Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

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Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Daphne Du Maurier Part Two: ECHOES FROM THE MACABRE

I mainly want to use this second part to talk about “Don’t Look Now”, which I think is a genuinely great short story and easily the best thing du Maurier ever wrote, but first let’s clear away the underbrush.

The House on the Strand, if I remember aright, is all about a guy who takes some kind of mumblety mumble secret potion that enables him to silently travel back in time, where he observes a family go through a story in the Middle Ages that I never have had the fortitude to find out much about. This novel has a strange reputation in some circles – I first heard about it in one of Neil Barron’s excellent annotated bibliographies – but I think it’s a perfect trifecta of dullness. An uninteresting narrator with uninteresting modern problems encounters an uninteresting historical story he can’t influence. Well, maybe by the end he somehow can, I don’t know, I’ve never been able to stick it out to the end.

The Scapegoat. A reoccurring theme in Western literature, especially popular literature, is the notion of the “double”. Often the double takes the place of somebody who’s just not quite up to snuff and does a better job of it – whatever “it” is.

The Scapegoat came out in the late Fifties and is, I suspect, influenced by a nifty book that nobody remembers anymore which came out around the same time, Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar. There the impostor settles into the bosom of his new family and discovers that the “original” was likely murdered: while somebody like Cornell Woolrich might use this notion as a springboard to one of his paranoid nightmares, in Tey’s book the realization is an opportunity for the protagonist to really rise to the occasion, become better than he thought he could be. It's a murder mystery variant of The Prisoner of Zenda, but an appealing one.

Du Maurier does something with this same idea, although there’s no actual murder here. There is a patented du Maurier sense of “a ghost story without a ghost”, as our protagonist is haunted by his doppleganger’s presence throughout most of the novel. I found the book mostly rewarding and interesting until the final few chapters, where I think du Maurier tries to force an ending that isn’t justified by what came before. Technically it just doesn’t work: in the ending all of our assumptions are overturned, without any especial evidence, in order I think to force a certain kind of emotional epiphany that du Maurier wanted to give the reader. This is actually a fairly common flaw in books: the writer who’s over-possessed with her idea, so much so that she’s forgotten what the story thread is actually demanding. That is one of the great wonders and mysteries of storytelling, of course: the ultimate realization that the story is beyond anyone’s control, even the author’s, and has a life of its own.

But I wax spiritual. And I digress.

Echoes from the Macabre is du Maurier’s selected story collection, and they range from some pretty forgettable stuff (“The Old Man”), to okay-but-not-as-good-as-you’d-think (“The Birds”, which isn’t much like the Hitchcock movie) to “Don’t Look Now”, which is a seriously great short story.

It is kind of a ghost story in reverse, maybe du Maurier’s definitive statement on the subject. A couple trying to recover from the death of their child are in Venice. The wife stumbles across a couple of strange old women, who are spiritualists and say that they’ve seen the spirit of the child. Then they say that the couple should leave the city – or something bad will happen. At the same time the husband starts to see visions of a small child – that looks something like their deceased child – running through the streets of Venice.

This is one of the great supernatural stories in English, I think. It works so well in so many areas – the sense of place, the unexpectedly brutal ending, the tricks with time (done in a phenomenally interesting way), the terrific, absolutely terrific introduction of the child-figure. It admits to all sorts of possible readings without ever pinning itself down to one. In the context of du Maurier’s work, as I said, it suggests itself as the definitive “non-ghost story” ghost story of du Maurier’s. It turns out that the belief in the supernatural is more “realistic” – indeed survival-oriented – than a superficial materialism. The materialist reveals himself to be so much more gullible, ultimately, than the “believer”. A ghost never clearly shows herself anywhere, yet somehow the tale is smeared over with its presence. Remarkable.

I feel I’m not doing this story justice. In the future I’m going to be doing these analyses a bit closer to publication time, so that if I do stumble upon a genuine literary classic like “Don’t Look Now” , my thoughts will be fresher and I’ll be better able to talk about it cogently. For now, read it.

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