By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 29, 2010
She wrote “Rebecca.”
I’m almost sure you haven’t read it. [Should you want to rectify that and buy the book from Amazon, click here.]
I am fairly sure you’ve seen the Alfred Hitchcock film. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.]
That makes sense.
Daphne du Maurier’s books go in and out of print. She has a cult, but nothing like Patricia Highsmith. And the Hitchcock film --- the first he made in America --- was calculated to become a major success. The producer was David O. Selznick, who made “Gone with the Wind.” He surrounded Hitchcock with so much talent that the film had 9 Academy Award nominations in 1941. It won two Oscars, one for cinematography, one for Best Picture. And, in his adopted America, Hitchcock was on his way.
Hitchcock was fond of du Maurier’s Gothic suspense novels. In l939, he directed the film of "Jamaica Inn." In 1963, he made “The Birds.” [To buy the DVD of “The Birds” from Amazon, click here. To rent it from Amazon and watch it now, click here. To download it from iTunes, click here.]
Not that he had any great respect for her books --- or, for that matter, any writer’s work. For Hitchcock, du Maurier merely created situations that he could turn into horror movies. She, predictably, was horrified.
She had much better luck in the early 1970s, when Nicholas Roeg directed Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in an adaptation of her novel, “Don’t Look Now.” [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.] You may remember: A married couple. One of their children has died. They’ve come to Venice. There’s a very hot sex scene that shows them getting dressed, after. A blind woman who has other ways to “see” assures the wife that their child is fine and happy and with them right now. And then it gets weirder.
Like most of you, I’m sure, I had no idea that du Maurier had written “Don’t Look Now”. Then I stumbled upon “Don't Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier.” [To order the book from Amazon, click here.] What a pleasant surprise! On the surface, du Maurier is a very conventional writer; imagine Edith Wharton with a flair for ghosts and sudden frights. But stay with her and she’s quite spooky --- even though you know a twist is coming, she still fakes you out. And spooks you.
“Don’t Look Now” uses the unreal city of Venice to suggest a larger unreality. The grief of the married couple --- easy to identify with --- becomes secondary as the atmospherics of canals and churches creep in like a night fog. A blind seer, a dwarf, a sighting of the wife when she’s allegedly in London --- du Maurier builds her improbable story carefully, until the unlikely starts to look like the only possibility.
Then comes “The Birds.” Her story could not be more different from Hitchock’s. His version is set in California. As is his obsession, there’s a cool blond with hot passions at the center of his story. She’s brought a man with her, and it seems to others that something in their relationship has caused the birds to go crazy and attack people. Like this:
du Maurier sets her story in England in a region of coastal farms. Her main character is a disabled, part-time farm worker. He’s a simple man; the first few bird attacks leave him confused and hoping for an explanation on the radio. But winter comes on suddenly --- “in a single night” --- and the birds are soon attacking London, maybe all of Europe. Why is this happening? Someone suggests “the Russians.” The workman doesn’t care about causes. He’s trying to save the lives of his wife and children, he’s thinking about stronger wood over the windows.
The escalation is intense --- one resourceful man against nature gone wild --- and if you don’t read this story with some sense of an ecological holocaust, I think you’re missing the boat. How prescient of du Maurier! And how delicious are these sentences: “They [the birds] had not learnt yet how to cling to a shoulder, how to rip clothing, how to dive in mass upon the head, upon the body. But with each dive, with each attack, they became bolder….”
Other stories, other chills. A British ship crossing the Atlantic during the U-boat attacks of World War II has an unlikely escort. A woman goes out of her house for a few hours; when she returns, others are living there. A man goes on a date with a woman whose hobby turns out to be murder. And in the scariest story of them all, a rich woman has eye surgery that gives her the ability to see people as they really are --- that is, with heads of snakes and weasels and other animals. That is, she sees their character clearly. And then she sees her own face….but no spoilers here.
You can see scarier stuff at the movies. That’s not the point. These are stories for nights when you’re alone, when you wish you’d had that creak in the stairs fixed. The wind makes a shutter slam shut, and you recoil. And then it’s very quiet, and there you are, with just your thoughts --- yes, this is the book you want on one of those nights.