A Normal Paranormal

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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.

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A Russian Christmas

‘Tis the season to read Christmas stories. I recently read two short stories related to Christmas by two different giants of Russian literature: Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Both stories are distressing and unsettling and they may not be the best selection for Christmas when you want to read something cheerful, but let’s be realistic; life is full of ups and downs and Christmas is not a happy time of celebration for everyone.

At Christmas Time by Anton Chekhov is a poignant story of a poor peasant family, written in two parts. In the first part of the story, an illiterate couple hires an innkeeper’s relative during the holiday season to write a letter to their daughter Efimia whom they haven’t seen for four years since she got married and moved to St. Petersburg. They have only received two letters from her during that period and they are not even sure if they have any grandchildren or not. The mother, Vasilissa, has a deep love for her daughter and gets emotional while speaking out her affectionate Christmas message to Yegor, the scribe. He, on the other hand, is indifferent to her suffering. He is not interested in the couple or their daughter and adds nonsensical thoughts about the military in the letter which have no relevance to the mother’s sentiments. The second part of the story takes place at Efimia’s house which is a room attached to the medical establishment where her husband works as a porter and where they live with their three little children. She bursts out sobbing while reading her parents’ letter.

You can read the story here:
At Christmas Time

We learn that Efimia’s husband neglected to send her letters home as he was preoccupied with important business and eventually the letters got lost. It’s obvious that the young woman is trapped in a miserable marriage to an indifferent and intimidating man. She is terrified of her husband and stops speaking when he enters the room. “ She was very much frightened of him—oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.” And while reading out the letter from her parents, she cries out, “Queen of Heaven, Holy Mother and Defender, take us away from here!” Chekhov reveals a lot without being explicit about details. The heightened fear of the woman points out to emotional abuse and maybe even physical abuse. Similarly, we don’t know how the old couple feels about not hearing from their daughter. They miss her immensely and are not sure if she is alive or dead. They are lonely and we wonder if they feel abandoned by her as they have no inkling about her misery.

The dark and disturbing story emphasizes the fact that Christmas is not always a happy and hopeful time for all families.The ending is typical of Chekhov who leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. Life is not always orderly with definite and happy endings and his stories reflect the painful reality. Let’s proceed to the second succinct story which also manages to pack a punch in a few lines.

The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree is a powerful short story by Dostoevsky, reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl.

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You can read the story here:
The Beggar Boy at Christ's Christmas Tree

On Christmas Eve, a poor six year old boy, freezing to death and suffering from terrible pangs of hunger, leaves the cellar where his mother is dying and steps out into town. He is fascinated by the lavish window displays of Christmas trees and fancy cakes that he comes across while strolling in the streets. Through a huge glass window, he sees a lovely Christmas tree and well dressed children laughing and playing and eating cakes of all sorts in a house, but when the boy opens the door and goes in, he is shooed out. A wicked boy on the road hits him on the head and makes off with his cap while he is peering through another glass window to admire dolls.

He betakes himself to someone’s courtyard behind a stack of wood where he has a vision of the Christ’s Christmas tree surrounded by dolls. They are the spirits of other children who have died and gone to heaven. They tell him that this is Christ’s Christmas tree for the little children who have no tree of their own. These angels were all little boys and girls like him who froze, starved or suffocated to death and they are now joyfully reunited with their respective mothers. In the morning, the porter finds the dead body of the frozen child on the woodstack and they find his mother too who had died before him. The story of the little boy is not unique to him but represents the plight of thousands of children who are starving and freezing during a time of merriment and joy. It’s a Dostoevskian world of misfortune and misery but there is a Christmas message underlying the sad story. The contrast between the affluent and the poor is startling in its injustice and it’s heart-wrenching to see that everyone in town is either oblivious or indifferent to the condition of the little boy. “A policeman walked by and turned away to avoid seeing the boy.”

Dostoevsky ends the story saying that what took place in the cellar and on the woodstack might have happened but he’s not sure about Christ’s Christmas tree. He is quite sure about the wretchedness of our existence but who knows what happens beyond the grave. A grim and sobering statement indeed!

I’ve always wondered what it is about 19th century Russian literature that moves me so profoundly? Is it the universal appeal of the works which portray the sorrow and suffering of the human condition or the fact that the writers can reach the depths of our souls with their sensitivity? My only regret is that I haven’t learnt Russian to read these gems in the original although I think we are fortunate to have access to some excellent translations. In my next blog post, I promise a more uplifting Christmas story by yet another literary giant of Russia. Meanwhile, I wish you all a very happy ‘Litmas’ season! Happy Reading!