Daphne du Maurier – Don’t Look Now and Other Stories

Title: Don’t Look Now and Other Stories
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Published: 2006, Penguin (Originally published in 1971)

About fifteen years ago, I visited Fowey in Cornwall, home of Daphne du Maurier from about 1943 and also the location of the Daphne du Maurier Literary Centre. At that time, I had no real idea as to who du Maurier was, or what she wrote. As far as I knew, she was just any old writer of wistful Cornish romance novels, that happened to have been very popular. I remember my trip to the town very clearly, especially the experience of wandering through the streets and alleys to the excited echoing chorus of “Daphne du Maurier!” from tourists from all over the world. For days and weeks afterwards, I found myself internally repeating her name in the variety of accents I had heard on that day. I think I found it funny that this writer of potentially unremarkable love stories (or so I had thought) had stirred up so much interest in this town. At the same time, it was oddly uncanny – to hear so many voices constantly repeat the name of an author I knew relatively nothing about. As I later found out, du Maurier did indeed write romance novels, but not the type that I’d imagined at the time. I certainly wasn’t aware that she wrote some hugely important and influential suspense, intrigue and horror fiction. I think if I had known that at the time I would have definitely spent all of my holiday funds in the bookshops of Fowey.

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories is the first collection of du Maurier’s shorter fiction I’ve read, and I think it’s probably a good starting point for the newcomer to the author, especially for the type of her work I’m interested in. It was first published in 1971 as Not After Midnight, which is also the title of the second story in this edition.

Each of the five stories in this collection are filled with paranoia, distress, suspicion and anxiety – emotions and situations that du Maurier conjures up masterfully. Her crisp descriptive style is very entertaining to read, and made all the more enjoyable that each tale takes place in a different part of the world. I don’t know how well-travelled du Maurier actually was (outside of England), but her tales exist here in an immersive, emotive landscape – at times gothic, at others cosmopolitan, both in Britain and overseas – landscapes which serve as strong, vibrant backgrounds to the worries and fears of the characters in these stories. The locations in the stories are almost characters unto themselves, certainly insofar as the stories’ plots are interwoven with the protagonists and the subject matter.

One element of these stories, which may also be present in the rest of her work, is her predilection for ending the stories abruptly, sometimes in a completely absurd or incongruous fashion. I know there will be some readers who feel cheated at this notion, and it’s easy to understand why, but for me the sudden, jarring endings are almost part of what makes these stories so effective and unsettling. The sudden “twist” endings could be seen a quick, cheap conclusion to these scary little stories, but when the concepts and general plots of the tales are that interesting and engaging, it almost doesn’t matter. I’ll go into more detail about the stories’ conclusions in the summaries section below.

Another interesting aspect I found when reading this collection was the occasionally indistinct time setting of the stories. Details in the text confirm that these tales are supposed to be contemporary, taking place in the 1970s, but I found when reading these stories that they could almost be set fifty years before that. It was often jarring to read about a character’s modern outfit or accessory, or to be made aware of an ideal or concept that defines the time in which the story is set.


Don’t Look Now
An English couple mourning the death of their daughter take a trip to Venice. The wife is still struggling to come to terms with the loss of their daughter, and finds solace in the supernatural visions of two Scottish twin sisters they meet whilst there. News from home causes the wife to travel back to England suddenly, and the husband remains to travel home later. The story is told from the husband’s perspective, and the reader becomes privy to his growing paranoia and confusion as he too begins to succumb to the same mysterious “second sight” ability held by one of the twin sisters.

The story is lush with descriptions of Italian cities, streets and alleyways, and this strong immersion forms a large part of the element of the uncanny which fills this story. The strange presence of the twin sisters, one of which is blind and prone to mysterious trances, immediately creates a sense of unease which continues throughout the tale. As the plot develops, so too does the confusion and terror of the husband, now feeling increasingly alone and isolated in a beautiful but foreboding country. The element of the supernatural is understated and deliberately vague here, which causes more consternation for the characters and for the reader. The ending of this tale, now famous thanks to Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 movie, is divisive among fans of du Maurier and indeed fans of horror and suspense in general. This being the first du Maurier story I’d read, I too felt as though the ending was too sudden, too absurd to be taken seriously. Yes, it is absurd, but it is also horrifying. Elements of the story once indistinct and unnatural begin to make sense in the final sentences of the story, which make for a clear, if possibly unsatisfying ending.


