Summer of Unknown Writers: Daphne du Maurier

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

the_birdsWe continue our Summer of Unknown Writers series. Today, we talk about Daphne du Maurier, master of suspense.

I picked Daphne du Maurier for Summer of Unknown Writers because just a few weeks ago, I had hardly read anything by this English author. It seems most people know du Maurier because they have either watched one of the movie adaptations of her stories or read Rebecca, her most famous book. Most of the people in my age group are in the movie-watching category, having never read du Maurier, but they have watched at least one of the Hitchcock flicks (The Birds, mostly).

Well, I hadn’t read any of du Maurier’s short stories either, so I thought I’d try them and report back to you. The short version? I have no idea why I hadn’t tried du Maurier. Her stories are in the vibe of Shirley Jackson (one of my favourite authors) and they are most definitely speculative.

Du Maurier wrote a lot: short stories, novels, non-fiction. I focused my efforts on three short story collections.

The Birds and Other Stories derives its title from “The Birds”, which was loosely and famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock. Du Maurier weaves a far different tale. Her story is much more compact and centres around a family that watches, with growing worry, how the birds around their farm seem to have gone mad. Published in 1952, it depicts a scenario made famous by Night of the Living Dead (Did Romero read this, I wonder?) with people boarding up windows and huddling together as a science fiction apocalypse (weather changes seem to have affected the birds) befalls them. It’s very good.

“Monte Verità” manages to create a chilling sense of dread. A young woman disappears during a mountain climbing trip, seemingly having gone to join an isolated order of priestesses who live in an ancient monastery at the top of the mountain. It’s creepy, not because of what we see or the ultimate answer, but because our wheels are spinning trying to figure out what the monastery is really about.

“The Apple Tree” deals with a widower who finds himself mercifully free of his annoying wife, but grows irritated when the tree in his garden keeps reminding him of her. The characters are well-defined. The wife is a woman who thinks martyrdom is the road to happiness. She lives to suffer, cleaning floors that don’t need to be cleaned (she has a maid) and displaying an obeisance that is both tiresome and irritating. No wonder the husband is glad when she dies. But the man is no peach either, and du Maurier is careful to show us his flaws. By the time the end rolls around, we’ve experienced a brilliant picture of a dysfunctional marriage and its ultimate, chilling consequences.

“The Little Photographer” is the kind of story Hitchcock would have enjoyed adapting, filming it with one of his perfectly-coiffed, icy blondes, and lush music playing in the background. A bored, rich and dissatisfied aristocrat strikes up an affair with a young photographer. It may seem that this is a beautiful, 1950s version of Sex and the City, but this being du Maurier, there is a twist.

“The Old Man”, probably my favourite of the collection, is about an isolated family led by the “old man” of the title. The final line will surprise you and you’ll flip back to re-read it.

dont-look-nowThis anthology is probably harder to find than Don’t Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne Du Maurier, but I recommend getting it. Don’t Look Now has some good stories, but they don’t achieve the level of the ones contained in The Birds and Other Stories. In its defense, Don’t Look Now allows you to see a certain pattern in du Maurier. She had a science-fiction, Twilight Zone kind of vibe. Supernatural shenanigans (ghosts, vampires) were absent from her tales. Most likely there was a quasi-scientific explanation (time-travel, precognition, etc).

This is the case in “Escort” (a ship is transported back in time – or is it the other way around?), “Split Second” (a woman goes home to discover no one knows her and her house looks different) and “Blue Lenses” (after an eye-operation, a woman perceives all the people around her as animals). All three would be perfectly suited for half-hour TV adaptations.

The titular “Don’t Look Now” disappointed me. It’s probably because I’ve seen the movie version and enjoyed it so much. The adaptation distills, beautifully, the essence of the story, making it so powerful that the literary parent seems reduced in its impact. Nevertheless, du Maurier was a master of language, and she injects dread and beauty into the tale of a couple vacationing in Venice who meet a pair of twins, one of whom seems to possess psychic powers.

The third du Maurier collection floating around the library was Echoes from the Macabre. It contained a bunch of stories I had already found in the other two volumes (“The Birds”, “The Apple Tree”), but also three I had not read. Of these, the most interesting is “Not After Midnight” (great title). A teacher on vacation in Crete takes a room that belonged to a man who was recently found drowned, “half-eaten by octopuses”. The death is of little concern to him. More problematic are two guests at the hotel: a couple consisting of a deaf woman and her alcoholic husband. The man receives an invitation to visit the couple, though “not after midnight”. Read it carefully. This one was is more disturbing than you think at first glance.

I had no idea what a chamois was, but the final story I’ll mention, titled “The Chamois”, introduced me to this antelope. A couple go looking for the elusive chamois. He is an obsessive man whose life seems to revolve around hunting these animals. She couldn’t care less about his hobby, but tries to put up with her husband to keep friction at a minimum. A goat herder guides them up a mountain. There’s violence and unexpected revelations.

If you like suspense, evocative writing and interesting-yet-flawed characters, you’ll love Daphne du Maurier. She had a knack for fear. Not the fear of an axe murderer jumping in front of you. It’s the subtle fear, the vague tingling sensation on the back of your neck, the hints that something is not quite right. It’s elegant horror. Give it a try.