Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier
23 October, 2011
I’ve been in love with Daphne du Maurier’s writing ever since I read Rebecca. I can’t remember whether that was at school or early in college, but I remember being spellbound by the almost stream of consciousness style writing that seemed to mirror my own thought processes. It was so unlike any other novel I’d read before and before I knew what was happening, I’d finished the book. I don’t think any of her other novels match the reaction I had with Rebecca, nevertheless, there’s something about du Maurier’s style I find easy to absorb.
Don’t Look Now and Other Stories is a collection of du Maurier’s short stories published in 1971. I knew the titular story was made into an award winning film but have only seen snippets of it (and it was many years before I even knew it was based on du Maurier’s short story). I haven’t sampled any of her short stories before, and as I am partial to short stories, I thought I’d give this a try as Polly and Simon are celebrating all things Daphne with Discovering Daphne this month.
There is an undercurrent of unease that runs through all five stories in the collection. I wouldn’t necessarily call them spooky, yet I was left with a sense of discomfort. These tales are murky and disturbing. Starting with the heavily atmospheric Don’t Look Now which follows a couple on their first holiday after the loss of their 5 year old daughter. They’re in Venice, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, trying to recapture their joie de vivre and return to what their lives should be. But du Maurier introduces the dark side of Venice tinged with history and filled with shadow. Slowly things turn askew as they encounter two older women who claim to see the future and urge them to leave the city by first light. Du Maurier is masterful at cranking up the tension, willing you to read on yet making you feel uncomfortable knowing something nightmarish lies just on the horizon as you turn the page. It’s one of those stories that make you afraid of getting lost in the maze-like narrow streets of Venice.
Both Not After Midnight and A Border-Line Case are completely different tales and probably the weakest of the five stories. In Not After Midnight, a school teacher goes on an extended holiday to a Greek island after some sort of trouble or breakdown where he is no longer able to continue teaching. He plans to complete a series of paintings and requires a good view of the sea. When he causes a fuss and chooses chalet 62 overlooking the sea, he ignores the strange looks that cross the staff’s faces. The previous occupant had recently drowned after a midnight swim but this doesnt’ bother him. What does is a loud and drunken American neighbour with his strangely silent wife. As he is thrown together with them, he becomes wary of this strange couple and their shady business. And when they invite him to their chalet with the stipulation ‘not after midnight’ he begins to worry as this invitation is exactly like the one his predecessor received. I confess I was a little confused by the ending which didn’t make much sense to me but there you go.
In A Border-Line Case, a young actress searches for her father’s old friend and colleague and must travel to Ireland to find this reclusive man. She is immediately plunged into some sort of make-believe world which proves to be more sinister than she first anticipated. Yet despite this, she is soon drawn to this eccentric man. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the outcome which seemed more melodramatic than shocking.
The final two stories were probably my favourite. The Way of the Cross is about a group of middle England villagers from the parish priest, to the wealthy and snobbish lady of the big house and her family, a nouveau-riche businessman and his wife, honeymooners and a spinster on a trip of a life-time to Jerusalem. There is nothing supernatural about this tale, yet du Maurier manages to infuse it with the minutiae and detail of the characters’ personalities, prejudices, insecurities and pettiness which must directly mirror the claustrophobic village life. As the group goes on their tour, the cracks in their relationships are exposed and overcome as they rally together in an alien land different from their sanitised vision of Christ’s homeland. The stroke of genius here was to substitute an inner city priest with the village priest who was suddenly taken ill thus first drawing the ire of the others which quickly spread out towards their own problems. Superb.
And the final tale, The Breakthrough is set during WWII where an engineer is seconded to an outfit on the east coast of England in the middle of nowhere to assist a slightly off-kilter scientist who had lost his wife after a year of marriage and still mourns her. The work that is being done here is ethically dubious and outside the confines of government rules, yet he is unable to leave because of the scientist’s skill and the beauty of the machines he has built in order to capture the elusive essence which will bridge the living and the dead. This story reminded me of the interwar fiction that I like to read but with a touch of the supernatural and was also rather comforting as it featured scientists.
Although I really enjoyed all the stories, and they were all sufficiently different from each other, there was one thing that kept jarring. I couldn’t figure what it was until I realised that everything that jarred in the stories were things that exposed their modernity, the era of history, the 60s and 70s. I always associate du Maurier with the early 20th century, usually interwar or thereabouts. So seeing things like ‘sweet f.a.’ and rather explicit sex scenes really shocked me. And I’m shocked that I’m shocked about this. I’m not shocked about sex scenes per se, I have no problem with them. It’s just Daphne du Maurier writing sex scenes and swearing! But then I realised that the book was published in the 70s and not the 30s! It shows how much context I put into my reading which isn’t really ideal. I’d much rather read things with an open mind and separate from authors and their lives.
Overall I really enjoyed Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and look forward to reading more of her later fiction and short stories.
Do also check out Simon’s post on the book.
I also read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.