Not After Midnight
The tale that the original publication of this collection was named after. An English schoolteacher takes a holiday in Crete to find solitude to indulge his hobby of painting. On arrival, he discovers an unpleasant truth about his chosen chalet, and the situation becomes more intriguing and unpleasant when he meets a shady American couple in the same resort. As the teacher becomes more torn between his desire for isolation and his need to quench his curiosity, he becomes entangled in a sinister situation that becomes more difficult to escape from.

This was one of my favourite tales in the collection, with a growing, pervasive dread that builds from the very first line. Du Maurier creates an atmosphere of sometimes unbearable tension and couples it with the ill-advised curiosity of the schoolteacher. The ending of this tale is subject to a lot of criticism, and I’ll admit that at first I felt almost short-changed (in a similar reaction to that of Don’t Look Now), but as some time has passed since I’ve read it, I’ve come to enjoy it more. The conclusion is sudden, possibly unexpected but at the same time oddly inevitable. Given my enjoyment of the rest of the story, I’m hesitant to dismiss it outright solely due to my problems with the ending, but I couldn’t help but feel if the ending was expanded slightly, this would be one of my favourite stories of all time (although with that said, I’m not sure if the sudden ending of the tale, with its many unanswered questions, actually goes some way to helping the story retain its atmosphere of dread and terror). One aspect of the story that I’m still undecided on, which is also related to my issues with the sudden ending, is the almost casual introduction of quasi-spiritual/religious details, introduced to us gradually by the Americans and other minor characters. The hints towards ancient mystical rituals and rites, along with descriptions of mythical gods and monsters are definitely one of the more horrifying aspects of the story, but unfortunately they are ultimately underdeveloped. The arc words “not after midnight” appear about half way through the story to great, chilling effect, but again this is left unexplored by the time we reach the climax of the story. Part of me considers these subtle references to myth and the thinly veiled threat of “not after midnight” to possibly be red herrings planted by du Maurier, included purely to ramp up the sense of unease throughout the text.


A Border-Line Case
A young actress witnesses the death of her father, who dies suddenly, crying out as he watches her in the mirror. The actress, curious about her father’s recent mysterious mention of an old friend, and finding herself lost and overlooked at home, travels to Ireland to discover the reasons behind her father and his friend’s mysterious estrangement. Her sudden trip to Ireland yields much more information than she had originally predicted.

This is another favourite from this collection, and it’s one that has much more of a definite conclusion than the previous stories. What I enjoyed most about this story was du Maurier’s stark but engaging descriptions of the Irish village where the protagonist, Shelagh, visits. The pub in which Shelagh lodges for the first day immediately brought to mind images of The Wicker Man and similar stories, whilst her discovery of the isolated island, surrounded by dark waters and dense woodland delves even further into rural horror territory. Similarly, when Shelagh gains access to the mansion on the island (belonging to her father’s friend, Nick), a vague atmosphere of Victorian gothic fiction comes to the fore. A reclusive captain in a stately home, surrounded by books, strange photographs and archaeological projects allows the story to take a sharp turn towards suspense and even whodunnit? fiction.

The swift plot development leaves the reader with a sense of being uprooted – we move from England to Ireland, and then from the Irish village to the even more remote hidden mansion. The story continues in this way, meaning that whilst the reader is potentially preoccupied with solving the riddles of the mysterious items and shady activities of the mansion’s inhabitants, the story is free to swerve and stutter. Shelagh is swayed from suspicion to a kind of infatuation, and from there to passion – though the passion is for a cause I did not predict at any point in the story. It is eventually revealed that Nick is a supporter, or possibly member, of the IRA, and has been involved with quasi-military terrorist actions on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland for some time. To some the quick plot developments could be seen as hasty, with so many rapid changes in direction in quick succession, and I’d be tempted to agree, though the atmosphere of rural Ireland with misty lakes and strange artifacts being uncovered in the mansion’s grounds proved to enjoyable for me to resist. A final “twist” at the end of the story could certainly be seen as inevitable, but I think du Maurier inserts enough distraction and diversion to let you forget about the predictable conclusion.


