Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics (Penguin)
Pages: 268 (Paperback)
Form: Short Stories
John and Laura have come to Venice to try to escape the pain of their young daughter’s death. But when they encounter two old women who claim to have second sight, they find that instead of laying their ghosts to rest they become caught up in a train of increasingly strange and violent events. The other four haunting, evocative stories in this volume also explore deep fears and longings, secrets and desires: a lonely teacher investigates a mysterious American couple; a young woman confronts her father’s past; a party of pilgrims meets disaster in Jerusalem; a scientist harnesses the power of the mind to chilling effect…
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by Daphne du Maurier. They’re a bit of an odd bunch – a mix of the supernatural and the mundane. Some of them embrace the ‘unknown’ with psychics, pagan worship, and life after death, while others seem to be building you up to a similar supernatural element only to have the explanation be something quite simple. Whether you find this second-guessing rewarding or frustrating, though, is probably personal preference. One theme that runs through all the stories, however, is the idea of taking the protagonist away from their home and putting them into an unfamiliar environment, where the setting itself serves to increase the sense of suspense or the character’s alienation. It’s a collection of stories about how people react and adjust when taken out of their comfort zone and thrown into situations they have very little control over. And it has to be said, most characters don’t do so well…
The first story in the collection, Don’t Look Now, is the most famous, being made into a classic horror film in 1973 with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Now I haven’t yet seen the film but my big sister has, and I still remember how freaked out by it she was she she came back from a friend’s sleepover and told me about it. With that in mind and my dad’s explanation of the storyline and constant ‘this reminds me of Don’t Look Now‘ ‘watch out for little girls in raincoats!’ whenever we ended up wandering round Venetian backstreets and canals at night on family holidays (surprisingly often actually), I had been building this expectation for years that the book must be something truly atmospheric and full of suspense. It wasn’t. I did my best to make it so – I read it while I was in Venice, in the evening, on a poorly lit bench in a small square off a load of little backalleys that I had to wander back through to get to my hostel – and it still didn’t evoke the slightest sense of unease. Maybe I did it wrong, maybe if I had read it at home with only my imagination and memories of Venice I’d have found it creepier. And there’s also the fact I had the story spoilt for me by hearing about the film – which actually changes a few key details in ways that make the story make more sense. In the book John’s obsession with the little girl in the raincoat is never really that satisfactory and the psychic old women just seem random, disconnected and kind of silly – the film’s change to the raincoat girl resembling the dead daughter would have done a lot to improve the sense of suspense and unease both about the supernatural and the character’s mental health. The ending though, the ending I actually liked in all it’s silly, unintentional hilarity. I’ve seen other reviews claim that du Maurier does a great job of building up suspense only to fail with sudden endings – it’s a criticism I actually agree with in many cases, but in this story I think there was the opposite problem. The ending, though silly, would have worked really well if the build up of suspense had been better done in the main body. As it was, it just seemed too much of John and Laura going out for diner and days out and having rather dull marital disagreements and not enough taking advantage of the creepy setting to explore the grief of losing a child.
The second story, however, does suffer from the sudden ending negating the atmospheric tension of everything that came before, and in a pretty bad way. Not After Midnight tells the story of a ‘lonely teacher’ who goes on holiday to Crete to get some painting done and ends up involved with the mysterious American couple over in one of the other holiday homes. I’d actually take issue with the back cover (and Wikipedia’s) description of the main character as ‘lonely’ – he doesn’t seem lonely to me, he seems like someone who likes being alone to get on with his own thing and doesn’t actually want to be bothered – especially by constantly drunk, boorish Americans. Surely nobody who’s ever experienced being next to one of them on holiday can blame him for that? The loneliness is there, certainly, but it’s something that he develops after and as a result of his holiday and that’s actually pretty important – he wasn’t particularly damaged before the events of the story. To miss that is almost to miss the point. But onto the story… I liked the build up of atmosphere and suspense here a whole lot better than I did in Don’t Look Now. Where it fell down though was the ending, which was frankly pretty rubbish. It felt way too sudden, rushed and dropped in there without any explanation purely for ‘shock factor’. I had to go back and spend a few minutes trying to piece how it all fitted together with the rest of the story – and not in the fun ‘oooooh, I get that now’ way but the ‘that really should have been a little clearer, and I still don’t get why she said that if what was going on was actually this’ way. Just a little longer drawing out the ending and making sure the pieces all fitted together a bit more neatly would really have improved this one, because the actual story, though hardly ‘serious literature’ wasn’t bad.
