So, my first piece of published work was a short story entitled ‘The Black Bird’ for a charming anthology run by the sadly now defunct Wyvern Publications. I remember being very excited when it got selected for publication. I suspected that royalties would be minor, but at that fledgling time, I didn’t care.
I even went to my first launch party and met my fellow co-authors, which was great and really helped me break out of my shy bubble and discuss my work, style and content for the first time in my career. The story itself took inspiration from where I lived at the time, and had lived the majority of my life – Kingston Upon Thames. I set it on the River Thames, on the river walk that led from Surbiton to Kingston town centre. I had walked that route hundreds of times with my parents over the years, so I knew the layout and feel intimately. The challenge was to inject something supernatural into that natural wander. So I decided to set it early in the morning on a foggy day, and when not many other people were around. The sense of the mist over the Thames immediately darkens the atmosphere (to an extent), but the real crux was the sudden, baffling appearance of a black bird ‘flying’ over the water. For this, I brought to mind a cormorant, as these dark birds are infrequent visitors who spend most of their time bobbing low on the waves, or diving for fish – hence, they are not usually seen for long periods at a time.
The strangeness in the story comes from the jerky nature of the bird, followed by the sense of an invasive, colossal force that demands a blood sacrifice (a drowning victim). For this, I brought to mind Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’ and the uncertain double ending of the protagonist thinking he was ripe for sacrifice, only to find someone else (who he had met earlier in the story) has been ‘luckily’ picked instead. This injects both relief and guilt in the main lead, which I hoped bled through to my own story. Indeed, those who read it seemed to pick out the twist ending and the setting as two highlights.
Overall, I hold fond memories of ‘The Black Bird’ – even though, when I read it now it is undoubtedly rough around the stylistic edges. A real passion for place comes through and the imagination of the abrupt, inexplicable happenings works well in my opinion. Since then, I have rarely set any stories in places where I intimately know. I’m not sure why, as I seem to write well when I do. Maybe I veered fully into the fantasy realm and found the real world too boring? At any rate, the next time I do decide to push a narrative into familiar settings, I may just dig out ‘The Black Bird’ for a read again to refresh the mind…and to remind myself that horror can exist in the most well-worn places…