhaps the highest praise I have to offer.
The prose, such as the following excerpt, operates on both the surface level and as symbolic or as metaphor:
Soon, the boundaries of French and Latin blur in the protagonist’s mind, like so many other boundaries in life, and he mixes up his words and syntaxes when he speaks. The teacher sighs, but because he has a day job alongside this one, he lets things slide. After all, mistakes are only mistakes if one applies the rigid dogmatic expressions of grammar, whereas in actual use, language is primarily deviation from the rules.
I found the ending to be remarkably disciplined, confident, and controlled. While this might sound “cold” it is anything but that, in fact I found the final passage and end point to be profound and affecting, a crown making the story a true treasure, worthy of the finery it is bound in.
Ornithologiae concludes with a story from Ron Weighell (1950 – 2020). Weighell was a British writer of the supernatural whose fiction was influenced by M.R. James and Arthur Machen. His story “Spirits of the Dead” is set in Weschester, New York in the 1970s and thus immediately captured my attention. The tale is this reader’s first encounter with Weighell’s work and I shall be seeking out more.
The narrator of “Spirits of the Dead” finds himself in an old house full of bird imagery (and even unsettling bird screams) where reality and dreams become blurred. Our narrator eventually encounters a door engraved with the mysterious inscription Nemo me impune lacessit and becomes encircled by black shapes that form a flapping, feathered cloak. The story and the volume ends with the revelation of the identity of the mysterious house. The reveal was a wonderful surprise and I found it to be a satisfying and fitting conclusion. I surmise that readers and writers who love dark and hallucinatory stories about birds will feel the same.
I finish this review with my highest praise and an expression of my highest enthusiasm possible for what editor Marc Beech has accomplished here. I have not enjoyed a book, anthology or otherwise, so much in quite a long time. For those who seek the strange and uncanny, the morbid, weird and wonderful; and for lovers of birds, lovers of stories, and lovers of beautiful books, Ornithologiae is a must have.