A Border-Line Case was much more solidly written and probably, if I was being completely objective, the best of the bunch. I can’t rate it too highly though because it several tropes that I’m frankly a bit bored with and, though I was surprised with the twist in the middle, I saw the end ‘twist’ coming a mile off. The heroine of this story is aspiring actress, Shelagh, who, after witnessing her father’s death, travels to Ireland to visit an estranged old friend of his, based on an off-hand remark he made about wanting to make up. Of course Ireland and England don’t have the best of relations in the 1970s so Shelagh, a little out of her depth, uses her actress skills to disguise her identity. And…well…she must be a damned good actress because the lies she makes up are totally transparent bullshit to anyone simply reading them on the page. People buy (or pretend to buy) them though and she eventually gets ushered in to meet Nick on his mysterious island of mysteriousness where he is surrounded by young men and likes digging up iron age burial sites and not reporting them to trained archaeologists to make proper surveys of (yes, that is something that bugs me in real life, proper archeological surveys are important damnit!). We get some wonderfully 1970s PC ‘oh my god, he might be a homo‘ thoughts from Shelagh as she tries to puzzle out the reason for Nick’s reclusiveness which made me laugh a little. Which was good, as her other thoughts made me want to bash her head in for being a fucking idiot with no ‘creep creep, stay away from this person’ sense of self preservation. She’s only 19, I know, but really. Everything about the situation says ‘run for the fucking hills’. A solidly written story, definitely the most consistently well written of the first three stories, but I found neither main character relatable, likable, or particularly believable, enough for me to enjoy it very much. The ‘twist’, though possibly relatively shocking in the 70s, was pretty predictable and, by now, majorly overdone. I’ll give it the fact it has a good title than can be interpreted in a number of ways though – that was pretty clever.
And now my favourite, The Way of the Cross, and I’ll admit this is probably because I have a bit of a fascination with Jerusalem (though my historical knowledge is mainly focussed on the city during the reign of the crusader kings). This story has a far larger cast of characters – a whole tour group of pilgrims – all given about equal attention. The story kicks off with poor Rev. Edward Babcock, a relatively young, urban cleric away on his own holiday, having to step in, last-minute, to be a tour guide for a group of snobby village parishioners he doesn’t know. It takes a while to get into it and I have to admit to being frustrated by du Maurier’s use of ‘young attractive women cannot resist dreadful, boorish, middle-aged men’ theme. It just drives me batty, these men (and I include Mr. De Winter from Rebecca as well) are so absolutely dire. I don’t know why anyone, regardless of age, would ever fancy them ever. There were enough characters, however, that if one storyline bothered me it was quickly moved away from to feature somebody elses. The basic plot is quite a simple one – all the characters get separated from each other, overhear unpleasant truths and gossip about themselves, and have an absolutely horrible time – normally in karmic and amusing ways. There’s a sense at the end though that maybe, just maybe, they learn something from their experience and emerge better people for having visited the Holy City. Given the limited page and large number of characters it’s all a bit superficial, but it’s not bad. I actually liked the ‘annoying’ know-it-all kid, who has a great time approaching Jerusalem’s depiction in the bible and the reality of the present city as an archeological problem, rather than desperately seeking spiritual guidance or forgiveness. Questioning whether an important historic site really is where, or as old as, the tourist board claims it is, is something me and my dad often do on holiday and I appreciated the fact that somebody was culturally aware and respectful of the other religions in the city . A fairly simple, quite formulaic little story, with rather two-dimensional characters. But the prose did by far the best job in this book of evoking a strong sense of location.
The last story, The Breakthrough, is probably an acquired taste. It’s pretty much an unpfront science-fiction/supernatural crossover. Our ‘hero’, Steven the computer guy, is moved to some arse-end-of-nowhere government research facility run by a nutter who the whole scientific community mocks and peopled by about two equally secretive underlings. The machines are all called Charon 1, 2 or 3 so if you know your Greek mythology it’s no surprise what the ‘secret’ aim of the research is. It’s…I dunno. It’s not bad but it isn’t an especially original idea and the execution feels incredibly dated… There’s state of the art giant talking computers, hypnotism, ‘idiots’ (not my wording!) possessing untapped potential abilities to move things around with their emotions, a dog obedience-trained to the point of brainwashing, twins that have a special bond that continues even after one dies… it’s as if du Maurier’s throwing in everything she can think of and it’s only a forty page story! It’s just too much. Maybe if I was more of sci-fi fan than a gothic/supernatural/suspense person, I would find this more to my taste but it just felt…inelegant I suppose. Not really thought through.
Overall an interesting collection. Although I didn’t rate all the stories too highly I found something to enjoy about all of them and I don’t regret spending time reading this. Yeah, it’s not the best and not quite my thing but it was interesting at least. My main problem wasn’t that the stories weren’t good, but that I got very frustrated that a lot of it could just be so much better if only it had been more vigorously edited and reworked. Both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight had the potential to be a hell of a lot better than they actually were.