The Way of the Cross
A group of Brits on a trip to Jerusalem are disappointed to hear their vicar has fallen ill, and their pilgrimage to the holy land is to be conducted by the inexperienced Reverend Babcock. The group is made up of various couples in varying stages of marital unhappiness, a precocious nine-year old eager to discover the geography of the holy land, and an elderly spinster, crestfallen at the news of their vicar. A spontaneous evening visit to the Garden of Gethsemane sparks further rivalries and problems within the group, and their tour of the holy city is plagued with misfortune.

For many, this seems to be the least effective story in this collection. I enjoyed it, but would agree that it doesn’t have quite the same effect as the other stories here. Again there is the sense of unease that flows between the characters, presented to us upon the backdrop of holy Jerusalem, but this tension is created from social slights and overheard gossip, as opposed to the horrific situations uncovered by the protagonists of the other stories. The initial night-time visit to Gethsemane is disastrous, as the members of the group gradually learn more about themselves and each other through their own lust, pride, shame and embarrassment. Hurtful truths are overheard in the darkness, and the already cracked relationships within the group become more fractured.

One particularly memorable section involves a member of the group, a retired army colonel, who had been the image of confidence and pomp for the majority of the story, suddenly becomes shell-shocked at the sudden recollection of an atrocity committed by his military unit in the 1940s. However, much more of the story is comedic in tone, with du Maurier employing dark humour and bathos to illustrate the downfalls of her characters, to mixed effect. It could be said that the central character here is Robin, the nine-year old boy, who is devoted to discovering as much as possible about the holy land, whilst the adults bicker amongst themselves in a farcical pilgrimage to various religious sites. Robin has a scientific mind (to the dismay of his grandparents), which drives him to explore more outside the city walls – a development which immediately created an air of tension: for if the adults are subject such distressing and pathetic incidents, then surely young Robin, alone in a bustling, foreign city, will meet an unsettling fate. Thankfully this is not the case, and for the first time in this collection, we are presented with a positive ending, albeit an uneasy one, at the conclusion of the tale.


The Breakthrough
A computer engineer is sent to a mysterious research site against his wishes. On arrival, he finds a humble research facility, a small, strange group of scientists, and the head researcher who appears to have reasons to keep his research under wraps. The engineer decides to refuse the job, but the fanaticism and mystery of the research squad and their site draws him back in and he quickly becomes a dedicated member of the team.

This story is almost the odd one out of this collection. It reads much more like a speculative/science-fiction story than the off-kilter suspense and intrigue type of the other stories. With that said, I did enjoy it – possibly because the premise of the tale, with its typical sci-fi style “mysterious research” and nonsense scientific jargon, was almost light-hearted after some of the darker concepts introduced in the other tales. However that’s not to say this tale is without its unsettling ideas and subjects. It transpires that the research taking place at this “black site” is concerned with harnessing the energy of the soul after death. A member of the team, and also a test subject, is a young man with leukaemia who is ready to devote his body and his soul to the research after he has passed. This grisly discovery of the scientists’ true aims is compounded by the introduction of a dog, and a small, mentally disabled child who can be controlled by a sound machine of the scientists’ design.

As stated above, the “science” of the story is partially effective nonsense, but the elements of unease and alienation are still present here. The isolation of the research site, along with the cover-ups and confidentiality of the research is enough to create a strange curiosity for the protagonist, and the reader. The tone shifts somewhat when the protagonist eventually succumbs to the encouragement and possible threats of the research team, whilst the reader remains outside, left to discover what happens when the experiments are ready to be performed.


 

Advertisements

One comment

  1. […] are collections of her short fiction that hopefully have the same level of suspense and intrigue as Don’t Look Now. As I took The Doll to the desk to pay for it, I found out that the bookseller was the person that […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: