Daphne du Maurier has been my favourite author since I read Rebecca 4 years ago. I think reading that novel is the way most people first encounter du Maurier’s writing, and it should be. Nothing can ever prepare you for the power and magic contained in that first sentence. Since then, I’ve read most of her novels, but only recently did I consider reading her short story collections.
I knew that Alfred Hitchcock had made a film adaptation of ‘The Birds’, along with Rebecca, the former in particular being a highly regarded psychological thriller. Considering how well known and praised Hitchcock film continues to be to this day, I must say I expected more from the original story, ‘The Birds’, and it wasn’t until I did some research afterwards that I learnt that Hitchcock had basically taken the title and the basic concept of du Maurier’s text and allowed the screenplay writer to create his own story around that. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – Hitchcock’s film is great, and really taps into some dark psychological concepts through this adaptation. But I definitely fell for the assumption that films stay faithful to the original story, which meant that my already high expectations of du Maurier’s storytelling were raised further.
That’s not to say that ‘The Birds’ isn’t a good story. Du Maurier very skillfully captures a real sense of the main character’s fear, isolation and, in the end, hopelessness when flocks of birds unexpectedly begin attacking the town in which he lives with his wife and children. She created in Nat Hocken a very real protagonist – by real, I mean that I read and understood the emotional integrity of his actions and reactions, which allowed me to engage with his plight (to the extent that I felt almost desperate for a means of escape to appear). Although not written in the first person, she attaches the reader so closely with Nat’s consciousness that the claustrophobia and entrapment he experiences seeps through the page. I certainly felt that I was sitting right there next to him, waiting for a government message of hope through the radio while the relentless sound of the birds seeking entry to the house continued.
I think du Maurier’s evocation of the threat posed by the birds primarily through oral imagery (focusing on the sounds of their wings beating as an example) was highly effective, and in fact works better than any overt visual description could. Although they pose a very violent, physical threat, du Maurier’s narrative also drives home the psychological terror of the situation. The sudden mobilization of the birds, large and small, into a group intent on attack, is left unexplained, highlighting the terrifying unpredictability and violence of the natural world, a fact that is easy to forget.
I won’t lie. I was expecting a more definite resolution to the story, but on the other hand, I can see the motivation behind ending the story where she does. Sometimes, allowing the reader’s imagination to take the reigns increases the tension, the terror and the fear. Whether this is achieved is based entirely on each individual’s immersion in the story.
Overall, a decent suspenseful narrative with a likable protagonist, but there is something missing or jarring that I can’t quite describe that left me feeling a bit let down once I’d finished reading. I can definitely see why Hitchcock was inspired by the basic concept, and also why he saw that there was scope to elaborate on it.
The other stories in this collection continue in the vein of wreaking psychological havoc:
- Monte Verità, on the surface, is a story about what is assumed to be a female cult that kidnaps and imprisons young women in a monastery-style building high up on a remote, twin-peaked mountain. As the narrative continues, it soon becomes a story of freedom, of unrequited and unattainable love, and I suppose it could also be read as an exploration of what it means to be an an enlightened and liberated woman, and of understandings of femininity and masculinity (issues that were fiercely debated in du Maurier’s time, and continue to be so today). Much use is made of lunar imagery (being called to the mountain by the moon), and there is much focus on conceptions of female magic and mysticism. There is a rather strange, almost psychedelic sequence towards the end of the story, and some of the dialogue is frustratingly confusing (like someone talking in riddles). I thought that the pacing was strange, as though du Maurier was trying too hard to create suspense but the plot was too predictable for this to be achieved. Some of the descriptions, however, are truly stunning, and it is in these that the reader can truly appreciate du Maurier’s skill and creativity with language.
- The Apple Tree I found to be a very humorous story, with a very pompous, self-important protagonist. One is never quite sure whether this man really is being haunted by his dead wife in the form of an unusually shaped apple tree or whether it purely his imagination, a result of some form of repressed guilt about the changes in his feelings and behaviour towards his wife (and vice versa) in the years before her death. It’s a very enjoyable story, albeit one with a rather predictable ending. As with Monte Verità, du Maurier explores the link between femininity and the natural world, and how men interact with or alter that dynamic.
- The Little Photographer involves adultery, murder, and blackmail, all the result of one woman’s desire to satisfy her vanity and alleviate her boredom whilst on holiday in France. On the one hand, one may read the Marquise as independent, forthright and in control, not the stereotypical emotionally vulnerable, naive woman or well behaved wife. On the other hand, however, she is rather emotionally abusive, I felt, incredibly vain of her own beauty and position in society. I know not all characters can be sympathetic or likable but something about this character, or maybe the way the story was told, stopped me from properly engaging with it and enjoying it.
- Kiss Me Again, Stranger – female empowerment reigns again in du Maurier’s story. We encounter the story through a narrator whose sudden infatuation with a cinema usherette leads him into an almost fatal encounter. I found the narrator’s lovesickness rather creepy, and wasn’t sure whether we were meant to find his metaphorical blindness/naivety endearing (I didn’t). The revelation at the end seemed a little clichéd but that may be the intervening decades separating my reading of the story and du Maurier’s writing of it. I’m guessing it would have been shocking to her contemporary readers.
- The Old Man, although only 10 pages long, is my favourite story in this collection, purely for the skill in narrative deception on display here. I was speechless when I read the final paragraph. The narrator’s gossiping tendencies provide an effective humorous counterbalance to the dark, sinister portrayal of parent-child relations. I don’t trust myself not to reveal the ending so I’ll leave it here.
Running through all the stories are displays and evocations of psychological terror and manipulation, be it of characters or readers. All except ‘The Birds’ deal explicitly with the power dynamics in romantic relationships between men and women, and supply us with various imaginings of masculinity and femininity. Some stories are more well written and engaging than others, but as a group, the fit very well together.
Daphne du Maurier is still my favourite author, and I found many of the elements so intriguing and effective in Rebecca present here also. For me, her writing is more effective when she had to sustain a narrative for novels, bringing greater definition to her characters and imagery. Or maybe I just prefer novels to short stories in general.
Please feel free to leave a comment.