Don’t Look Now (Daphne du Maurier)

Posted: June 21, 2015 in fiction
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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It is a joy to read an author who knows her tradition, and no one understands two hundred years of Gothic fiction like Daphne du Maurier. Stephen King also knows the tradition he’s writing in, but somehow when I read his short fiction I start recognizing his plots from old episodes of The Twilight Zone; not an issue with du Maurier. She’s more likely to draw from Radcliffe or Brontë. This book is a collection of shorter pieces, but since they’re each around fifty pages (or a little more), I have a hard time calling them short stories. Maybe novellas? Each story involves travel, the fear of being in an unfamiliar place, sometimes finding strangely familiar things in the unfamiliar, sometimes the self itself becomes strangely unfamiliar. While Stephen King sometimes mixes in stories that are sweet – ghost stories about love beyond the grave or something of that nature – du Maurier’s collection is all spooky, uncanny, and while the stories end ‘correctly,’ with a feeling of fitness, there’s no sense of good things continuing. The transformations don’t make the protagonists happy.

DON’T LOOK NOW

Tourists in Venice meet a stranger with psychic powers. She tells them of a vision of their recently deceased child, then warns them to leave town. There’s a bit of that familiar British fear of Italians and distrust of the Scottish. Difference is weird and bad. According to the cover of my paperback, this story became “a spine-chilling film!” starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. A more complete treatment of a similar theme can be found in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

Very Dr Moreau-ish. The only story to take place primarily in England. Down on the east coast, a conventionally mad scientist is working on psychic machinery, communicating between minds at long distances. His principal experiment involves capturing a person’s soul, the electrical impulses of the brain that determine identity, at the moment of death and thus preserve the soul indefinitely.

NOT AFTER MIDNIGHT

A good old mystery, in the vein of Dashiell Hammett or John Franklin Bardin. Things do become a bit supernatural at the end, but most of the story is very realistic. A misanthropic teacher goes off to Crete on vacation, hoping to do some painting. With the way he describes himself, he sounds kind of gay, but that’s never pursued.

I am a schoolmaster by profession, or was. I handed in my resignation to the headmaster before the end of the summer term in order to forestall inevitable dismissal. The reason I gave was true enough – ill-health, caused by a wretched bug picked up on holiday in Crete, which might necessitate a stay in hospital of several weeks, various injections, etc. I did not specify the nature of the bug. He knew, though, and so did the rest of the staff. And the boys. My complaint is universal, and has been so through the ages, an excuse for jest and hilarious laughter from earliest times, until one of us oversteps the mark and becomes a menace to society. Then we are given the boot. The passerby averts his gaze, and we are left to crawl out of the ditch alone, or stay there and die.

If I am bitter, it is because the bug I caught was picked up in all innocence. Fellow sufferers of my complaint can plead predisposition, poor heredity, family trouble, excess of the good life, and, throwing themselves on a psychoanalyst’s couch, spill out the rotten beans within and so effect a cure. I can do none of this. The doctor to whom I endeavored to explain what had happened listened with a superior smile, and then murmured something about emotionally destructive identification coupled with repressed guilt, and put me on a course of pills. They might have helped me if I had taken them. Instead I threw them down the drain and became more deeply imbued with the poison that seeped through me, made worse, of course, by the fatal recognition of my condition by the youngsters I had believed to be my friends, who nudged one another when I came into class, or, with stifled laughter, bent their loathsome little heads over their desks – until the moment arrived when I knew I could not continue, and took the decision to knock on the headmaster’s door.

The story ends a little abruptly, so when I got to the end I flipped back to the beginning to read these first two paragraphs again, to fix the sequence of events clearly in my mind. I had to do the same when reading du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the aftermath of the final crisis is alluded to in the first chapter, and the final resolution is tucked away in the middle of the book.

A BORDERLINE CASE

Shelagh Money is a nineteen-year-old actress preparing to play Viola in Twelfth Night when her father dies. She decides to go see her father’s old friend from whom he has been estranged for years. She goes to Ireland and finds that Nick is even more eccentric than she had thought. He’s into practical jokes, including photographic fakery, and he also organizes bombing raids to protest the English occupation of Northern Ireland. He stays on his side of the border and warns the locals so there aren’t any casualties, but buildings go up in smoke. Shelagh learns the dangers of deception, and there’s a little gender-bending, as in the Shakespeare play. Nick doesn’t jump straight into her pants, so she jumps to conclusions a bit. What can you do? She’s rich, pretty, and nineteen, therefore accustomed to getting what she wants.

