Pretty isn’t it? – and yes this is the edition I own. Happily I now have a little collection of these VMC designer editions.
Don’t Look Now; a collection of five (long) short stories by Daphne Du Maurier first published in 1971 show her to have been a superb writer of shorter fiction as well as novels. I am reminded though, that I haven’t read nearly enough of her novels. Although not everyone does, I love short stories – the right kind of short stories, what I think of as my kind, which are those that aren’t trying to be too clever. My kind of short stories usually come wrapped in covers of soft dove grey these days, and these are of a very similar kind. One of the problems some readers have with short stories is that just as you’re getting into them they are over. These stories are each between about fifty and seventy pages long – my favourite kind of short stories are the meaty kind – and these dark tales are the kind to fully immerse a reader.
Don’t Look Now – the darkest story – with a very Hitchcock feel to it – was definitely my favourite. John and Laura a couple holidaying in Venice spot two women at another table who inspire them to indulge in their old game of weaving imaginary stories around unknown people. It is a long time since John and Laura have relaxed, and laughed in such a way – their young daughter recently succumbed to a fatal illness, which Laura particularly has struggled to recover from. The women are elderly identical twins, seemingly oblivious to the interest they have aroused in their lunching neighbours. Giggling, Laura decides to follow one of them to the toilets. The encounter that Laura has with the woman who claims to have the gift of second sight – sets in motion a series of dark and frightening events.
“The child struggled to her feet and stood before him, the pixie hood falling from her head on to the floor. He stared at her, incredulity turning to horror, to fear”
(Don’t Look Now)
Each of the stories in this collection has a completely different setting, and Du Maurier is exceptionally good at creating that sense of place that I love. ‘Not After Midnight’ is set in a hotel resort in Crete. Little white chalets strung out along a picturesque bay is where school master Timothy Grey comes to indulge in his passion for painting. It is early in the season, and several of the chalets are unoccupied, and so Timothy has a whole section of the bay practically to himself. Settling on chalet 62 – he is naturally shocked but not unduly disturbed to hear that the resident of the chalet before him recently drowned. Occupying a chalet across the bay and within sight of his own is loud, hard drinking Mr Stoll and his peculiarly silent wife. In time Timothy comes to suspect the couple’s fishing trips to be not entirely all they appear to be. Invited to the Americans’ chalet – though ‘not after midnight’ – he comes to feel very uncomfortable around them. I was all prepared to be quite terrified by the blustering American and his slightly odd wife – and Du Maurier slowly ratchets up the tension – something she does so well. Up to this point I enjoyed the second story in this collection enormously, the ending, though – supposed to be ambiguous I suppose – I found vaguely unsatisfying.
A Border-Line Case – follows the fortunes of Shelagh a young English actress, who following her father’s death journeys to Ballyfane, Ireland, and the remote Lamb Island nearby – to seek out a man her father once served with. Nick Barry is the border line case of the title – for that is how Shelagh’s father described him – hinting that he was more than a little unbalanced. In Ireland, Shelagh gets rather more than she bargained for – which end up challenging everything she thought she wanted. I enjoyed this story a lot – I saw the main twist coming a mile off – I have to be honest – but that didn’t stop me enjoying it.
“The room was spacious, comfortable, a blue carpet fitted wall-to-wall. A settee, a couple of deep armchairs, a large flat-topped desk near the window. Pictures of ships on the wall. A log-fire burning brightly in the hearth. The setting reminded her of something. She had seen some place like it in the past, reminding her of childhood days. Then she remembered. It was a duplicate of the captain’s cabin in Excalibur, her father’s cabin. Lay-out, furnishings were identical. The familiar surroundings were uncanny, it was like stepping back into the past.”
(A Border-Line Case)
In Jerusalem a group of rather mismatched pilgrims are thrown together in The Way of the Cross. The Rev. Edward Babcock, has had to replace the vicar of Little Bletford who organised the tour – and has fallen ill aboard the ship the group sailed on. None of the group is known to Edward; and none of them seem to think much of the young man who has replaced their beloved vicar. The group consist of a young honeymoon couple, a prosperous middle aged couple, an ageing spinster, Lady Althea Mason the doyenne of Little Bletford society, her husband a retired army officer and their precocious nine year old grandson. This story doesn’t benefit from the unexpected twist or dark humour that the other stories in this collection offer – but that doesn’t matter – as it is the interplay between these people that Du Maurier explores so deftly here – and it was for this that I loved the story so much.
The Breakthrough – was my least favourite story – although I have to admit it is still enormously readable. Set in the remote East Anglian countryside. Saunders; a scientist is transferred to a remote research facility – headed up by McLean; reckless eccentric. Here he and a small group of assistants work on a controversial project that few people – should they learn of the research – would ever believe was possible. There is certainly something very disturbing about this story – which is undoubtedly the point – the story raises all the usual questions of the ethics of scientific research, and at what point science should stop in favour of what is right.
It’s easy to see why Hitchcock liked Du Maurier’s storytelling so much – in these stories Du Maurier builds the tension perfectly, the title story is undoubtedly the most chilling – I defy anyone to put the book down while reading it. I will certainly be seeking out more short stories by Daphne Du Maurier.