A Normal Paranormal

Venice

I enjoy anything written by Daphne du Maurier and therefore I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of participating in HeavenAli’s Daphne du Maurier reading week. I decided to read and review a collection of short stories entitled, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories.

I had settled myself comfortably on the couch, snuggled with a copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and was looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening engrossed in the soothing pleasure of reading. What was I thinking? After all, I was reading Daphne du Maurier and I should have known better. I have read most of her novels and I should have been prepared to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The stories kept me on edge constantly and the evening ended with me feeling out of sorts and a little terrified too. Du Maurier is best known for her Gothic novel Rebecca, a gripping psychological thriller. Her short stories are less well known but they create the same suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere that can send chills down your spine or, at the least, leave a bad taste in your mouth. This collection has five stories, each distinct and different from the other, yet they create the same familiar feeling of foreboding. They are all page turners without exception.

“Don’t Look Now”, the eponymous first story which is almost the length of a novella, is the most famous of the collection as it was made into a successful film in 1973 by Nicolas Roeg starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. John and Laura Baxter who are grieving the death of their little daughter, make a trip to heal to Venice where they come across a pair of elderly twin sisters who claim they can see the ghost of the dead little girl near the couple. One of the sisters is blind and a clairvoyant psychic who can look into the future. She warns the couple that they are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible. They soon learn that their son in boarding school is hospitalized and may need surgery. Laura promptly leaves the city for England whereas John stays on for another day and starts seeing things. The blind sister thinks that he is a psychic too but is not aware of it. He is gradually overcome with confusion and paranoia and if things were not bizarre enough already, there is also a serial killer prowling in the area. The ending is frightening and unexpected. The setting is evocative and plays an important role as in all of du Maurier’s works. Who can forget Manderley’s imposing presence in Rebecca where the mysterious mansion stands out almost like a character itself? And who would have imagined that Venice, the idyllic tourist destination, a city we associate with beauty and romance would be a backdrop for this chilling supernatural story? The dark alleyways and labyrinthine canals create a sinister effect. One could say that the twists and turns in the plot are disorienting like the meandering alleys of Venice or like the mind of the narrator itself.

“Not After Midnight” is a story told in flashback of a man who is clearly suffering from a mysterious ailment or even a nervous breakdown. Timothy Grey, the teacher of a prep school, looks forward to his vacation in Crete to spend his time in solitude pursuing his hobby. He has a penchant for painting seascapes. He is determined to stay in a sea front chalet even when he finds out that just two weeks before his arrival, the previous occupant had drowned in the ocean, half eaten by octopuses. He is annoyed by the presence on the property of an obnoxious and boorish American named Mr. Stoll who drinks like a fish and brews his own beer. He and his wife hunt rare artefacts endowed with strange powers. Mrs. Stolls invites Mr. Grey to visit their chalet but curiously “not after midnight” and leaves him a peculiar gift, an ancient drinking horn decorated with “Silenos, drunken tutor to the God Dionysus”. He is seized with a morbid curiosity about what may have happened to the former guest and follows the Stolls around. The conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous and the words “not after midnight” are left unexplored. After building up an atmosphere of great tension with a sense of impending doom, du Maurier leaves us disappointed, longing for more. I thought the story had a lot of potential and I felt cheated by the ending. Or maybe I just need to brush up on my Greek mythology

“The Breakthrough” is a strange sci-fi story combined with the occult. An engineer is sent to work at a research facility in the middle of the Norfolk marshes where the scientist in charge is conducting secret experiments. He and his team are working on a device called Charon ( Du Maurier seems to have a predilection for the symbolism of Greek legends) that has the ability to transmit psychic messages and control a dog and a mentally disabled little girl but the true purpose is something more ambitious and frightening. Their goal is to capture the living energy from a soul of a person at the time of death in order to examine the afterlife. A member of the team is a young man dying with leukemia who is ready to be their guinea pig. The premise of the story is interesting in spite of being dated but the conclusion is underwhelming and anti-climactic like the previous story.

“A Borderline Case” is the most risqué and disconcerting story of the collection with a compelling title that can be interpreted in many different ways. After her father dies suddenly , Shelagh, a nineteen year old actress, decides to look up his estranged colleague in Ireland. He was best man at her parents’ wedding but shortly thereafter vanished without a trace from their lives. She arrives in a village in Ireland and discovers that he lives in an island in the middle of a lake and is either crazy or a criminal. She is irresistibly drawn to this mysterious man and his ways. I enjoyed this story as the ending completely caught me unawares. Some readers may find the dark and disturbing denouement quite predictable but I did not see it coming. Du Maurier drops hints throughout the story but also distracts us enough with developments in the plot that we are completely taken by surprise or shock as in the case of this story.

“The Way of the Cross “has a different tone from the rest of the stories. It is more didactic in nature, almost like a parable. A young inexperienced clergyman, Rev. Edward Babcock, has to fill in for a vicar who has fallen sick and escort a group of parishoners on a tour of Jerusalem. The group includes a retired colonel, his snobbish wife and their energetic and precocious grandson, a business man with a roving eye and his tolerant wife, an elderly ‘spinster’ smitten with the absent vicar and a newly married couple on their honeymoon experiencing intimacy issues. Biblical analogies abound through the actions of the characters as they retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land on the first day of Jewish Passover. A strained dinner is followed by a walk on the Mount of Olives where everyone scatters and gets separated. Miscommunications and betrayals take place. Numerous mishaps happen in the form of accidents or humiliations ending with each of the characters having an epiphany and learning a valuable lesson.

Du Maurier has a remarkable talent for describing the extraordinary in the ordinary. All the characters are regular people in everyday situations with everyday problems with whom you can relate well. You are lulled into a false sense of security while reading about them till you realize that something is off kilter. Nothing is as it seems when you peel the surface and layers. The characters go about their mundane lives but they have an insatiable curiosity that leads them into places and situations they are unfamiliar with and chaos ensues. The paranormal is treated as normal in a casual way and soon the boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred. The endings often leave you  bewildered and baffled. You have to go back to the first few pages and piece together how it all fits together. You think the stories have ended but have they? They stay with you long after you place the book back on the bookshelf or return it to the library. I know I’ll be thinking about these stories for days, if not months or years.

18 thoughts on “A Normal Paranormal

  1. Great review! I had read this collection several years ago but had forgotten some of its contents or muddled these stories with others in various Du Maurier collections. Isn’t “Don’t Look Now” wonderful? It’s really one of my favorite stories, by anyone; IMO it’s Du Maurier’s best, along with “The Birds.” You mention the Sunderland/Christie movie — what did you think of it? I thought it was great, in fact, one of those rare instances where the screen treatment did justice to the author’s work. I did enjoy the other stories (like you, I failed to guess the twist in “Borderline Case”) but didn’t consider them to be at the same level as “Don’t Look.”
    You really summed up the effect of Du Maurier produces in her short stories, i.e., her ability to discern, and make the reader feel, the uncanny/extraordinary element present in mundane life. Almost a bit like Shirley Jackson!

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    1. Thank you, Janakay! I agree with you that “ Don’t Look Now” is wonderful with that unexpected twist. And yes, the movie is just as wonderful- in fact even more unsettling and terrifying with the vivid scenes. Apparently Du Maurier herself liked the film.

      I actually liked “ The Borderline Case” just as much. The rest of the stories in this collection are mediocre and some of them end abruptly. Have you read any other of her other short story collections? I read “ The Doll and other stories” and have blogged about it. A riveting collection of stories!

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      1. I don’t think I’ve read “The Doll” — I’ll have to check it out. I have trouble remembering particular short stories, especially their titles. This is a real problem with a well-known writer like Du Maurier, whose shorter works turn up all over the place.
        I did like “The Borderline Case,” only not quite as much as “Don’t Look” or “The Birds,” which wasn’t in this collection. Any story that keeps me guessing until the end rates pretty highly, in my book (I just finished a novel that’s sure to be a success; I found it tedious because I guessed all the plot turns several pages ahead of the characters).
        I didn’t previously comment on the unresolved endings in several of Du Maurier’s stories. Simple old me always likes the endings spelled out, but I suppose the ambiguity is Du Maurier’s point: the uncanny exists along with the obvious and the universe can’t be neatly explained. Besides, it’s a great suspense device — as you noted, it keeps the story in your mind long after it ends!

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  2. Fascinating post! I’ve seen the film of Don’t Look Now once, and that was enough to rattle me… As for this collection, I have read “The Breakthrough” and I thought it was a very clever story. I’d definitely like to explore more of her short work!

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  3. What a great review, you’re right about the twisting, dark alleyways and John’s mind. I found it very creepy but haven’t read any of the others in this collection yet!

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  4. Thanks so much for your insightful review.

    I read “not after midnight” today, I can give you my take on it
    (spoilers for those that haven’t read it yet)
    I think the illness was that he had become an alcoholic.
    When he receives the jar with the image of silenus (the tutor of Dionysus, god of wine) he is disgusted by it.
    Stoll leaves him a bottle with the “barley water” he has brewed, later, in the shepherds hut on the island, he finds another bottle and, parched, drinks it.
    on the dinghy going back to the boat, he suddenly marvels at how perfect the jar is, how beautifully made. After he sees the body, he throws the jar into the water, but it doesn’t sink right away, and as it slowly settles, he realizes it looks not only like Stoll but himself as well.

    There’s a lot made of the fact that he doesn’t drink, and that the staff at the resort remark upon how different Stoll was the previous year, not a drunkard.

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    1. Wow! Thank you for your interpretation! That is fascinating especially the fact that Stoll wasn’t a drunkard the previous year! I have to go back and re-read. This is why I love du Maurier.

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      1. I had to go back and read through it when i finished, but that seems to make sense.
        I only just recently started reading work by Daphne du Maurier.
        (For some reason, I had always thought of her as a romance writer.)
        I had seen the more recent version of “My Cousin Rachel”, which set me off reading her books.

        I don’t know if you’ve seen this before, but for your viewing entertainment…..
        Mitchell and Webbs take on Rebecca

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Omg, that’s too funny! Thank you for sharing the link, Claire!

    Yes, it’s sad that the perception is that she is a romance writer. In fact her stories seem romantic at first glance but there are so many layers you can unearth and the romance is tinged with a chilling element. Have you read “ Jamaica Inn” and “ My Cousin Rachel”? I highly recommend them for the same reason.

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    1. I haven’t read Jamaica inn yet.
      I did read “my cousin Rachel”.

      Nothing says romantic bodice ripper like a child throwing a stone at a corpse covered in tar hanging from a tree in the opening section

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