Until last year, I hadn’t read anything by Daphne du Maurier. I knew the outline of the plot of Rebecca, had seen the 1970s tv adaptation with Joanna David and had heard part of a radio dramatization of Jamaica Inn. I may have been left with the impression that du Maurier’s fiction was good source material for film, television and radio, but that there was no very pressing reason to read it. At some point, I picked up a copy of My Cousin Rachel with a striking black-and-white picture of Rachel Weisz on the cover and I eventually got around to reading it. It made such an impression on me that almost immediately I got a copy of a later novel, The Scapegoat which confirmed me in the view that I needed to read more of du Maurier’s fiction.
I haven’t yet tried any more of her novels but I’ll eventually get around to Jamaica Inn and Frenchman’s Creek. First, I wanted to try some of her short stories. The collection now available under the title Don’t Look Now and other stories turned out to be a good place to start. It originally appeared as Not after Midnight and other stories (1971), and carried the description “Five long stories”. The change of title presumably occurred because Nicolas Roeg’s film (1973) made it more likely that “Don’t Look Now” would be recognized by potential readers. The original title may imply that the author considered “Not after Midnight” to be the leading story of the collection.
Insofar as there’s something that can be called a typical short story, these “long stories” arguably don’t fit the description. The most admired short stories tend to be concise, concentrated narratives that recount a single incident or occasion, without digressions or very many peripheral characters. In this book, du Maurier seems to be deliberately avoiding that model of the short story. In these tales, the focus of attention could be said to shift as the narrative progresses and the author sometimes draws our gaze to details which in the end turn out to have been incidental. That’s not to say that I think these stories unsatisfactory in comparison to the more typical, briefer model.
There are just 5 stories in the volume and they vary in length from roughly 45 pages to 65, with the average page count in the low 50s. They’re also all rather different from each other, but without giving the impression that the author had set out to showcase her versatility as a writer, or the variety of her work. “Don’t Look Now” is a spooky tale that centers on second sight and psychic ability, with a character who fatally fails to recognize that he has seen into the future. “Not after Midnight” features the conflict between Dionysiac abandon and buttoned-up self-control on Crete; “A Border-line Case” mixes an adventure story with the unearthing of a rather sordid family history; “The Way of the Cross” is a social satire that juggles a wide range of characters, and “The Breakthrough” is another spooky story that this time includes an element of science fiction.
“Don’t Look Now” features a couple, John and Laura, who are aimlessly and dispiritedly wandering around Venice, attempting to get over the death of their five-year-old daughter. They meet two elderly Scottish sisters, one of whom is blind but claims to have a kind of second sight. The blind sister tells them that she can “see” their deceased little girl with them. The child is happy but wants to warn John that he should leave Venice immediately to avoid danger. Laura flies back to England, availing of a suddenly vacant place on a charter flight, to be with their young son, who has to be operated on for appendicitis. John is to bring their car home by train, but finds it harder to get away. The blind Scotswoman thinks that John has some psychic ability of which he is unaware. He finds himself visiting the police station more than once, and perplexing the reception clerk of the hotel where he and Laura had been staying. The sudden ending of the story is very well handled, managing to “explain” (within the story’s logic) in one short paragraph the curious and mysterious things that have been happening to John in Laura’s absence, but without correcting his impression that they are “bloody silly” (p. 55).
The protagonist of “Not after Midnight”, Timothy Grey, is an Englishman who teaches classics at a preparatory school. He claims to have no real vices and few needs. He has come to Crete during the school holidays to paint. He doesn’t smoke or drink and is not married:
I was engaged to a pretty girl, a neighbour, when I was twenty-five, but she married somebody else. It hurt at the time, but the wound healed in less than a year. (p. 57)
Uncharacteristically (we assume) he asserts himself when the management of the hotel where he is staying try to put him in a chalet without a view of the sea. The chalet that he chooses for himself turns out to be one whose previous occupant drowned while swimming in the sea at night. He becomes acquainted with a boorish and boisterous drunken American named Stoll and Stoll’s apparently mismatched wife, who is deaf and goes snorkelling at night. The hotel bartender tells Grey that Stoll is “no fool” (p. 72) and had discussed antiquities with the man who drowned, who in turn had had some connection with the British Museum.
