The Strange Story of ‘The Birds’
I greatly enjoyed Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot’ and ‘The Shining’, but found much of the rest of his prose too eager to please, too Gawk-Tousle-And-Shucks for my tastes. I wasn’t long out of school, I was heavily into Dickens and Waugh, and would have simply placed King in the cool holiday reading category if critics hadn’t elevated him to high art after Brian De Palma’s breakout movie version of ‘Carrie’.
So it wasn’t King I had the problem with. t didn’t like the lazy conflation among fans that required King to be the new Shakespeare rather than an excellent pop writer. Later, I went back to reading selected King away from the hoopla and enjoyed them much more.
I think that’s what often happens – you read a book surrounded by hype or coloured by a film version, and fail to see what the fuss is about. I’ve gone back to discover wonderful surprises and several disappointments. The most thrilling have been works by Norman Collins, Josephine They, JB Priestley, Alexander Baron, PD James. Among the worst was brat-packer Bret Easton Ellis, whose ‘American Psycho’ may have caught the zeitgeist but now reads like incontinent posturing, and far better as filmed satire.
With this in mind, I returned to Cornish writer Frank Baker. Of his fifteen novels, his masterpiece is the enchanting ‘Miss Hargreaves’, in which two friends on holiday in Ireland are required to invent the titular 83 year-old woman. Later, forced to explain how they met her, they slowly add details to her life, embellishing her backstory with the information that she always travels with a cockatoo, a harp and her own bath.
The lark gets out of hand when they receive a telegram from Miss Hargreaves herself, informing them that she is coming to stay for an indefinite period – but how can they explain who she is when they can’t even understand why she exists? A comedy about the creative imagination, loss of control and the pressures of conformity, ‘Miss Hargreaves’ came to the London stage starring Margaret Rutherford, the living embodiment of the character and a friend of the author.
To my mind, Frank Baker’s ‘The Birds’ is really the book Hitchcock had intended to purchase for a film. I think he simply made a mistake when buying Daphne Du Murier’s short story.
Thirty years before Du Murier’s version, Baker’s ‘The Birds’ appeared a s a novel, in which London’s inhabitants were turned upon by avian predators. Although Baker’s version was much more ambitious, the stories are remarkably similar, and like Du Murier, Baker was also living in Cornwall. Was it coincidence or something more? Baker’s birds seemed more supernatural in origin, but he was upset and corresponded with Du Murier, who sympathized. Hitchcock followed Baker’s version more, ignored the likeable young church organist, who was somehow persuaded not to pursue costly litigation against Universal Studios.
But Baker’s ‘The Birds’ is a truly unique and strange novel. It has many elements of the film – the hero’s odd relationship with an overbearing mother, the birds’ periods of silence before they attack, an aura of latent sexuality – and something other-worldly and unexplained. At one point the birds take to using London’s reservoirs as giant drinking fountains and foul all the water. At other times there are apocalyptic attacks, and unnerving lone incidents.
But it’s clear, now that the book has finally been rediscovered, that this is where Hitchcock’s inspiration came from. And it devastated Baker not to be recognised in his lifetime. Everyone was just so nice abut the mistake that it was never put right.
Read it for yourself and compare the two.