Many people are familiar with du Maurier because of her famous novel Rebecca, but she was
actually a very prolific writer and many of her novels and stories were also made into movies, though you may not have realized it. I have become quite a
fan of her fiction, which falls into two main categories, as I see it: historical novels, and creepy. This collection obviously falls into the latter
category, as you can tell by looking at the cover of the book. It's an optical illusion, and I did not realize it until I saw it on my computer screen. I saw
it as a horse-like animal skull, but it is also a woman screaming. When you are holding the actual book, it is the skull that stands out.
The copyright in my edition is 2008. There is also an earlier edition called Don't Look Now and Other Stories, which is a different collection. This one contains nine stories ranging from 1952 to 1980, but those are the dates when they first appeared in a collection. I have not been able to find much on du Maurier's individual stories, even at Wikipedia. There are quite a few short story collections, and Amazon has most of them and Walmart.com has quite a few also, but more pricey. They are not available at Project Gutenberg or other sources of free eBooks. However, you may read this entire collection at Google Books, linked below under The Birds.
I have found that with most authors, their short stories differ quite a bit from their novels. Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky are a few examples. The same holds true here. So, is the screaming woman on the cover indicative of the stories within? Em, well, no, not really. I am used to reading before bed, and I wondered if these would be too scary for bedtime stories. According to the Introduction, they should have been. But they weren't. No, not even The Birds. The problem with me and scary stories is that, real life has become the scariest thing I can imagine. We have our own government terrorizing us with the weather, and a global mind-control program of which most people are blissfully unaware. And so, to me, it is those stories that mirror the horror going on right now that send chills up my spine. Stories about possession and being stalked by some unknown being, on or off this planet. Of all her novels I have read so far, it was only The House on the Strand that I found truly disturbing, about a man who takes a drug that sends him back to medieval times, but to which he also becomes addicted, then is unable to discern what is real. None of these come close. However the fact that they are "short" stories could also make the difference. In a novel, one has many, many pages in which to set up the horror.
But are these good stories? Yes, I zipped through this book much faster than I expected, and I usually dawdle through story collections. I might not have been scared, but I was certainly entertained.
For more about Daphne du Maurier and her works, please visit her Index Page.
Don't Look Now
This one first appeared in the collection, Not After Midnight, in 1971. It was made into a movie in 1973. Here is more about both the book and movie from the Daphne du Maurier website. There are some major differences in the story and the movie, of which du Maurier approved. I will give a brief synopsis of the story without giving away the surprises.
Many of these stories utilize a merging of past, present and future, and this is one of them. We meet John and Laura vacationing in Venice, and right now they are lunching in Torcello. The book begins with "Don't look now," John said to his wife, "but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotize me." Laura drops her napkin, and on the way up glances at them, suppressing an hysterical laugh. She tells John they are male twins in drag. Presently one goes to the restroom, and Laura follows. While alone, John thinks to himself that Laura is healing from her pain, participating in a game they always play while on vacation. Their five-year-old daughter, Christine, has recently died of meningitis. They also have a son.
It takes Laura ages to return from the restroom, but when she does, she is completely changed. The two old women are twins, and one is blind, and a psychic. She is seeing their daughter Christine, with them.
John is annoyed, thinking they are phonies, out to swindle them, perhaps. And he notices that the blind one keeps "staring" at him. She has also told Laura that John has psychic powers. John is becoming irritated, so they head back to Venice, where they plan a romantic meal. They choose an out-of-the-way place, and John is certain he knows the back-ways. But they end up in a dark alley. They hear a scream, and later, watch a little girl who seems to be trying to run away, jumping across the boats. While at the restaurant, the two sisters appear again, and Laura goes to them, this time staying quite a while. John is now sickened, ordering something that he doesn't even want. When Laura finally returns, it is obvious their night has been spoiled.
On the way back John notices the seedy side of Venice. And this describes much of our present "reality."
The soft humidity of the evening, so pleasant to walk about in earlier, had turned to rain. The strolling tourists had melted away. One or two people hurried by under umbrellas. This is what the inhabitants who live here see, he thought. This is the true life. Empty streets by night, the dank stillness of a stagnant canal beneath shuttered houses. The rest is a bright façade put on for show, glittering by sunlight.
But it is this next quote that blew me away, especially since Venice has just suffered historic flooding.
The experts are right, he thought, Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying. One day the tourists will travel here by boat to peer down into the waters, and they will see pillars and columns and marble far, far beneath them, slime and mud uncovering for brief moments a lost underworld of stone."
Along with the blind psychic informing Laura that John has psychic powers, she also informs her that
Christine wants them to leave Venice right away or there will be a terrible tragedy. Keep in mind, John refuses to even meet the two elderly women, and now
this sets him off even more. But when they return to the hotel, they find a message that their son, who is at school, probably has appendicitis.
