‘The Flight Of The Ravens’ by Chris Butler – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club
‘The Flight Of The Ravens’ was originally published by Immersion Press.
The house looked abandoned; there were no lights showing in the windows. “What do you mean? Let’s go?”
He shook his head. “There’s something familiar, something I recognise.”
“what are you talking about? It’s just an empty house. Let’s go.”
He stepped forward and pushed at the front door.
It swung open.
Dun dun DUN! I immediately felt slightly bad for my reaction to Butler’s hackneyed opening to his story since the monster that inevitably lurks inside this haunted house is evoked with some nicely weird touches. “He had hardly eaten these last weeks, trying to weaken himself” we are told and, when the adventurous children creep into his house, he angrily smashes a garlic clove into fragments, “inhaling their pungent aroma” in an attempt to regain control of his body. But no, my first instinct was correct; ‘The Flight Of Ravens’ is gothic tripe of a the most familiar type. Our monster portentously tells the children: “You should not have come here.” Dun dun DUN!
Of the two children, Bernard dies and Elizabeth lives. Ten years pass in which she devotes herself to learning magic, a surprisingly easy business, to protect herself. In this she is encouraged by Bernard’s father, Huginn. For no particular reason, Huginn really is Huginn, one of Odin’s ravens in human form. A connection is eventually revealed since the murderous monster is a man possessed by a fire jötnar. This is unnecessary for the plot and the coincidence of two supernatural creatures from Norse mythology bumping into each other in 19th Century Amsterdam is hugely off-putting.
This setting allows Butler to play dress up, historical drag standing in for the what elsewhere in the genre would be torrential worldbuilding. So, for example: “Elizabeth rode away on her bicycle, her most-prized possession. It had been manufactured locally by Simplex, which set it apart from the more common imports from England.” There is no reason for the story to contain this sentence. It is there to try and convey veracity trhough detail which would be a bogus enterprise, even if the lot of the details weren’t incorrect. To ensure the reader gets their money’s worth of time tourism, Butler throws in several pointless meetings with Freud. Apparently he thinks Elizabeth has psychological problem rather than really being the victim of a malevolent supernatural evil. Crazy!
Pages turn, time passes. As Niall Alexander says:
At almost 100 pages long, with 25 short chapters, several narrative perspectives, three time periods and scenes taking place from Frankfurt to Amsterdam—not to mention Vienna — Chris Butler’s novella has markedly more opportunity to (ahem) spread its wings than any of this year’s nominees for the BSFA’s Best Short Story trophy… yet it lacks the impact of even the least of these.
Eventually we get to the end and the plot is tied up neatly at little cost. The monster (half-heartedly humanised) perishes in one final cliche: “In a matter of seconds her aged the remainder of his five centuries, and crumbled to ashes.” This is the point in a Hammer horror film where ‘The End?’ would appear before the credits. Instead, Butler or Immersion has chosen ‘Fin’. Oh dear.