Nick was a homo. They were all homos. That was why Nick had been sacked from the Navy. Her father had found out, couldn’t pass him for promotion, and Nick had borne a grudge ever afterward. Perhaps, even, the dates she had copied from the list referred to times when Nick had got into trouble. The photograph was a blind – homos often tried to cover themselves by pretending they were married. Oh, not Nick . . . It was the end. She couldn’t bear it. Why must the only attractive man she had ever met in her life have to be like that? Goddamn and blast them all, stripped to the waist there down by the megalithic tomb. They were probably doing the same in the control room now. There was no point in anything anymore. No sense in her mission. The sooner she left the island and flew back home the better.

Of course, less than ten pages later he’s proving just how very wrong she is.

She could see nothing in the darkness of the van, not even the face of her watch. Time did not exist. It’s body chemistry, she told herself, that’s what does it. People’s skins. They either blend or they don’t. They either merge and melt into the same texture, dissolve and become renewed, or nothing happens, like faulty plugs, blown fuses, switchboard jams. When the thing goes right, as it had for me tonight, then it’s arrows splintering the sky, it’s forest fires, it’s Agincourt. I shall live till I’m ninety-five, marry some nice man, have fifteen children, win stage awards and Oscars, but never again will the world break into fragments, burn before my eyes. I’ve bloody had it . . .

There is some fear of mental illness, but in the end, I don’t think that’s the problem. You don’t need nonstandard brain chemistry to rebel against society, to do questionable things just because you can. I mean, visiting your best friend’s wife while he’s out of town, getting her drunk and date-raping her simply because she doesn’t like your jokes, is criminal, not funny. And while some of that can be explained by the possibility of Nick being mentally ill, explaining it does not excuse it.

THE WAY OF THE CROSS

A group of people come to Jerusalem to see the holy sites. Unfortunately, their minister becomes ill and has to stay on the boat in Haifa, and they adopt another churchman to guide them. However, Jerusalem is a disorganized mess, and so are they. People get lost, overhear things about themselves they weren’t meant to, make mistakes, nearly die. These aren’t humble pilgrims, they’re vacationers (there’s even a couple on their honeymoon), and they’re almost all wealthy and proud. So the story is a course of humiliation, crowds, danger, fear. Many of the important events of the Biblical story of the Passion are parodied. This story is less straightforwardly Gothic than the others; it’s more often sad than scary.

So, not only am I fond of reading Gothic stories, but I’m also fond of watching scary movies and TV shows. It’s given me a lot of time to ponder fear, and what our culture is afraid of. It seems that the answer is, death. We tend to be afraid of what we don’t know or understand, and death is fundamentally unknowable. Culturally, we turn to the supernatural in order to cope with the fear of death. Religions have grown up as a way of helping us handle fear and grief. The ancient mythologies are full of assurances that life continues after death, with a system of rewards and punishments for the activities of our current lives. I heard someone saying recently that she’s not too upset about her twelve miscarriages because she believes that she’ll raise those children in the afterlife. Her version of Christianity negates death altogether. It makes sense, then, that Gothic experiences a revival when faith is in recession. It seems a human trait that we need some experience with the supernatural, whether it’s God or the devil or the spirits of nature or vampires or zombies or mummies or whatever. We don’t need to believe in it; we need to experience it, either for ourselves or vicariously through fiction. The desire to elude death through supernatural powers seems to be a human trait. At least in Western cultures, we can’t get away from the need to get away from death. If we become comfortable with the idea of our own mortality, we’re called a danger to ourselves and others and prescribed medication. Death is natural and inevitable, so I try to accept it with the same equanimity with which I accept my same-sex attraction.

Du Maurier writes some beautiful stories. These aren’t exceptions, they’re just shorter than the pieces I’m used to working with. Each one can be read in the length of time it takes to watch a movie. So, bite-size du Maurier, like a little snack. Enjoy it.

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Comments
  1. I’ve read du Maurier short stories and been well impressed with them. I think they are difficult to successfully pull off. Somerset Maugham’s are brilliant.

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