Laura is able to catch a charter flight right away after someone has cancelled, so she goes off, and John is to drive the car to Milan, where he can put it on a train. Laura believes this is the tragedy the sister had spoken of, but John thinks it's all nonsense.
And so Laura boards the plane and John packs the luggage and boards the ferry. But something very strange happens that greatly upsets him. They pass another ferry where he sees Laura in her scarlet coat with the two sisters, which of course leaves him very confused. Probably most people would have doubted what they saw, and made a phone call to make sure that Laura was safely on her way back home. But John has such an attitude toward the sisters, plus the fact that there has been a murderer on the loose in Venice, he comes to the conclusion that Laura has been kidnapped or lured. Wrong conclusion.
Many people are no doubt familiar with the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. I remember seeing it when I was quite young and thought it was terrifying. However, du Maurier was not pleased with the results, and it only was loosely based on her story. They should have stuck with what she wrote, because it is much more ghastly. And don't get me wrong. the movie is most definitely scary, in fact next to The Exorcist, it may be the scariest movie I've ever seen. Here is an interesting article on the movie from Mental Floss. The birds were actually trained to attack, and in the name of animal rights, an avian hospital was built on the set to care for injured birds. People got injured, too.
The story was first published in 1952 in the collection, The Apple Tree. And unlike Hitchcock's movie, the story is truly apocalyptic, as in, what we are approaching here in 2019. In fact, there were way too many aspects here that sounded uncomfortably familiar. The article linked above states that the birds were hungry because of a harsh winter, but that isn't true, in fact on the first page, Nat notices the pattern of the birds that do not migrate, and how they were "settling to feed on the rich new-turned soil.
It takes place in a farm village in Cornwall. Nat works at a farm near his cottage. He is a military veteran with a pension. The story takes place shortly after WWII. Winter is nearing, but something strange is happening, and the weather is repeatedly mentioned as the cause of the birds' strange behavior, which goes beyond the non-migrating birds' usual restlessness. He notices this year that the number of birds that have remained is much greater and that they had been overly restless. The farmer also notices that they seem more aggressive, and believes the weather will soon change, and it will be a harsh winter.
That evening, however, as Nat returns home, it is still mild, but soon the weather does change. "Not the storm and bluster of a sou'westerly gale, bringing the rain, but east wind, cold and dry." He awakens overnight with feelings of apprehension, as the winds blow down the chimney.
The he hears tapping on the window and finally gets out of bed to investigate. When he opens the window, something jabs his hand, drawing blood. It is a bird. He returns to bed and once again hears tapping. His wife tells him to make it stop. However, this time, upon opening the window, his face is attacked by several birds. But now the two children begin screaming. There is a whole flock of birds in that room. Nat gets the children out of the room, then grabs a blanket for protection, beating in the dark until the last flapping wings are silenced. It is now dawn, and he can see about fifty dead bodies, all birds that were normally gentle—robins, wrens, finches sparrows, and others, all banded together for the attack. As he and his wife discuss it, he keeps saying it is the weather, but she points out that there has been plenty of food. And here I want to quote a whole paragraph, about the sudden and strange change in the weather that seems to have brought on this bizarre behavior. Does anything sound familiar here? Was there a possibility du Maurier knew about climate engineering? It would have been going on for a number of years at the time the story was written. And climate "experiments," I believe, had been done in England.
The sky was hard and leaden, and the brown hills that had gleamed in the sun the day before looked dark and bare. The east wind, like a razor, stripped the trees, and the leaves, crackling and dry, shivered and scattered with the wind's blast. Nat stubbed the earth with his boot. It was frozen hard. He had never noticed a change so swift and sudden. Black winter had descended in a single night.
Nat walks Jill to the school bus stop, then goes on to the farm, where no one had any bird trouble over
night, and didn't seem interested in what Nat had to say. The boss is away, so he goes to talk to his wife, who comments on the sudden weather change, wanting
to know if it came from Russia and had heard something about the Arctic. When Nat tries to tell her what had happened, she looks at him like he imagined it.
He then goes to talk with the cowhand, who has the same reaction.
Now, how familiar does that sound??
When he returns home, he gathers up a sack of the fifty dead birds from the bedroom to bury. But the ground is frozen solid. He takes them to the beach.
When he reached the beach below the headland he could barely stand, the force of the east wind was so strong. It hurt to draw breath, and his bare hands were blue. Never had he known such cold, not in all the bad winters he could remember.
It is here that he looks at the breakers, and realizes there are gulls riding them. Tens of thousands of gulls.
He becomes more alarmed. When he returns to the cottage, his wife says there was something on the wireless, and they realize London, and all throughout
England is being targeted by the birds' aggressiveness. Warnings are given to secure doors and windows, and once again, the Arctic cold is blamed.