Grey discovers that the Stolls appear to be stealing historical artifacts from a sunken ship. He sees Stoll emerge from a ruined shelter on land, near the site of the shipwreck:
… doubtless owing to a trick of light, it had at first the shaggy appearance of a colt standing on its hind legs. Legs and even rump were covered with hair, and then I realised that it was Stoll himself, naked, his arms and chest as hairy as the rest of him. Only his swollen scarlet face proclaimed him for the man he was, with the enormous ears like saucers standing out from either side of his bald head. (p. 81)
Stoll sees that Grey has spotted him. That evening, Stoll phones Grey in his chalet, where Grey himself is now naked, having just taken a shower. Stoll wants Grey to visit him later but Grey avoids him and the next day finds that Stoll has left a bottle of his homebrew in the bar for him. In the meantime, Mrs Stoll has swum across to his chalet and left a gift for him, a small reddish jug, shaped like a human face, and with three strutting centaurs depicted on it. A note inside the jug identified the face:
”Silenos, earth-born satyr, half-horse, half-man, who, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, reared Dionysus, god of intoxication, as a girl in a Cretan cave, then became his drunken tutor and companion.” (p. 88)
Silenos is typically depicted as bald, potbellied and hairy, with the ears of an ass, i.e. just as Stoll appeared to Grey outside the ruined shelter. After having received the jug that Mrs Stoll left for him, Grey has a quasi-erotic dream about the boys he teaches:
They ran towards me, smiling, and I put my arms about them, and the pleasure they gave me was insidious and sweet, never before experienced, never before imagined, the man who pranced in their midst and played with them was not myself, not the self I knew, but a demon shadow emerging from a jug, strutting in his conceit as Stoll had done upon the spit of land in Spinalongha. (p. 89)
Grey is told that the Stolls have left, but he later sees Stoll’s body on the seabed beside the now bare wreck, held down by an anchor. (This may be an illusion: if the sea had been clear enough for Grey to see all the way to the bottom, the wreck could not have remained undiscovered for as long as it presumably had.) Earlier, suffering from the heat, he had drunk some of Stoll’s brew from the Silenos jug. At the time, he had thought it couldn’t do him any harm. Now, though, he sees it differently:
Not innocuous but evil, stifling conscience, dulling intellect, the hell-brew of the smiling god Dionysus, which turned his followers into drunken sots, would claim another victim before long. (p. 100)
We already know from the story’s opening paragraphs that, on his return to England, he quit his job at the school, blaming poor health caused by a bug he caught while on holiday:
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. (p. 56)
It’s not just the drunkenness itself that becomes a problem but the consequent weakening of inhibitions, and his dream in the presence of the jug gives some indication of the nature of the desires from which those inhibitions will no longer protect Timothy Grey.
The next two stories are the longest and are without any paranormal or mysterious, mythological element. The first of these, “A Border-Line Case” is the story of Shelagh Money, the 19-year-old daughter of a retired British Navel officer, who gets caught up in an Irish Republican bombing campaign, and something else that shocks and disturbs her a great deal more. Shelagh is an actor who has secured a leading role in a series of Shakespeare’s plays being put on by an organization she calls “the Theatre Group”. One of the roles she’s looking forward to is Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night.
Her father has been on his deathbed for a while but the end comes suddenly, when she is the only one present. Her mother has gone to get her hair done, and the nurse has gone for a walk. In death, Shelagh’s father has a look of pained shock and, she believes at first, of accusation on his face. Just before he died, they had been talking about the best man at his wedding, another Navy officer named Nick Barry. Not long after the wedding the two men had fallen out and never subsequently been reconciled. After the funeral, Shelagh impulsively travels to Ireland to track Nick Barry down, and try to find out what had caused the rift.
