Examining the Liminal in Don’t Look Now, Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier

I have read my first Daphne du Maurier – her short stories in Don’t Look Now, an NYRB Classics edition [selected and with an introduction by Patrick McGrath]. Obviously, I have not read her famous Rebecca, and only really wanted to after the author Beth Kery urged me to in a blog comment, informing me of that novel’s link to Jane Eyre. And y’all know how much I love me some Jane Eyre.

So. Don’t Look Now. I don’t really know what I was expecting — something Gothic, something vaguely sepia-hued [a rather curious detail in how I read works older than fifty years]. I suppose I was ready for something quaintly Gothic. I don’t know what that means either.

Well, it was a great collection, ridiculously so — my introduction to du Maurier couldn’t have been any better. Made up of nine very long stories [thus, book's ridiculous fatness], all finely wrought [which makes for a finely wrought fat book?].

What I began noticing about du Maurier’s stories was how they kept straddling two worlds – perceived reality, and that otherworldly, not-quite-right offering. In the title story “Don’t Look Now,” a couple on a marriage-preserving holiday encounters two strange old women. There was this pervasive eeriness, this feeling that something just wasn’t right. Most of the narrative hinting at the Gothic, and these are hints the reader is inclined to brush aside because the main character does the same for most of the story — regardless of the “presence” of ghosts and visions and specters. And so when that turn happens – ah, turns – it’s inevitable, and horrifying in how casually sinister it all was.

This two-worlds thing is at its simple in “La Sainte-Vierge,” where this girl Marie prays for the safety and swift return of her sailor-love. She loves too much, too obsessively, and it’s so uncomfortable, this kind of blind love – there’s something not quite right about that, about the whole situation. Eventually, things are revealed – a little too directly for my tastes – and things, of course are not what they seem. Here, it’s a matter of perception.

In “Indiscretion,” it’s a matter of deception. A bitter retelling of an old romance with a man hours away from his wedding. There’s something so icky about the unfolding. Something distasteful in how we – and the characters – realize that their realities aren’t what they’ve perceived all along. What’s more masterful skillful with this story is that these epiphanies overlap between two characters in ways that has everything involved going Noooo.

In “Monte Verità,” a [goddamned] long story [it's nearly a novella], the liminal-ness is a physical thing. There are hints of another world, and we’re brought to that by the suspiciously wonky obsessions — this destiny thing, this concept of something calling you from somewhere else — of three people. I struggled with the length, I did, but goodness, it is so worth it.

And “The Birds.” Good god, the birds, you seriously creeped me out. This was terrifying. Sasha-reading-this-pressed-against-one-wall-of-her-damnably-empty-apartment aside, du Maurier continues that liminal thread: There are birds in the countryside, and they’ve been acting strange. Easy to brush off, and most of the characters in the story do. It’s a natural phenomenon, these birds. And that turn comes yet again, of course things are not right:

Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.

Understated gray apocalypse, “The Birds” is one of the best stories I have ever read. There’s not a lot of intelligent things I can say about the story because 1] I couldn’t take notes, and 2] I just really want to tell y’all that this is writing at its finest and it scared the bejeebies out of me.

More world-straddling over at the wonderfully titled “Kiss Me Again, Stranger.” Our narrator is completely besotted  with the usherette of a movie house, and — for some non-creeptastic du Maurier — I thought it was rather cute, how insistent he is that he’s not at all poetic; but look at how he describes her:

Then she looked at me. She turned those blue eyes in my direction, still fed-up they were, not interested, but there was something in them I’d not seen before, and I’ve never seen it since, a kind of laziness like someone walking from a long dream and glad to find you there.

And their first kiss:

Well, if I was poetical, I’d say what happened was a revelation. But I’m not poetical, and I can only say that she kissed me back, and it lasted a long time . . .

Loved how sinister it all was, but threaded with the whimsy of that not-poetical attraction. After all, the girl leads him to a cemetery, and the courtship occurs there. Alarm bells went off in me, and voices kept murmuring, She’s a vampire! Well. Me and my habit of playing guessing-games with plot-driven stories. Because, man, that ending. That ending, it is sad.

Come to think of it, as much as the plot’s a guessing game for me most of the time [I suppose this is a flaw?], I’m crazy about how du Maurier writes ambiance, constructs her worlds — two in a story, if I hold on to my thesis. I love how she unfolds a character’s mind, tracing its trajectory from neutral to barely-holding-on-to-sanity when faced with reality’s revelation. Putangina, dun ako wasak na wasak.

