Daphne Kalotay, author of the newly released novel, Russian Winter, revisits Daphne du Maurier in this month’s Forgotten Writers column.
The “Other” Daphne: du Maurier’s Short Stories
Like many readers, my introduction to Daphne du Maurier came in the form of a paperback edition of Rebecca (the Jane Eyre-inspired novel about an English waif who, marrying a wealthy widower, is haunted by assumptions about his dead wife.) Though I was in my early teens, already I could tell from the big, swirly letters on cover that this was “popular” fiction, not “literature.” Indeed, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. And yet the prose was attentive and measured. Not only was the physical setting (a mansion by the sea) lushly depicted, but the psychological landscape, too, was achingly precise; I still recall the young protagonist’s yearning for her husband’s love—her longing for intimacy and affirmation, and her acute attention to what his every word or action might indicate about his feelings. As much as the story is a gothic mystery, it is also realistic portrayal of the way that relationships sag under the weight of unspoken truths. And this is just one of the reasons du Maurier deserves to be viewed—as she herself long desired—as a “serious” writer of talent and depth.
Not until college did I read more of du Maurier’s work, after watching—and being haunted by—the film Don’t Look Now. I learned that its apt and eerie setting (Venice, with its dark and labyrinthine streets) and ingenious plot (a couple grieving the loss of their daughter meets a pair of spinsters, one of whom claims to be psychic and to have seen the couple’s little girl) came directly from a du Maurier story of the same title. Then I learned that Hitchock’s The Birds, too, was originally a du Maurier story. (A number of her novels, too, became films—including Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca.) It is the cinematic scope of these works, and the unforgettable, often disquieting images du Maurier created on the page, that I admire as a writer of my own stories and novels.
Take, for instance, this image from “The Birds” (in which a farm laborer in a seaside town tries to protect his family from the onslaught of suddenly vicious birds):
In the distance he could see the clay hills, white and clean, against the heavy pallor of the sky. Something black rose from behind them, like a smudge at first, then widening, becoming deeper, and the smudge became a cloud, and the cloud divided again into five other clouds, spreading north, east, south, and west, and they were not clouds at all; they were birds.
Or the moment when the farmer attempts to clear away birds that have died in the latest struggle:
He meant to drop the birds into [the pit], but as he opened up the sack the force of the wind carried them, lifted them, as though in flight again, and they were blown away from him along the beach, tossed like feathers, spread and scattered, the bodies of the fifty frozen birds.
It is an awful vision. And du Maurier’s stories are often about vision—literally (as in “The Blue Lenses,” where a patient’s sight is medically restored, with disturbing results) and metaphorically (the second sight in “Don’t Look Now,” or the mistaking, in “La Sainte-Vierge” of a glimpsed human being for a godly apparition.) Even Rebecca is about lack of sight, or insight, the narrator at last being disabused of her notions by having to face a more frightful truth. It is this psychological acuity that I most appreciate in du Maurier’s work, her gift for making our most human fears—of death and failure and loss of love—tangible, literal, whether in the form of the young bride deserting her husband for a cloistered community in “Monte Verita” or the confused widow discovering her home populated by strangers, and herself unrecognized, in “Split Second.” These stories possess the sensory richness and emotional accuracy of nightmares. And despite their shock value, the surprise endings are no mere plot tricks. For they contain that most basic truth: of the known—or suspected—versus confusion or self-deception, of hard physical reality versus fantasy. Such lessons are always harsh; and so these stories horrify.