Tuesday Terror! The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier

To sleep, perchance to dream…

Now that the days are getting longer and spring can’t be far away (surely), the porpy is about to go into hibernation. So to make sure he has some pleasantly fretful dreams, who better to give him a send-off than the Queen of Eerie herself…

The Breakthrough
by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

Our narrator, Stephen Saunders, is an electronics engineer who has been sent to work in an isolated facility in Saxmere on the east coast of England, where the scientist James MacLean is carrying out secret experiments in creating methods of destruction for the military. Saunders isn’t thrilled at the assignment, since MacLean has a dubious reputation as an eccentric. His first sight of the place does little to lift his mood…

The sandy track topped a rise and there below us, stretching into infinity, lay acre upon acre of waste land, marsh and reed, bounded on the left by sand-dunes with the open sea beyond. The marshes were intersected here and there by dykes, beside which stood clumps of forlorn rushes bending to the wind and rain, the dykes in their turn forming themselves into dank pools, one or two of them miniature lakes, ringed about with reeds.

He meets the people who will be his colleagues: MacLean, or Mac as he’s known; young Ken Ryan, who doesn’t seem to do much but is a cheerful presence; Robbie, a medical doctor; and the steward Janus, who does the cooking and housekeeping. Then he makes the first awful discovery…

….‘Coffee or cocoa?’ he asked. ‘Or do you prefer something cool? I can recommend the orange juice with a splash of soda.’
….‘I’d like a Scotch,’ I said.
….He looked distressed. His expression became that of an anxious host whose guest demands fresh strawberries in midwinter.
….‘I’m frightfully sorry,’ he said, ‘we none of us touch alcohol. Mac won’t have it served, it’s one of his things.’

Worse is yet to come! He soon discovers that Mac is carrying out another experiment, secret even from the people who are funding the facility. And this experiment qualifies Mac to join the long line of Mad Scientists who cross the boundaries of ethics in pursuit of knowledge. He plans to harness psychic energy – what he calls Force Six – and he intends to use Janus’ young daughter to help him…

….‘Children, like dogs, are particularly easy to train,’ he said. ‘Or put it this way – their sixth sense, the one that picks up these signals, is highly developed. Niki has her own call-note, just as Cerberus does, and the fact that she suffers from retarded development makes her an excellent subject.’

Saunders is already somewhat chilled, but he doesn’t yet know the worst. His predecessor was so appalled he refused to participate…

….‘He was a Catholic,’ explained MacLean. ‘Believing as he did in the survival of the soul and its sojourn in purgatory, he couldn’t stomach any idea of imprisoning the life force and making it work for us here on earth. Which, as I have told you, is my intention.’

It’s in the Don’t Look Now collection.

* * * * *

Ah, yes, mad science! Where would horror be without it? The life-force can only be captured at the point of death, and Saunders soon realises what young Ken’s function is. Ken is a willing participant though, which is more than can be said for the little girl, Niki. However, Saunders manages to convince himself that the end justifies the means, and so they’re all set. But needless to say, things go horribly wrong!

It’s very well told and at 58 pages has enough room for some character development and for du Maurier to build up a chilling atmosphere of suspense. It is both creepy and quite moving as it reaches its climax, and raises questions about what happens to us after death – does any kind of consciousness remain? Is there an afterlife? Can we still suffer? What happens if we mess with the natural process of death? Du Maurier avoids the temptation to give pat answers, instead leaving everything deliciously ambiguous and consequently creepier.

I thoroughly enjoyed this foray of du Maurier into the realms of science fiction. It’s fairly standard in terms of mad science stories – nothing particularly ground-breaking nor deeply profound – but the quality of her writing and storytelling make it a shivery experience, and it’s thought-provoking enough to give it some weight. The porpy will have plenty to mull over during his long summer snooze…

Night-night, porpy! Sleep tight!
Don’t let the mad scientists bite!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

34 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier

  1. Spring must be coming if Porpy is settling down for his long summer’s nap. Sweet dreams Porpy! And thanks for ending this season on a Du Maurier high 🙂

    • I keep hoping spring is coming and then seeing the car frosted over again! But the porpy felt it was time for his box, and this one seemed a good one to end on… 😀

    • I haven’t read many of her novels but I’ve loved reading some of her short stories – she really is a master of them! The porpy says thanks and snores gently… 😉

      • How cruel of you to let porpy ‘s dreams be fretful for so many months. But…I have had a BIG shock…I was sure that the snoozing porpy pictured was a young lady. Are you sure? Did you check the nether regions before so confidently saying HIS. Did you try the tempting with chocolate test? Wave a little square of it under the sleeping one ‘s nose. A girl porpy will surely awaken, little nose quivering, little mouth salivating, and, snap! Snap! (Mind your fingers) the little square will be gone.

