I really love Daphne du Maurier's work. I don't understand how critics (at least in her lifetime) could be so dismissive of her writing. Certainly her very best work is impressive, and every time I read her I think how talented she was. I've just reread her frightening short story, "Don't Look Now", which is part of the collection recently published by NYRB by the same name. I'm planning to read a story every weekend for Carl's RIP Challenge, and rather than randomly picking stories I've decided to read through this collection, which should easily last me through the rest of September and October. Along with "Don't Look Now" I've also already read "The Blue Lenses" which is part of the collection as well (though will happily read it again), but the rest of the stories are all new to me.
The cover illustration I've used happens to be from the Penguin edition by the way. The two collections only hold in common the title story. The Penguin has only four stories, but the NYRB Classics edition has nine stories that are 'tales of the macabre'. "Don't Look Now" was made into a film in 1973 which starred Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland (the cover illustration being a still from it), which was rather eerie--perfect for a rainy autumn night. I wrote about the story a couple of years ago (almost to the day actually), and at the time I mentioned the film was being remade, but it still seems to be in production. I'd be very curious to see the remake and find out who is acting in it!
In "Don't Look Now" what I find especially effective is that the reader doesn't need to 'suspend belief' inordinantly to appreciate what du Maurier is trying to do. As a matter of fact she conveys a sense of the uncanny so well that the story feels completely natural. What sends chills down the reader's spine is the sense that this could and actually is happening. This is a longish story, nearly 60 pages, so du Maurier takes her time to tell the story and knows exactly how and when to ratchet up the tension and pull back again. And if you read closely she uses the technique of foreshadowing to tie everything closely together. This is such a perfectly plotted story, right up to the last gasping line.
After the death of their young daughter John and Laura Baxter travel to Venice to try and create some distance between the tragic event and their mourning. Although the couple have an older son at home in school, it's been particularly hard for Laura who was especially close to her little girl. John is just ready to put things behind them and move on. The story begins very playfully as they sit in a restaurant and joke about two elderly ladies sitting at another table.
"Don't look now," John said to his wife, "but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me."
Laura, quick on cue, made an elaborate pretence of yawning, then tilted her head as though searching the skies for a non-existent aeroplane.
"Right behind you," he added. "That's why you can't turn round at once--it would be much too obvious."
Laura played the oldest trick in the world and dropped her napkin, then bent to scrabble for it under her feet, sending a shooting glance over her left shoulder as she straightened once again. She sucked in her cheeks, the first tell-tale sign of suppressed hysteria, and lowered her head.
"They're not old girls at all," she said. "They're male twins in drag."
As it turns out the women are sisters, twins, and one is psychic. Always attuned to the supernatural, once she became blind she began having episodes and receiving visions. When Laura follows one of the sisters into the bathroom on a lark, she's told the sister sees her dead daughter sitting between them, happy and smiling. This sets in motion a series of events that whilst are seemingly carefully choreographed, really they're all a matter of chance. For the first time in a long time Laura is set at ease and feels a certain contentment, for which John is pleased. With such a heavy weight lifted from their shoulders they spend an intimate and romantic afternoon together, clouded only by the fact that once again they run into the blind sisters once again later in the evening. John is dismayed by the sisters who seem to pop up at every turn, and more so when they tell Laura that Christine, their daughter, is trying to warn them to leave Venice immediately as they are in danger.
Du Maurier did well to choose Venice for her setting. It's such an atmospheric city to begin with, filled with dark, dank back streets and alleys leading to nowhere and bridges crossing into more dark, sinister streets and dead ends. It's all right for the touristy, well-lit plazas, but don't lose your way in the lesser known labyrinthine areas.
"The canal was narrow, the houses on either side seemed to close upon it, and in the daytime, with the sun's reflection on the water and the windows of the houses open, bedding upon balconies, a canary singing in a cage, there had been an impression of warmth, of secluded shelter. Now, ill-lit, almost in darkness, the windows of the houses shuttered, the water dank, the scene appeared altogether different, neglected, poor, and the long narrow boats moored to the slippery steps of cellar entrances looked like coffins."
There's more to tell, but I'm going to leave it here as I don't want to give away any spoilers. I've read a handful of du Maurier's stories and this is one of her best--extremely unsettling. It's definitely worth finding and reading (I think it's appeared in multiple collections). Next weekend: "The Birds".