Women in Horror Week: The Quiet Dread of Daphne du Maurier

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have written about Daphne du Maurier for Innsmouth Free Press before, but, in my opinion, she deserves another look simply because she is not very well-known, nowadays. If she is remembered, it’s perhaps for the movies that were adapted from her fiction: The Birds, Rebecca and, to a lesser extent, Don’t Look Now.

I admit I wasn’t too familiar with Du Maurier until about three years ago, when I decided to read all of her short fiction. Later on, I also looked at some of her novels. Since then, I’ve become an unabashed fan of her.

Du Maurier’s prose is elegant, hinting rather than openly revealing. The terrors she alludes to are often veiled and do not constitute the gory, shocking kind, even if the final revelation can often shock. Her stories are firmly rooted in reality, a reality that slowly crumbles to reveal the naked, ugly truth beneath. The mundane and the fantastic co-mingle, slide over each other, become twisted.

Take “The Birds,” for example. A farmer in a small seaside town notices a change in the weather and the behavior of the birds. During the night, birds flock into his house, though they leave in the morning. People in town don’t seem to think anything is wrong when he tells them about the incident. But the birds attack again:

…as the slow sea sucked at the shore and then withdrew, leaving the strip of seaweed bare and the shingle churned, the sea birds raced and ran upon the beaches. Then that same impulse to flight seized upon them too. Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore. Make haste, make speed, hurry and begone; yet where, and to what purpose? The restless urge of autumn, unsatisfying, sad, had put a spell upon them and they must flock, and wheel, and cry; they must spill themselves of motion before winter came. “The Birds”

I’ve said before that I’m pretty sure the makers of Night of the Living Dead read “The Birds.” Sure, I realize Night is supposed to be riffing off I Am Legend, but “The Birds” appeared before Legend and it weaves the claustrophobic atmosphere of the people-under-attack-by-unnatural-forces that Night utilizes. Ultimately, even if “The Birds” didn’t inspire the zombie apocalypse genre, it is worth reading simply to show how beautifully this type of narrative can be portrayed. The sense of doom in “The Birds” is simply magnificent.

Another story of Du Maurier’s that shows her capabilities as a writer is “Not After Midnight,” which, by dropping veiled hints here and there, builds an atmosphere of dread. A teacher on vacation in Crete discovers that the man who had been staying in his hotel room before he arrived died under tragic circumstances (drowned and, in a grotesque detail, “half-eaten by octopuses”). The man meets an odd couple and is invited to visit them, though “not after midnight.” This is one of those stories where you think you know what is going to happen, then you eventually discover you have no idea where this is headed, and when the end comes you have to go back and re-read it. Alcoholism, insanity, archeological findings all make their way onto this story.

“Don’t Look Now” was not one of my favourite stories when I first read it, mainly because I had seen the movie, but with time I have come to re-evaluate it. It’s a haunting novella about a British couple on holiday in Venice. They have gone to Italy after the death of their daughter and the trip is a chance to leave their sorrows behind. However, things don’t go as they plan after two old ladies at lunch say they can see the spirit of their daughter and warn them to leave Venice. The man decides to ignore the advice. Soon, he begins to see a strange figure walking around the city. It might be his dead daughter:

He looked up, over his glass of wine, and the woman was staring at him again. It was not the casual, idle glance of someone at a nearby table, waiting for her companion to return, but something deeper, more intent, the prominent, light blue eyes oddly penetrating, giving him a sudden feeling of discomfort. Damn the woman! All right, bloody stare, if you must. Two can play at that game. He blew a cloud of cigarette smoke into the air and smiled at her, he hoped offensively. She did not register. The blue eyes continued to hold his, so that he was obliged to look away himself, extinguish his cigarette, glance over his shoulder for the waiter and call for the bill. “Don’t Look Now”

There’s a great deal of beauty in Du Maurier’s description of Venice and the slow, progressive, inexorable path of the protagonist is both realistic and chilling. It also shows how the environment seems to be a crucial element of Du Maurier’s fiction. She paints a vivid setting and uses it as a crucial and sometimes almost a living element of her tales. For example, in Rebecca, the house the protagonist inhabits is as important as the characters around her:

The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.” Rebecca

Du Maurier’s horror stories paint a world where danger lurks at every turn. You can trust no one, not the beautiful usherette a young man fancies (“Kiss Me Again Stranger”), nor a husband out on a stroll (“The Alibi”), nor the lovely girl with a secret locked away (“The Doll”).

“The Doll” actually saw publication in 2011 in The Doll: Lost Short Stories, which includes five stories published by Du Maurier in her early twenties. A young man falls in love with a pretty young lady. Our protagonist is creepy (and sounds like a stalker), but her secret is also pretty damn creepy:

Her throat was very long and thin, like a swan’s. I remember thinking how easy it would be to tighten the scarf and strangle her. I imagined her face when dying – her lips parted, and the enquiring look in her eyes – they would show white, but she would not be afraid. All this in the space of a moment, and while she was talking to me. I could drag very little from her. She was a violinist apparently, an orphan, and lived alone in Bloomsbury. “The Doll”

Creepy. Distorted. Disturbing. Such is the horror output of Du Maurier.

“The Doll” can be read online for free, though I should caution it is not Du Maurier at her best (This is one of her first stories, after all). Several collections of Du Maurier’s fiction are available for purchase, as is the novel Rebecca.