Thursday, March 29, 2012

Echoes of the Macabre: the short stories of Daphne du Maurier

The past few months I’ve found myself in an uncomfortable spot creatively. I am putting the finishing touches on my second novel, which involves lots of reading and editing and reworking and reading and editing and…well, you get the picture. It’s hard to get another novel under way when one is still in the birth canal, so to keep the juices flowing I’ve turned to shorter forms, and managed to eek out a novella and a short story as the novel nears its publication date.

For inspiration I turned to one of the twentieth century masters of the novella and short story, Daphne du Maurier, whose collections Kiss Me Again, Stranger, and Don’t Look Now occupy a shelf of honor above my computer next to other literary favorites such as Dickens, Shirley Jackson, and Tennessee Williams. These paperbacks have been in my collection for nearly forty years. They look it, and they smell it. So without further ado, let’s start with the title story, Kiss Me Again, Stranger.

This story deals with one of my favorite themes, obsessive love. Our unnamed narrator is a garage mechanic in post World War 2 England, aimlessly buffeted about by life until he becomes enamored of a beautiful cinema usherette and takes a late night bus ride with his new love to…a cemetery. One of the best things about du Maurier’s short stories are the endings. They tend to sneak up on the reader and smack you right in the face. Kiss Me Again, Stranger has a knockout ending and is a perfect start to this collection of masterpieces.

The centerpiece to the collection is the long novella, Monte Verita. I remembered it as being my favorite in this book, and re-reading it again after many years it’s easy to see why. This is the kind of old fashioned British storytelling that we don’t see much of these days. Today’s reader is accustomed to a more involved style of writing, what writers and readers refer to as “showing” as opposed to “telling”. A good two thirds of Monte Verita could be considered “telling”, but du Maurier’s command of language here is at its very best. Every sentence is a gem. We feel every arduous step of the many trips our mountain climbers take, especially up the titular mountain which is home to a mysterious sect of people who were once referred to sarcastically as moon worshippers. But again, the ending to this story reveals something altogether different. In the world of du Maurier’s macabre short pieces, you may think you know what’s going on, but you don’t.

Except in the case of The Birds, which might be the most famous short horror story of the twentieth century second only to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. If you are only familiar with The Birds through Hitchcock’s film version, drop everything and read it now. The Birds is straight forward. Seen through the eyes of a Cornish farmer and his family, the birds are taking over the world. There are no glamorous blond babes in fur coats, no questionable mother-son relationships, there are only the birds and a farmer and his family in a boarded up house in Cornwall, cut off from a world that may no longer exist. There is no ending this time, and the lack of catharsis is, to say the very least, chilling.

Don’t Look Now was filmed as a motion picture almost as famous to horror fans as the Hitchcock movie. Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film is a nearly perfect reproduction of the story on film. For the unfamiliar, this is a puzzling tale involving a husband and wife, grieving over the death of their young daughter, who encounter a pair of sisters while on holiday in Venice, and become entangled in a mysterious web of psychic visions and premonitions. The ending is a shocker, one that viewers of the film will never forget. While du Maurier’s story and the film are virtually identical, the ending in the short story is a bit abrupt. If you blink, you might miss it. In the film, the imagery is driven home until it becomes indelible and will haunt you for years afterward.

Both these volumes are currently out of print, but were major best sellers in their day and any library would have copies available. Du Maurier’s stories are often mixed and matched in various collections that pop up on book store shelves every few years. If you only know du Maurier for her Gothic Romance, Rebecca, and if you have a taste for Gothic tales with a macabre twist, do yourself a favor and track some of these down. 


  1. I am a lifelong fan of Daphne Du Maurier. My aunt gave me Rebecca when I was like 13 and after that I read everything of hers that I could get my hands on. She freaked my young mind out continually, and I loved it! Discovering her books was like finding buried treasure, and she made me want to be a writer.

    Thanks for this reminder of the roots of my writing dreams. (I ended up here by way of the Kindle Boards Writers' Cafe.) I can't wait to check out your books!

  2. Hi Daphne. Glad to know someone is paying attention to me on the Boards!

    I've read recently that a film version of The Scapegoat is in the works (I think the cast is mentioned on IMDB) and a new screen version of Rebecca is due in the next year or so. Mrs. Danvers for a whole new generation!

    1. I *loved* the Du Maurier collection I read last year, just the right amount of mercilessness towards her characters I feel right at home in. Weird but true.