Saturday, May 20, 2017

Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

As he jumped the stile he heard the whirr of wings.  A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again.  In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed.  Nat dropped his hoe.  The hoe was useless.  Covering his head with his arms he ran towards the cottage.  They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings.  The terrible, fluttering wings.  He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck.  Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh.  If only he could keep them from his eyes.  They had not learnt yet how to cling to a shoulder, how to strip clothing, how to dive in mass upon the head, upon the body.  But with each dive, with each attack, they became bolder.  And they had no thought for themselves.  When they dived low and missed, they crashed, bruised and broken, on the ground.  As Nat ran he stumbled, kicking their spent bodies in front of him.

I picked up the new NYRB collection of Daphne du Maurier's stories, Don't Look Now, because Brent had enjoyed it so much when he read it.  As it turns out, except for the title story, the collections are almost completely different.  Oh well.  That story, at least, is pretty good: a man and a woman vacationing in Italy after the loss of their daughter are approached by a set of older female twins, one of which claims to be able to see their dead daughter alongside them.  The woman is grateful and the man is skeptical.  And yet--while in the back alleys of Venice he sees a mysterious young girl hopping between the boats on the canal.  It's the kind of story where the details, like that one, suggest to you one ending, but the actual direction the story heads is completely unexpected.

Not so with "The Birds," which is far and away the best story here, and du Maurier's most famous, thanks to Hitchcock.  The premise is simple: one day, all the world's birds seem to declare war on the world's humans, and begin to attack.  There's no twists here, because it's a fight in which we're hopelessly outmatched--there's only one possible outcome, really.  The protagonist is a hardscrabble farmhand named Nat who is dedicated to protecting his family, boarding up the windows, scavenging his employers' house for good.  He's meant to contrast his gleeful boss, who heads out, foolhardy, with a gun, to see how many birds he can bag.

But he also contrasts the institutions of human society, which prove unable to meet the challenge of the birds.  In a modern film (one without Hitchcock's deftness, though even that is hardly the same as du Maurier's story) you'd have an obligatory scene in the president's war room, where they shout at each other about how their efforts are failing, but here, there's only the uncomfortable silence of the BBC Home channel on the radio in Nat's house.  Nat's wife asks why the planes they hear outside are dropping bombs, but Nat knows that what they're really hearing is the crashing of the planes.  It's chilling because it's not a personal or a private horror, but one that encompasses the whole world--yet it's deftly imagined through the lens of a single family.

Not all the stories are so successful.  I was underwhelmed by "Escort," which is like a hastily sketched version of the X-Files episode "Triangle."  "La Saint-Vierge" is essentially a dirty joke dressed up as a horror story.  I did like "Blue Lenses," in which a woman recovers from eye surgery to find that everyone's heads have been replaced by those of the animals that match their personality.  That story, which sounds so much like an episode of The Twilight Zone, has some of the same chilling absurdity of "The Birds."  I also liked the long final story, "Monte Verita," in which a mountain climbing-enthusiast loses his wife to a monastic community of women living in seclusion on a remote mountaintop, who are rumored to have discovered immortality.  Like "Don't Look Now," "Monte Verita" takes a good premise and adds a final, unexpected screw-turn that elevates the story and turns our expectations on their heads.  Du Maurier was an expert at that--just think about Rebecca--because the twists always seem to recontextualize the story and make it more awful, rather than a kind of cheap curtain-pulling.

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