What better time for a spooky read than Halloween season? I had never read any Daphne du Maurier before but everything I had heard of her – her Gothic imagination and her taste for the supernatural, ensured that she would be perfect for this time of year. I bypassed the obvious Rebecca in favor of a collection of du Maurier’s short stories entitled Don’t Look Now.
Don’t Look Now was published by The New York Review of Books and the stories within curated by Patrick McGrath. Kudos to McGrath on a job well done in selecting these stories! They have a unified theme yet are varied enough so as not to feel dull. McGrath’s choices also spanned more than thirty years of du Maurier’s writing career.
Also, just look at the creepy cover of this book! You’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitable book cover for Halloween!
I think I may have found myself a new favorite author. du Maurier lamented the fact that she was “dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller” during her lifetime. I can see where the critics were coming from: du Maurier was no literary stylist. Her prose can feel a little dated, a little fusty. But she was, above all, a superb, furious plotter. du Maurier is so thrilling I delayed my gym time by an hour because I just had to finish the title story “Don’t Look Now.” I was so absorbed in “Split Second” that someone had to kick at a nearby chair to get my attention.
The reason why du Maurier got me so hooked was her expertise in ratcheting up tension. Spooky supernatural premises aren’t enough for du Maurier. In “Don’t Look Now,” a wife and husband are divided over a psychic vision of their dead child. Hey, let’s up the stakes and put a murderer on the loose! In “Blue Lenses,” a woman gets her sight back… but it came back wrong. Nah, not enough! There’s also the threatening husband demanding co-directorship of her trust fund! In du Maurier’s world the stakes are high, the stories exciting, and the pages keep turning.
I think a good way to describe du Maurier’s output is at the lower end of quality writing. My words sound derogatory but I mean them in the best way possible. Her plotting skills ensured her popularity. Yet the themes of her stories merit analysis. du Maurier was fascinated with the liminal space between the human world and psychic terrains. She was the type of writer who could be both commercially and critically acclaimed.
Reading these stories, I was also struck by how easily du Maurier could slip from a masculine to feminine voice. The difference between “Escort,” narrated by a naval captain, and “Split Second,” told from the point of view of a young upper-middle class widow is stark. Also, a lot of research must have gone into these stories. The naval vocabulary in “Escort”, the mountaineering language in “Monte Verita”, all the diction rang authentically to my reader eye.
But you’ll never hear about the content of these stories if I keep singing du Maurier’s praises! Below are some of my favorite stories:
The married couple in “Don’t Look Now” has recently lost their daughter to meningitis. Trying to soothe themselves through a vacation in Venice, they are instead confronted by a blind stranger with a vision of their daughter seated between them. The wife is a believer. The husband is skeptical. Thus ensues a series of coincidences, clairvoyance, and paranoia. A murderer is on the loose. And event upon event pile up towards the nail-biting climax.
In “The Birds,” famously made into a Hitchcock film, birds are inexplicably attacking humans. In the hands of a master storyteller, a premise that could have easily veered into silly, B-grade territory becomes utter terror. If you think birds are harmless, you’ll think twice after reading “The Birds.” du Maurier truly captured the helplessness we feel when our toys and technology are taken from us. The Air Force is ineffective, guns don’t work. It’s every man for himself as our narrator boards up his doors and windows, and worries about what his family has left to eat. The build-up and atmosphere of this story is superb.
In “Split Second,” a young widow returns home to find strangers firmly entrenched in her house. Who are these people? Where are her family and friends? “Split Second” is a slow burn story. We spend fifty pages gradually piecing together what went wrong, even as the narrator remains clueless. The writing here is beautifully detailed. Not overwrought, not flowery. Perfectly detailed. It’s almost as though du Maurier knew how people would behave in such a situation. The disruption of the narrator’s world is handled with such empathy you can only feel sorry for her.
“Monte Verita” is the last and most opaque of du Maurier’s stories in Don’t Look Now. It lacks the concreteness of du Maurier’s other stories. At some point, I realized that du Maurier had a plot formula: an opening mystery, an added danger, and a closing twist. Not here. “Monte Verita” is more experimental and literary and deals with heavier themes, such as purity vs. sexuality, asceticism vs. worldliness, and religious worship.
In “Monte Verita,” the beguiling Anna joins a cult on top of the titular mountain whilst the two men who love her become more and more drawn to the mystery surrounding Monte Verita. Anna is irresistible to them, almost a femme fatale. Yet Anna is very much associated with purity. She wears no make-up, has a peaceful aura, and renounces material things. Even her name, Anna, is simple and bare bones. She is almost a Jesus figure towards the narrator, encouraging him to refuse luxury. Is “Monte Verita” an allegory for self-denial or romantic passion? You decide!
I can’t recommend du Maurier enough. This is page-turning reading at its best! If you prefer your literary fiction more esoteric, I say look elsewhere. But lovers of Gothic and Victorian literature will rejoice.