I will say no more, but even if you do not read this whole book, please read this individual story. Like those of us today who have been sounding the alarm on climate engineering, 5G, and all the other catastrophic things taking place on the planet, Nat's alarm at the farm is greeted with laughter, and he is invited to attend a gull shooting party. But unlike those of us today, who wait for the ignorant to suffer the consequences of their inability to see what is hidden in plain sight, Nat only has until the next morning, when, other than he and his family, safely secured in their cottage, it appears that every other citizen has been pecked to death. And it may not just be Cornwall . . . . As I said, a truly apocalyptic work of nature taking revenge.
I was not able to find this story in digital form, however, you can read the entire book for free online at Google Books.
There is so little written about these individual stories, so I have been unable to obtain the usual bits of trivia and background information that helps with interpretation. This is another, as mentioned above, that uses the concept of merging the past and present.
In this story, William Blunt is sailing from Scandinavia back to England on the Ravenswing, which I believe is a merchant ship. It is towards the beginning of the war. The Captain, a little Welshman, begins complaining about a severe pain in his side, and Blunt is put in charge. The Captain is made to lie down, but appendicitis is suspected, and Blunt is not hopeful when his temperature shoots up and his stomach becomes rigid. They give him brandy, and wait.
But more trouble looms. A German submarine has been spotted, and every effort to escape it fails. However, soon a heavy fog falls, so they have a bit of a reprieve. Not long after, another ship is spotted, a sailing ship, no less, that they think may be a Finnish barque.
They send a boat, and inquire if an escort is needed. Thinking it might be a trick, Blunt puts Carter in charge and enters the boat. When he reaches the ship, there is a strange surreal quality about it, figures moving like shadows, and everything bone-chillingly cold. The boatswain is piping his whistle and a young boy runs by. He meets with the Captain, whom, he now realizes is British, not Finnish. The Captain says he has orders from the King to provide protection. When Blunt asks, "what King?" the Captain answers, "King George, of course."
And so Blunt returns to his ship, while the escort protects them. Meanwhile the enemy sub disappears, and the Captain's fever breaks. He begins to feel better. And Blunt keeps whistling a tune he heard on the sailing ship, one he had never heard before. But where is the sailing ship? It is nowhere to be found.
In researching this, the only possibility I came up with, from the description in the story, was that the Captain of the ghost ship was the famous Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who served King George and lived from 1758-1805. But I could be wrong.
Here we meet Mrs. Ellis, a widow in her thirties. She has a nine-year-old daughter, Susan, who is away at school. Mrs. Ellis is an extremely particular person, where keeping things in order in her home is concerned. She is almost a "Hyacinth Bucket" type character, but without the humor and silliness.
Susan is the most important being in her life. Mrs. Ellis has a housekeeper, Grace, and otherwise, she is not particularly part of any social or entertainment scene. Today we find her anticipating Susan's return home. Determined to keep her routine, Mrs. Ellis steps out for her walk, but shortly before she reaches her house, the laundry van swerves around the corner way too fast. Mrs. Ellis notes the look of horror on the driver's face.
And it is now that nothing is the same. She returns to what she believes is her house, and finds the rooms all occupied with other tenants, and even a photography business. So here is where things get goofy, and less believable. Wouldn't a normal person questions their own sanity, rather than assume that Grace has allowed the house to be overtaken, in just the short time Mrs. Ellis was out for her walk?
This is another story where time is out of whack and there is a crossing of present and future. I found it a bit silly. It, and Escort, both were first collected in The Rendezvous, 1980.
Kiss Me Again, Stranger
The two world wars both play important roles in many of these stories. Those who lived in England at the time obviously had their lives greatly disrupted. Plus the fact that du Maurier was married to a high-ranking military officer would have made war an important theme or background. In any case, this story is narrated by a male who has finished his time in the army, where he was in REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers). He is a simple man, who works as an auto mechanic now, a job he loves. He doesn't think much about girls, and is a bit naïve, it seems. He lives with the Thompsons who like him very much. He has a Mum that he doesn't see too often because she lives farther away. He is a happy-go-lucky guy.
One day the Thompsons go to visit their daughter. He is invited, but stays home instead and decides to go see a movie, a Western. But he becomes strangely fascinated with the ticket girl, so much so that he gets on a bus with her that takes him miles and miles from home. She gets off when the bus route ends, and so does he. They go to a sandwich stall across the road, where he notices "his girl" looking at one of the Air Force men.
After, she goes to the cemetery and lies down on a tombstone. She has no home, no family, because all was destroyed by a bomb. He has kissed her once, then kisses her again. She tells him to leave.
So now he has a long, long walk home, and the Thompsons are upset. But he has "his girl" and is making plans for the future. But "his girl" turns out to not be quite what he expected. This story was first collected in The Apple Tree, 1952.
The Blue Lenses
This story was first collected in The Breaking Point, 1959. Like Split Second, I found it silly, simply because the main character, a woman, cannot grasp that the problem is her, rather than the rest of the world. Faced with going blind, a woman agrees to have an operation, which will later involve lenses being implanted in her eyes. After her face has been bandaged for months, and she is near despair, the bandages finally come off. But what she sees horrifies her. Everyone now has the head of a beast—a dog, a cow, a snake, and her husband, a vulture. Supposedly, these heads are representing the true nature of the person. But the blue lenses are only temporary, and in a couple days, the regular lenses are set. The doctor apologizes when he realizes that the blue lenses were set wrong, on a nerve, which could have resulted in blindness. But now, with the new lenses, everyone has their own head back, to her relief.
Both this story and the next were first collected in Early Stories, 1959, and they are also the two shortest in the book. A Breton peasant, Marie, washes clothes in pool, as she thinks of her husband, Jean. Her whole life exists for him, and now he is to leave on a fishing trip. She can never allow him to see how worried she is, and when she goes to him by the harbor where he is with the other fishermen, he seems annoyed to see her.
She goes to the broken down Chapel des Bonnes Nouvelles where she prays to the Holy Mother, Sainte-Vierge. She asks for a sign that all will be well with Jean, and she thinks she sees a vision, but in her naivety is greatly mistaken.
It is Christmas, and the narrator's boss has asked him to lunch. He is in a good mood because he has an important announcement: he is going to be married. As the two men discuss love and romance, the narrator tells the story of a woman who turned out to be bad news, in fact, she was a thief and stole everything he had on him.
This one is also a very short story, and if I say more, I will give the ending away.
By far, this was my favorite story in the book, and also the longest. It is not scary, not meant to be, and hints at perhaps the paranormal, but more in a spiritual sense. It is truly sublime.
It spans decades, beginning in 1910, when two friends are young and eager mountain climbers. One is the unnamed narrator, and the other is Victor. Victor has a title and an estate, and the other is in business, which takes him for long stretches to America. The story is told after both wars are done and the narrator is now nearly seventy. Victor has long deceased. He looks back at the mysterious events and tries to understand exactly what did happen. He has some theories but admits he will never know the truth.
He also points out that there are many Monte Veritàs in Europe, but he prefers to keep this location secret. From the time he and Victor went to school together, they liked to climb mountains. As they each went their separate ways, they saw each other less frequently, but the friendship remained. It was after he returned from a business trip to Canada that Victor wrote him that he was engaged to a Welsh woman not far from Shropshire, and wanted him to be best man, though he thought of Victor always as a confirmed bachelor like himself.
But when he meets Anna, he is totally taken. She is not only beautiful but a beautiful soul; there is something unworldly about her. When she moves into Victor's estate, she gives away all the expensive furniture, and instead replaces them with very simple and basic pieces. She does not believe in possessions. A year after their marriage, when the narrator is once again back in England, he goes to stay with Victor and Anna. He finds himself attracted to her, though he doesn't realize it. Both he and Victor realize there is something divine about her. He describes it as a "gift of stillness." One night, he sees her outside his window, barefoot in the frost, staring up at the moon.
Though she denies she is skilled at mountain climbing, she actually is an expert. The narrator is invited to accompany them on their next expedition, which is to be Monte Verità, the "Mountain of Truth." He declines, knowing that he will be in America. When he finally returns to England, he is surprised that there is not correspondence from Victor and Anna. He runs into a mutual friend who tells him that Anna has left Victor and he is in a nursing home, fallen to pieces. The narrator goes to see him at once.
Victor tells him what happened. It was that mountain that called her. Set in an isolated village, the story is that a religious cult lived up in Monte Verità, where many believe its followers had obtained immortality. Young women from the village are called and never return. It is here that Anna disappears over night, while they are staying at one of the villager's huts. They knew that Anna would be called and tried to warn Victor. Seeing his friend helps Victor to recover somewhat.
World War I intervenes and both men join up. Victor has turned over the estate to his nephew. Twenty years pass and the narrator is now in his fifties. Victor has renounced all material wealth and has moved to the village below Monte Verità. He writes to Anna regularly and leaves the message near the stone building, built in the crevasse between the two peaks. Now he is dying. The narrator comes to him, and makes the climb himself. He is actually admitted into the holy place, for that indeed is what it is. He speaks with Anna, and tells her that the villagers are planning a raid because of yet another woman who has disappeared.
And there I will stop. As mentioned above, you can read this book for free at Google Books. If you must read only one, make it The Birds. Two, make it this one.
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