The Call of the Wild

In addition to stories written in recent years about an owl (The Owl) and a shrike (Slitten Gorge), as well as a novel born from the question: What if people behaved like insects? (The Unblemished), I’ve just finished some stories about a pike (The Pike) and a wolf – well, sort of – (Manners). I’m now at work on a story called The Fox, which is all about a badger. No, just kidding, it really is about a fox. I’m not sure what it is that keeps drawing me back to wild animals. I grew up in an industrial town in the north-west of England and apart from school visits to Chester zoo, the closest I ever came to tooth-and-claw was witnessing a hawk clutching a mouse on a neighbour’s fencepost. Sometimes there was a heron in Sankey Valley park. But nothing, you know, exotic. That changed when I went to live in France in 2003. We had bought a crumbling farmhouse near Cognac which had a resident barn owl and at least one snake, which liked to cool off in that year’s lethal summer by wriggling into the cracks in our stone walls. In the garden I once, thrillingly, found a praying mantis. The Owl was written, not in tribute to the barn owl living in one of the outbuildings, but another that had somehow found its way into the attic and become trapped and we found, desiccated near a window, when the estate agent was giving us a guided tour.

Horror writers, I suppose, are naturally drawn to that wild element that flickers within, whether it be in a predator or a human being prone to violence. I might be wrong, but the fox – despite its willingness to visit urban areas – is an animal that carries more than its fair share of wildness within it; an animal that surely could not be domesticated. On a visit to a forest zoo in France (Zoodyssee, just south of Niort), I came face-to-face with a fox in its den, albeit separated by a pane of glass. That I’ve never forgotten its stink, or its scream, or the flash of pure fury in its saccadic eyes when I got too close, or the V of its gaping mouth is probably why I felt the need to somehow capture its mercurial character in a story.

Related to dogs, yet solitary and cat-like in behaviour, the omnivorous fox is a clever – some might say calculated – animal. It can conceal its scent by leaping on to the backs of sheep or using its bushy tail to erase its own tracks. It can attract prey to it by imitating the bleats or yelps of a lost lamb or injured rabbit. Cunning indeed… (on that visit we also saw vultures fighting over whole, raw chickens, but that’s another story).

Next up, I’m planning to write about worms. Not quite the same thing, but still wild I suppose.

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