This is the scariest horror novel I’ve ever read.
Duck! by Kim Dare is Denver’s favourite book and now that I’ve read it, I can understand why. It’s a transcendentalist horror novel set in a dystopian world where some people can turn into giant birds and everyone likes to have gay sex. It’s a terrifying retelling of The Ugly Duckling for a modern era and I think it might be the most prescient and disturbing tale of our time.
This review is going to contain some spoilers for Duck! I wouldn’t worry overly about that if I were you, as the plot isn’t what really matters here. It’s the petrifying themes that really matter.
The premise of the book is very straightforward. In a world that may or may not be postapocalyptic, lots of people are avian shifters and therefore can turn into giant birds on occasion. They all live in a commune called a Nest where what species of bird they are determines where they stand (fly?) in the dystopian bird hierarchy, and people who are lower in the hierarchy have to be subservient to everyone else, which mostly seems to involve being waiters while wearing short shorts and having to have sex with whoever wants to have sex. So it’s all pretty terrifying. The main character Ori is presumed to be the titular duck, which means he’s at the bottom of the hierarchy, but he ends up being in a satisfying BDSM relationship with Raynard, a hawk who takes a liking to him.
So it goes without saying that the horror of this book arises from the fact that all the characters are birds. The characters talk about having this inner bird that seems to guide their personalities, and if they don’t turn into a bird once in a while and fly around doing bird things, they start to get agitated. It’s the classic horror premise a human becoming the monster or secretly having been the monster all along, but set after the fact—rather than the story being about someone realizing they were a bird all along (terrifying), it’s about what happens to society after everyone realizes they were birds all along.
And yes, you can say all that happens is that they set up a sexy gay BDSM commune where everyone has sex all the time, and that’s all well and good since sometimes I feel like that’s the inevitable direction that society will head in the real world (I don’t know, sometimes I just feel like I live in a porn universe, okay?), but that’s the scary part! Because everyone turned into bird shapeshifters and instead of rebelling against it and society collapsing, everyone just moved on with their lives and continued having society as usual. Showing us that we really can adapt to anything should be heartwarming and nice, but it just makes it all the more terrifying because we can tell that this is wrong even if the characters can’t.
Speaking of the characters, I should point out that they’re quite well done. It would have been very easy for them to just be boring archetypes who are just vehicles for sex and/or existential horror, but Ori and Raynard are more complex and interesting than you’d expect in a novel like this. Legitimate work was put into making them compelling, which makes their relationship together legitimately compelling even if it’s obvious where it’s going in the end, and therefore makes the book very readable. The pathos experienced by both of them when Ori turns out to be a swan (and therefore the highest bird in the bird hierarchy) is over the top but it makes sense, and you really cheer for them when they realize that BDSM relationships shouldn’t be focused on social rank but on the individual preferences of the partners involved. It’s all very heartwarming.
And terrifying, because then you realize you’re still cheering for some bird/human hybrids to be happy, instead of being shocked and appalled that society has let this state of affairs happen. It’s not super clear what’s going on in the rest of the world or the rest of the culture, as the author intentionally keeps the focus limited on our two main characters since that tight lens really lends itself to fear, so we don’t know if the whole world is in the throes of the avian apocalypse, if it’s just this one area, if there’s a human resistance trying desperately to fight back against the giant bird people, if someone is looking for a cure, none of that. Because none of that really matters—what matters is the horror that is inflicted by these people’s casual acceptance of their situation.
You really have to applaud author Kim Dare for pushing the envelope with this book. It would have been so easy for her to just rely on the inherent fear that anyone among us could be birds, have some scenes where people turn out to have secretly been birds all along, and call it a day. But instead she decided to go entirely transhumanist, making us question what is human and what is reality all at once in this stunning tour-de-force of feathers and fear. The world of Duck! is similar enough to our world that we can recognize that this isn’t just about a fantasy universe where people are birds, it’s a realistic take on our universe in which we are the birds and we don’t even care.
I walked away from this book fearful that I might be a bird. I thought I knew myself, but Duck! made me question everything I thought I held dear. The real horror of Duck! isn’t in its terrifying bird shapeshifters, it’s in the way it quacks into your heart and soul and makes you think about who the real birds are.
In exchange for not having him stand over my shoulder as I wrote this, I promised Denver I would mention that he masturbated six different times while reading this book and also provide my own score on that front. And because I know Nate will tell Denver if I lie, I will admit that I did twice, because the sex scenes are very well written even if they’re terrifying. That’s the power this book has. That’s the power of Duck!