See “Split-Second,” where a high-maintenance Mrs. Ellis — worrier about all the little things and all the big things, rather insufferable actually — goes for a walk. And when she comes home, her house, it’s not hers anymore. Could it be a simple misunderstanding, some mix-up? A scam? Mrs. Ellis strives to find out, and the truth’s eventually revealed. Ever so slowly.

That du Maurier likes to do that: pluck her characters out of their lives into an alter-reality by changing on small-significant detail. At first, you can convince yourself that there’s some sort of misunderstanding, or that you ate something bad for lunch. Until realization dawns. But our characters keep fighting because there’s such a natural natural logic in the — allow me — alternative reality.

I suppose that’s why the good stories are so long — du Maurier wants to fully establish both worlds before bridging them. And it’s a very gradual transition. What do you believe?

That’s tricky to pull off: How to hand the reader this feeling of superiority, if only through dramatic irony. But how to take back even that by making the reader doubt too re what reality really is.

Overall I enjoyed this collection — I thought I wouldn’t. I thought I’d test the waters before my on-the-bucket-list read of Rebecca. But I liked Don’t Look Now a lot. It’s a great introduction Daphne du Maurier, it’s nine stories of subtle storytelling, patient world-building, and a creepfest that you can feel in your bones. Good job, du Maurier. Good job.

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14 comments

  1. I have not read anything by Du Maurier yet. Maybe I should use this as my introduction as well? And I didn’t know Rebecca had a link to Jane Eyre? I guess I need to read that book too.

  2. Fantastic review as always, Sasha. I’ve not read any Du Maurier, but your review has definitely made me want to change that! I didn’t even realize she had written short stories. You know that short fiction isn’t so much my bag, and yet you make me think I might love this!

  3. I’ve been meaning to read Daphne du Maurier for ages. I love stories that straddle the line between reality and the otherworldly, and du Maurier seems to excel at writing such stories. Don’t Look Now sounds fascinating, and I think I’ll start with that before tackling Rebecca and her other novels.

    Thanks as always, for a wonderful post. :)

  4. I’ve only read ‘Rebecca’ and possibly ‘Jamaica Inn’ (I have a vague memory of something involving smugglers, windswept cottages and pirates – it was very long ago, however, and may perhaps just have been some inappropriate childhood outing with my grandparents.) Just from the quotes in your review, these stories sound different in tone – defter, sharper. Will have to give them a go. Another great review.

  5. It really is a ridiculously great collection, isn’t it? It was my first du Maurier as well when I read it nearly two years ago (can’t believe it’s been that long, and I still haven’t read any of her other work), and I was immediately struck with how incredibly skilled she was. The tension is perfect, the pacing is perfect; she seems totally in control all the time.

    1. Very very surprised by this book, by how much I ended up loving this book. I really can’t wait to read more of her — especially Rebecca. Really glad I read this one. Very fulfilling pieces of fiction, short or ridiculously long.

  6. I too only realised recently that Rebecca and Jane Eyre were linked! Very interesting. However, I love Daphne Du Maurier’s books which are eminently readable but haven’t tried her short stories yet. Hmm, not sure why as I’m a big fan of shorts. As you can probably tell, I’m catching up on comments (and I hope you don’t think I’m stalking you…)

    1. Stalk away, haha, I’m a fan of yours. :] Anyhoo, these stories were a revelation, they were a great introduction to the author. I mean, I didn’t even know she wrote short stories! I’m sure to remedy the absence of Rebecca from my reading list. :]

  7. [...] I agree. And, mm-hmm, most especially when it comes to good books. I have no idea how to even begin defining what good is — I don’t know how to offer a general definition [which, then again, I think would be lame], but I’m almost always certain of what is good for me. And goodness, for me, is almost always a visceral thing. I can, under duress, articulate why the crafting is good, why the elements of literature fall in the most perfect way [like when I had to pretend I was smart enough to talk about du Maurier's short stories, even if they scared the bejeebies out of me]. [...]

  8. [...] Don’t Look Now, by Daphne du Maurier [...]

  9. [...] mallard to wake you up. There is a story [“Ellen Terhune”] about a time-travelling house [not unlike “Split-Second,” a short story of Daphne du Maurier] — where our narrator finds himself laden with a mission to what, exactly? exact revenge? [...]

  10. [...] I can’t shake off, and majority simply has me scratching my poor head. That is: None of these is the du Maurier short fiction I’ve come to know. Though her always-to-die-for prose is present, all of the stories—with the [begrudging] [...]

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