Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Echoes from the Macabre by Daphne du Maurier (1978): No Future for Me, No Future for You

"Tales of quiet terror" is the descriptor on the cover of Echoes from the Macabre, and it's perfectly correct. This collection from Daphne du Maurier, most famous for penning Rebecca (1938), contains her two most famous long tales, "Don't Look Now" (1971) and "The Birds" (1952). Yes, each story is the basis for the respective movies of the same name. They are richly rewarding in their own right, however, as are the other half-dozen works here, all originally published in various hardcover editions in the '50s and '70s. This is the Avon paperback edition of the book originally published by Doubleday in hardcover in 1976.

Filled with disquiet and unease, creeping doubt and slow-dawning horror - a du Maurier trademark - these stories of the uncanny share other similarities than just quietness. Each precisely-described character defect will be an undoing; each note of suspicion will come true in the most unexpected manner. Vacationers abroad should have never left home, while home offers its own miseries. Her style is tough-minded, unsparing, carefully wrought. Cold and cruelly calculating, du Maurier dooms her men and women to humiliating defeats (what a bloody silly way to die...).

"Don't Look Now," the lead story, is justly famous in the horror field; editor David G. Hartwell chose it for his enormous Foundations of Fear anthology in 1992. A married couple who have recently lost their young daughter are vacationing in Venice in order to ease their minds; wife Laura is befriended, of sorts, by two elderly female twins. One is a blind psychic who tells Laura that their daughter is still with them, laughing and carefree. While this news fills Laura with happiness, it distresses husband John. What follows is the darkest comedy of errors, which leads to fateful absurd tragedy. The way du Maurier slowly closes the circle around one of her characters is breathtaking.

Another man desperate for a vacation appears in "Not After Midnight." In Crete to paint its lovely seascapes and hoping to stay far from his fellow travelers, boys' schoolteacher Mr. Gray inadvertently attracts the attention of a fat drunken lout of an American who informs him that the cabin in which Gray is staying was previously occupied by an unfortunate fellow who drowned and washed up on shore, half-eaten by octopuses. In a very vague way it reminded me of Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth." But get out your Hamilton's Mythology for this one, gang. Old gods do not die quietly.

1972 Avon paperback

Set at the beginning of a cold hard winter on the grim English seaside, "The Birds" is a matter-of-fact tale of nature gone horribly, irrevocably wrong. Hitchcock's adaptation retained the matter of birds attacking humans but du Maurier's version is all her own. There is suspense and dread and human failing, and a pervasive sense of futility. While most other aspects of the movie are absent in the story, there is actually no need for them here. Whatever human drama there was before the birds came is rendered moot.

In "The Pool," a pubescent girl finds that a new life for her means that something else must die after offering a sacrifice to the promising body of water in her grandparents' garden; a driven hunter obsesses over "The Chamois" (a rare type of goat in the central European wilds) while his wife fears their secret shames might both be symbolized by the animal. The natural world, as presented in Echoes, is one that must be appeased or acquiesced to; there seems to be no harmonious living with it.

Back in the city, post-war English life is well-drawn in "Kiss Me Again, Stranger," but it's not a life for everyone. And "Blue Lenses" tells us that hospital stays are always disorienting; while this isn't quite a story about eye trauma, it is, in its own way. Horror always reminds us that people are not often what they appear to be; in this story, perhaps they are. Which is even worse.

Not all the stories are overtly macabre, as it were; some have wistful, dreamy moments while others offer more psychological insights, particularly of the marital kind, as in "The Apple Tree." The cover art has its source in one of my favorite stories here but I won't spoil it for a first-time reader. If you are fan of the merciless and misanthropic ironies of Roald Dahl, Patricia Highsmith, or Shirley Jackson then one is advised to pick up this collection posthaste; I've seen cheap copies of it for sale all over the internet. Worldly and sophisticated, Echoes from the Macabre is the literary equivalent of, if not a knife, then a dull club in the chest from a dearest, albeit well-traveled, loved one.

5 comments:

Matt Bradshaw said...

The movie version of Don't Look Now has been a favorite creep out ever since I watched it for a film studies class in college. I don't think I ever realized before that it was based on a work of fiction.

Anonymous said...

"The Birds" is an impressive apocalyptic chiller, even more grim and unsettling than Hitchcock's masterpiece.

I prefer Roeg's movie of Don't Look Now to the original story, though, for reasons that probably all come down to mood and style. The story (as I recall) is a fairly light, ironic affair, the movie a brooding chamber of secrets that makes the most of its eerie Venice locations.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for the reminder, guys, that I really must see Don't Look Now again; it's been years...

highwayknees said...

Just as I love Ms. Jackson's stories,so do I also admire Ms. DuMaurier's. They are fascinating, and always hold wonders you've forgotten about on re-readings. The Chamois, and The Limpet,are two that stand out for me as both heartbreaking AND terrifying at the same time! She can certainly set a mood...It's funny though as many times as I've read all her stories, I've never read one of Du Maurier's novels! I mean to-even have one in my to read pile now-but never have felt I'd enjoy them as much as these!
Also a good comparison you made with P. HIghsmith. Her stories are equally wonderful and dark. I HAVE devoured all her novels though, so...go figure?!

Ron Dionne said...

Nice reprint from highbrow NYRB Classics: http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Look-Now-Selected-Classics/dp/1590172884/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1316123580&sr=8-4