Friday, March 23, 2012

More fear of birds

Since I now have a 45 minute (each way) commute to my new job, I have been amusing myself by listening to audio books I check out from the library, the best of which (so far) has been Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (HarperTorch, 2006). The story (which I highly recommend if you enjoy fantasy or just have a sense of whimsy) is about "Fat Charlie" Nancy, who, to all intents and purposes, seems like an ordinary fellow, estranged from his embarrassing father...until his father's funeral, when he learns that Dad was actually the African trickster god, Anansi. (All quotes in this post are approximations, and not actual quotes from the book, as I listened to it while driving back and forth from work.)

"Well, if my dad was a god," Fat Charlie asked the elderly woman who was his childhood neighbor, "then why don't I have any special powers?"

She said, "Oh, your brother Spider got all those."

"What brother? I don't have a brother!"

"Sure you do. If you want to see him, just tell a spider and he'll come."

In a fit of impulsiveness, Fat Charlie tells a spider that he wants to see his brother, and along comes Spider. He is handsome, confident, charming, and does indeed have some special abilities. As Spider horns in on Fat Charlie's life, messing things up with his job and his fiance, Charlie soon wishes he had never gone asking for him. But what can he do? Spider isn't leaving, and he has ways of getting his way.

At this point, I want to be careful to avoid any spoilers for those of you who haven't read the book but think they might like to. But suffice to say, a supernatural figure known as Bird Woman enters the story, and Spider and Fat Charlie soon find themselves persecuted by birds.

This made me think of one of my previous posts, Fear of Flying (Things), about that most improbable of irrational fears, ornithophobia. I mean seriously, being afraid of birds? Tiny, inoffensive little birds? What's up with that? I can understand being afraid of, say, bears or tigers or alligators. Those are big, powerful creatures that could easily mess someone up. Some people are afraid of dogs, cats or horses. I don't really "get" that, being the big fat animal-lover that I am, but sure, those creatures could bite, scratch, or trample someone rather badly. I even had an infected cat bite once in my youth that was nothing to joke about. My cat, alarmed at being transplanted from one place to another, bit me on the fleshy bit of my palm, and within a week I had red and yellow streaks coursing up my arm from the infection. (No, I did not lose my hand...yes, I am grateful.)

Then there is the fear of snakes or spiders. Personally, I like snakes but am rather freaked out by spiders. Some people have pointed out to me that spiders are good creatures, killing lots of noxious insects, etc., that really have no desire to creep onto my flesh and bite me (not that that has ever stopped one, says the gal who has suffered from several spider bites!), and I tell people the same thing about snakes. But at least snakes and spiders will bite people, and some are venomous. A fear of them is not totally off the wall.

But birds?? True, some birds will swoop at people trying to defend their nests...and you really don't want to get in between a goose or a swan and its nestlings. But overall, birds are the most innocuous of creatures. They almost never hurt people. They probably couldn't if they tried.

And yet, a fear of birds is powerful literary trope, as illustrated by this quote from Graeme Gibson's A Bedside Book of Birds:

Natural avian aggression translates powerfully into myth and story. When a creature naturally associated with the soul becomes a threat, you know there'll be hell to pay. Malevolence on the wing is irresistable to storytellers, and historically they've taken full advantage of it.
Suffice to say that Anansi Boys has some scenes in line with that mythic tradition, which might send an ornithophobe right over the edge. As for myself, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought of another fantasy story I read, Ghost Ocean by S.M. Peters (Roc, 2009). Although nowhere near on the caliber of Anansi Boys (to be honest, I lost interest about two-thirds of the way through and didn't finish it), this novel is noteworthy for a particularly horrific supernatural creature named Bird. In fact, Bird gave my mother nightmares. Bird is an example of all the birds we fear, wrapped up into one single character.

And if we want to get blatant about it:

The fear of flying things, including insects, bats, and most particularly birds seems, like it or not (and I don't) ingrained in the human psyche.

Recently, a new permutation of that phobia has appeared. Granted, humans have always been persecuted by disease, and we have never really been OK with that. Interestingly enough, does this medieval image of a plague doctor not appear to be a bit bird-like?

And, of course, for those who are not actually afraid of violence from birds, there is still the much more post-modern fear of contagion:

They might seem cute...they might seem harmless...but who knows what germs they are harboring?

There's a lot I've touched in this post and not gone into better detail. As always, so big a topic, so little time. Perhaps at some future point. In the meantime, what's your favorite scary bird story?

1 comment:

  1. The creature, Bird, in Peters' "Ghost Ocean" still scares me if I let myself think about it...I couldn't finish that novel because I found it too frightening! On the other hand, I'm going to look for "Anansi Boys" in the library. Really, what could one expect of a brother named Spider? I'm terrified of spiders; even the littlest has me hanging from the ceiling, screaming for deliverance. The most curious thing to me about a BIRD phobia, after wondering how anyone can be afraid of birds, is how common it it. And it's always females who admit to being afraid of birds. What's up with that? Mom