Don’t Look Now (2008; selected stories from 1952-1980)
Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989)
I must first admit that this was a book that I judged by its cover.
A stack of them lay on a table near the bookstore’s collection of the publisher NYRB Classics books, and the cover caught my eye as soon as I walked up. When I found out that the cover photo is a still shot from the movie Repulsion, my curiosity grew. (For those not familiar with the film, Repulsion was released in 1965 by Roman Polanski, and starred Catherine Deneuve; it is a psychological thriller, a kind of nightmare-on-film that has one of the qualities I look for in a movie: it grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, even once it’s over.)
When I opened the book and discovered that one of the stories was The Birds, which served as the source material for the Hitchcock movie of the same name, I was hooked. Back home, as I sat down to begin reading the book, I was ready for a set of stories that would grab me, ‘Repulsion-like’, and not let go.
And the title story didn’t disappoint. As it opens a couple is having lunch in Venice, where they are vacationing in an attempt to find a return to normalcy after the death of their daughter. They notice two old women staring at them from across the dining room; later the wife returns from the restroom saying that she ran into one of the two, that they are sisters, and that one of them claims to have seen the couples dead daughter sitting between her parents at the table. The husband tries to laugh it off, but his wife is convinced that the women have had a true vision. Soon after this unsettling news the wife learns she must return home suddenly to London, and leaves the hotel to catch the next flight out, with her husband planning to follow her later that day with the car. Hours after his wife’s flight was scheduled to depart the husband thinks he sees her on a passing ferry standing with the two old women, and finds himself drawn into a deepening nightmare of uncertainty that soon has him questioning his sanity.
The Birds, according to Patrick McGrath in the book’s Introduction, “is the masterpiece” of short stories, and it certainly stands out in this collection. The tension builds from the first lines, quickly reaching a fever pitch sustained through to the end of the story. McGrath notes that Du Maurier did not like Hitchcock’s movie adaptation of her story, which had significant changes to the setting and characters. In Du Maurier’s telling, a hired hand on an isolated farm along the English coast must fight to protect his family when winter winds bring a sudden end to fall --- and a deadly change in the behavior of the birds. He and his family hear radio reports of similar occurrences all over England, the newscasters implying that some man-made impact on the climate lies behind the fanatical behavior of the birds, though the exact cause remains unknown. As the days pass the man and his family realize that their neighbors have perished, the government will not be able to help them, and that they must fight on alone against a relentless enemy.
The remaining stories are engaging, but do not achieve the same undertone of unease growing into fear and finally terror as the initial two. Some come closer than others to creating that tension, but for the most part they are either more straightforward mystery stories (say, like “Ripley’s believe it or not” stories), or they build some suspense but then conclude with a kind of final trick --- unlike a story such as The Birds, which has no surprise ending, leaving you with the dread of the unknown future.
In the story Escort, a freighter crosses the North Sea on a trip from Scandinavia to its home port in England during the early months of World War II. In the middle of the trip, far from safety, the crew spot a German U-boat periscope rise up out of the water in the distance, and they begin maneuvers intended to keep the U-boat at a difficult firing angle. As their hopes for survival fade, a fog bank suddenly closes in around them, and brings with it an old-style British raiding ship whose captain offers his assistance. The captain of the freighter accepts the offer, though unable to understand where the old wooden barque has come from and how it will fend off the German torpedoes.
In Split Second, a woman in early 1930’s England tidies up her home and then goes out for a walk through a nearby heath. Returning home she is shocked to discover that her things have been removed and a handful of people claim that they are renting rooms in what has become a lodging house. She calls the police to arrest the burglars, but ends up in custody herself instead. Why can she not convince anyone that she is the rightful owner, and why can the police not track down any of her friends, or her daughter studying at a nearby private school?
A mechanic decides to catch a movie after work in Kiss Me Again, Stranger and ends up falling in love with the usherette who collects his ticket. When he follows her onto the bus after the show and chats her up, his sudden crush for her can’t quite blind him to her odd behavior, starting with the fact that she asks him, as she falls asleep on his shoulder, not to let her miss her stop, at the bottom of a hill, near a cemetery.
A woman lies in a hospital bed, having waited for weeks to have the bandages removed from her eyes in The Blue Lenses. The doctors who performed her eye surgery and the nurses who tend to her are all most friendly and helpful, and her husband dutifully stops to visit each day. When the doctor can finally remove the bandages, he explains that she still has on her eyes protective blue lenses that she will have to wear for a week, and that could make things look odd. The last bandage removed, she looks around the room, and the furnishings do indeed have a blue tinge, though this hardly detracts from her joy at being able to see well again. Looking at the doctor and nurse next to her bed, however, she is shocked to see them with animal heads, the animals corresponding to their individual personalities; she desperately awaits the arrival of her husband later that evening to help her deal with what has befallen her.
In a small village along the coast of Brittany, a young fisherman’s wife frets about her husband’s upcoming fishing trip in La Sainte-Vierge, her brother having died only a year earlier while out fishing on the Atlantic Ocean. Looking for divine intervention, she goes to the local chapel and kneels before the statue of the blessed virgin to pray for her husband’s safe return, and ends by pleading for an acknowledgement that her wish has been granted. When the moon moves out from behind the clouds in the night sky, she sees the longed for blessing through the chapel window, in the nearby grass.
A wrong word at the wrong moment wreaks havoc on three lives in the story Indiscretion. A man is invited out by his boss to lunch to celebrate the boss’s marriage, planned for the following day. When the subordinate explains that his reticence to congratulate his boss is the result of unpleasant relationships he has experienced, his boss goads him into telling more. The man finally gives in, and describes a girl he had run into just the year before, and who turned out to be not who she had said she was. Fate intervenes the next day when the man goes to the train station to see his boss off on the honeymoon.
The closing story, Monte Verità, has an almost mystical tone to it. Two friends grow up climbing mountains together; when one of the pair marries, and goes off on a mountain climbing trip with his wife, she disappears into mysterious monastery-like building near the twin peaks of the mountain. It his left to the man’s friend to discover what has become of her.
If you are looking for tense, disturbing, psychological dramas, you will find a few such stories here, but many of the others end up on the lighter, mystery end of the spectrum. That said, with one’s expectations adjusted just a bit from the dramatic cover picture that serves as introduction to the book, there is much to enjoy and be captivated by in Du Maurier’s writing and construction of these tales.
Other reviews / information:
This is yet another wonderful selection from the NYRB Classics collection.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf