Daphne du Maurier is one of those weird fiction authors who you can’t help admiring despite glaring flaws in their writing style. At least, this is the impression I’ve gathered from her collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories (or its original title Not After Midnight). In this series of seven novelettes du Maurier demonstrates her ability to reach peaks of brilliance, but also to fall to valleys of monotony. As they were published in 1971, closer to the end of her career, I’m inclined to believe that these stories showcase concepts that du Maurier could never quite figure out how to flesh out fully. Exploring a theme without a clear framework in mind may also just be how she writes short fiction. Regardless of the reasons, these stories are an interesting if uneven little bunch.
“Don’t Look Now” is likely to be recognized by the 1973 movie version directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring the absolutely dynamite pair of Julie Christie (with her locks of gold) and Donald Sutherland (with his unspeakable 70s porn mustache). The comparison between the two is difficult to avoid. Both recount the story of a couple traveling in Venice, mourning the unexpected death of their young daughter. Both have a somewhat meandering structure and a regrettable neglect in really grappling with the emotional turmoil that the couple is going through. Both have their moments though, certainly with some memorable imagery of dark, twisting Venetian canal streets. The ending, especially, is just as shocking and absurd in both cases.
“Don’t Look Now” also introduces a certain pattern with du Maurier: The subtle supernatural. Certain characters in “Don’t Look Now” may or may not have second sight, and if they do, it’s dealt with in a casual manner that’s distinct in weird fiction. This sort of blase approach to the paranormal is definitely one of my favorite aspects of du Maurier’s writing.
“Not After Midnight” is about a solitary prep school teacher on holiday in Crete, eager to pass the time painting and enjoying the peace and quiet. He finds out a secret behind his room though, one that could correlate a mysterious American couple staying at the resort to a sinister conspiracy. The setup is promising. If only it went anywhere. Du Maurier enjoys elaborately constructing the scene, but she has the grating habit of leaving too much irrelevant information in. Mixing the mundane and the weird is a tough thing to balance. On occasion she gets it right, but this story is all promise and no payoff.
“A Border Line Case” might be my favorite. Although this too is victim to du Maurier’s over-padded prose, it’s an intriguing story with unexpected turns. A young woman searches for an old friend of her father’s after her father’s death. This friend, of course, has quite a store of secrets. This story throws a lot at the reader, and in retrospect it feels like du Maurier put numerous plotlines in motion only to forget about them when she decided she wanted to opt for a twist ending instead. Nonetheless the narrator, an actress, is a fresh voice. She is more her own person, outspoken and vain, and more characterized than previous protagonists, who were really little more than audience surrogates.
“The Way of the Cross” is, wow, a mess of a story. It diverges from the normal formula, with little suggestion of the paranormal, being a mostly realistic record of a trip to Jerusalem made by a group of English pilgrims. The group is too large to cover cohesively in the sixty-some pages of the story. The perspective jumps confusingly between characters and du Maurier throws a million different conflicts at you at once. Other reviews say that this is their favorite of the bunch. While I’d say it’s certainly laudable in terms of ambition (and there’s probably a good deal of religious symbolism that went over my head), it’s like if you took a Robert Altman movie and converted it into writing. There’s quality in there somewhere, but since everybody is so loud and all talking at once you can’t always get a hold of it.
Lastly “The Breakthrough” shows du Maurier exploring the realm of science fiction. The result is… well, this is the epitome of trying to stuff way too much into too one story. What “Cross” did with characters “Breakthrough” does with concepts. Essentially the plot concerns a small group of scientists in Norfolk attempting to capture a human soul, thereby ascertaining the criteria for human identity and whether or not there’s life after death. It’s a cool premise, one that might lend itself well to one of those early silent horror films from the 1920s-30s. But again du Maurier throws too much at the reader without an evident motivation. We have idiot savants, hypnotized dogs, spiritually bonded twin children, artificial intelligence, etc. It’s a lot for a forty page story to handle. As a result the story moves in an unclear direction ultimately toward an anticlimactic ending. The reader is left feeling like a lot of the story’s plot devices were put in for unnecessary bulk.
All things considered, I still like Daphne du Maurier. It’s just that in general her concepts are much better than what she does with them. Not to diminish the significance of du Maurier’s work, much less of du Maurier as a person, but her material does seem to become fully realized in the hands of filmmakers. Roeg’s adaptation of “Don’t Look Now” has already been mentioned, but of course the most well known are the Hitchcock movies. Hitchcock adapted her novels Jamaica Inn and Rebecca and her short story “The Birds” into inimitable suspense films, some of the best of their kind. The only one of these that I’ve read myself is the original “The Birds,” which, much like “Don’t Look Now,” has fascinating concepts that don’t spark quite the way they do on screen. What’s an explosion in the Hitchcock film is a little fizzle in prose. Interesting and with a lasting impression, but still vaguely unsatisfying.