She finds him on a small island on a lake where he’s been carrying out unauthorized archaeological excavations of megalithic tombs and running a paramilitary operation on the side. Eventually, he takes her to view a series of explosions in various Northern Irish towns from a vantage point in the Republic, having sex with her in the back of a grocer’s van on the way there (and back, I think). Shelagh (who hasn’t told Nick who she really is, but pretends to be a journalist) believes she’s falling in love with Nick, but he drops her at her hotel and tells her to go home. He’ll write.
When he does eventually write, he encloses a photograph of himself in the role of Cesario (and presumably Viola, but this isn’t made clear) as a child. Finally, Shelagh sees what her father had just seen at the moment of his death: the man she thought she had fallen in love with, and had sex with, was her biological father. When Shelagh struck an actorly pose, her father saw the physical resemblance that he had missed for nearly 20 years. Nick had already told Shelagh that he had raped her mother, but the full implications hadn’t registered with her:
“I got my own back, though,” he said, moving one of the loaves from under his head. “I dropped in on them one evening unexpectedly. Jack was out at some official dinner. Pam received me rather ungraciously, so I mixed the martinis extra strong and had a rough-and-tumble with her on the sofa. She giggled a bit, then passed out cold … She’d forgotten all about it by the morning. (pp. 152–3)
Shelagh is, of course, horrified by the revelation, but not because of her mother’s rape. Earlier, she has been reflecting on Nick’s various betrayals and faults:
He’s deceived my father, deceived my mother (serve her right), deceived the England he fought for for so many years, tarnished the uniform he wore, degraded his rank, spends his time now, and has done for the past twenty years, trying to split this country wider apart than ever, and I just don’t care. (p. 153)
“The Way of the Cross” is the longest story in the collection. In it, a group of 8 tourists who have been on a cruise ship docked at Haifa visit Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa. As several of them wander around in the nighttime above the garden of Gethsemane, they overhear their companions tell some home truths about them that they’d probably be happier not knowing. For example, Colonel Mason hears his wife telling an elderly fellow-parishoner that the Colonel liked people to believe that he would have been promoted to general but he had been deceiving himself so “we all persuaded him to retire when he did” (p. 181). But she later learns that the colonel has told somebody else that he would have been given command of his regiment but had to leave the army because of his wife’s health. She considers the possibility that this might be true, even though it’s inconsistent with what she had told the old woman.
The following day, they all suffer to a greater or lesser extent from the heat, noise and crowds. The colonel, who had been stationed in Jerusalem in 1948, remembers having a Jewish boy flogged for (he implies) “laying mines at street corners”. He remembers the “look of panic” in the boy’s eyes. The eyes “did not accuse him. They simply stared at him in dumb appeal” (p. 200). The colonel finds himself praying for forgiveness.
And his years of service fell away, became as nothing, were wasted, useless. (p. 200)
The final story, “The Breakthrough” is the least satisfactory from my point of view. A sceptical electronics engineer is seconded to an obscure government project which is attempting to harness the small amount of energy that’s released when somebody dies. This energy has hitherto been “going to waste”. The experiments are being carried out in a remote and bleak site on England’s east coast, and involve 5 adults including the protagonist, a dog named Cerberus, and a little girl named Niki, the survivor of identical twins, who has an intellectual disability. The youngest of the adults, Ken, is dying of leukaemia and is the experiment’s guineapig.
The setting and atmosphere are brilliantly evoked and the characters are well drawn, but I’m at a loss to understand either what the project is meant to accomplish or how it’s supposed to work.
I said above that this collection doesn’t read like a showcase or sampler of du Maurier’s various tricks, styles or approaches to storytelling, notwithstanding the versatility on display. I think it may partly be the length of the stories that saves them from appearing that way. I’ll certainly be reading more of her shortish stories, though I’ll probably tackle some more of her novels first.
Edition: Penguin Modern Classics, 2006: ellipses added.