        OH! Hang on, this is YOU we are talking about…no chance of little squares of chocolate making their ways into the porpy gender testing arena….okay, snooze on porpy, boy or girl, question unresolved.

        • Well, the truth is that the porpy is gender fluid, but she was having a he day that day. She’s also species fluid! Usually he’s a porpentine but on that day she was a hedgehog impersonating a porpentine! I’m telling you it gets very confusing around here sometimes. Thank goodness T&T are neutered, though heaven only knows what that makes them! I assure you if the porpy attempts to steal my chocs he’ll be singing soprano whichever gender he happens to be that day!!!

  2. Well, after that, I’m not sure at all that the Porpy will have an easy rest, FictionFan! But he looks very comfy. I’ve always liked the way Du Maurier builds the suspense and tension, so I was very happy to see you choose this one. She was just so skilled at taking human reactions and emotions and playing with them in a deliciously creepy way…

    • She is excellent at the short story form – she seems able to pack a lot into the small space. I think this is the first one of hers that I’ve read that I’d call sci-fi though – I didn’t know she had dabbled in that. Though it’s definitely horror-ish too. The porpy is snoring, so I think he must have recovered… 😉

  3. I had no idea Du Maurier had delved into science fiction. Of course, I’m no expert because I still haven’t read a book of hers, though I own a few, including a special edition of Rebecca I had to buy from Book Depository because I thought THAT would get me to finally read it. 😂 Lovely review, FF! Love seeing the porpy sleeping!

    • Nor me! This is the first time I’ve seen her dabble in sci-fi, though she’s always excellent at horror in her short stories. Oh, you MUST read Rebecca – it’s wonderful! The porpy thanks you and snores gently… 😉

  4. Not my cup of tea, but perhaps the Porpy can get into it. He looks rather at peace in that photo, though, so it must not be too frightful! I’m going to miss the little guy. Sleeping all summer seems a tragic waste of warm, sunny days!

    • I was sure I’d read Don’t Look Now before but I definitely hadn’t read this one. Maybe I just read the title story and not the collection. Hope you enjoy it, and I must check if I have a copy fishing around anywhere… 😀

  5. I just had a look, and this story is part of a du Maurier collection I got last year. I’m thinking it’s time I dip back into some of her books and stories!

    • I haven’t read many of her novels, but I love her short stories – she really is a master of atmospheric creepiness! If you do read this one, I hope you enjoy it – who knew she wrote sci-fi too?? Some of these talented authors can do any genre…

    • Haha – I was surprised he didn’t walk out when he was denied whisky! He was certainly grumpy about it. Hope you manage to find a copy – it is available online if you do a google search, but I thought it was a bit long to read comfortably on a computer.

  6. Oh I didn’t realize you put the porpy down to hibernate in the summer, but that makes complete sense. I read rebecca and will be posting my review of it soon (spoiler: i loved it) so it doesn’t surprise me that this is a great story as well.

  7. I read this story fairly recently and was very impressed with it. As you say, it raises so many questions about the nature of life and death. A very creepy and intriguing read.

  8. Thank you for the review. I just downloaded the Don’t Look Now collection because this sounds like a must read for me. I’ve read most of her novels, I’m sure I’ve seen every PBS and movie adaptation but not read any of her short stories beyond The Birds. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I think. My TBR must never be made public…

    • Haha – all TBRs should be made public! It’d make me feel so much better about my own… 😉 I hope you enjoy Don’t Look Now – I haven’t read many of her novels, but I’ve read quite a lot of her short stories and I actually think she’s even better in that format. She can get a real atmosphere of eeriness in a surprisingly short space. The title story of Don’t Look Now is brilliant… 😀

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