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:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Obsession and ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Orphaned as a child, Philip Ashley has been brought up by his cousin Ambrose and expects one day to be heir to his estate in Cornwall. For Ambrose, although by no means elderly, is a settled bachelor, and both he and Philip enjoy their entirely masculine household and way of life. But while Ambrose is making one of his regular trips to Italy for his health, Philip is stunned to receive a letter from him, saying that Ambrose has fallen in love and married the woman that Philip will come to think of as “my cousin Rachel”. Ambrose’s happiness is to be short-lived though. Soon he will die without ever returning home, of a brain tumour according to the official version, but Ambrose has given Philip a different story in his increasingly worrying letters home. Philip is ready to blame Rachel morally, at least, and perhaps legally for his death. And then Rachel visits Philip in Cornwall and he finds himself falling in love. But is Rachel the fascinating and charming woman he sees, or the cold, manipulative money-grabber, and perhaps worse, of Ambrose’s letters…?

I listened to this as an audiobook, competently but not thrillingly narrated by Jonathan Pryce, and I suspect that may have affected my view of it. The story starts and ends brilliantly, but the mid-section, where Philip falls in love with Rachel, seems to go on for ever with nothing actually happening. I tired utterly of Philip’s first person descriptions of Rachel’s perfections and had to fight an urgent desire to tell him to grow up and get a life. If it weren’t for the fact that it was du Maurier and I felt I should have loved it, I would undoubtedly have given up. I certainly wish I’d read the book instead in this instance – I suspect it would still have bored me if I’d been reading but it’s easier to skim the dull repetitive stuff in the written form.

Where du Maurier does excel is in the ambiguity of the characterisation. The basic question of whether Rachel is good or bad is further muddied by us seeing her only through Philip’s eyes and Ambrose’s letters, and it’s not clear how much either of them can be relied on. Certainly neither is objective about Rachel – they see her through the eyes of lust and love. Also, their long years of living without women in their lives mean that neither of them make good judges, especially Philip, who has grown up without mother, sisters or even a nurse or governess. To him, women are as unfamiliar as Martians. There’s also the fact that Ambrose’s illness seems to have been inherited from his father, so may it have been inherited also by Philip? Ambrose’s father had periods where he was delusional and even violent – has this been passed down? There’s undoubtedly an edge of irrationality in some of Philip’s actions, despite us seeing them through his own eyes.

Rachel is the centre of the book, of course, and du Maurier does a brilliant job of having the reader sway in her favour and against her again and again. She has had an unconventional upbringing by a mother who seems to have been morally lax, so it isn’t surprising that she occasionally steps outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable. The time in which the book is set isn’t specified, but it feels to me like early Victorian in terms of clothes, travelling, lifestyle and attitudes. Is she really a hustler out for what she can get? Or is she a victim of Ambrose’s failure to make adequate provision for her? Is she a woman who uses sexual temptation to manipulate men? Or is she a free-thinker – a woman unwilling to limit herself by the unequal moral codes enforced on her by a patriarchal society, which gives women no rights and no financial liberty? Is she villain or victim?

Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how du Maurier would end it – no, of course I’m not going to tell you! But when it came, I felt the ending was perfect. Any other possible ending I could think of wouldn’t have had the same impact – it wouldn’t have left the story and the characters lingering in my mind as they have done.

So if it wasn’t for that tedious over-stretched mid-section, I’d have loved this. The audiobook comes with an introduction from Roger Michell who directed the recent film of the book (which I haven’t seen), and he comments that Philip and Ambrose were not alone in their obsession with Rachel – that du Maurier too had fallen in love with her. This strikes me as very perceptive – it reads as if du Maurier couldn’t stop talking about her, like a teenage girl in the throes of infatuation. Fun for the teenager, not so much for the adults who have to listen to her ecstasies! She redeemed herself in the end though, so overall I’m glad to have read it and would recommend it (and also recommend you brush up on your skim-reading skills before beginning… 😉 )

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“…the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(This review contains mild spoilerish bits, so if you haven’t yet read the book, do it now and then pop back… 😉 )

We first meet our unnamed narrator when she is in Monte Carlo, working as the paid companion to an elderly American lady, Mrs Van Hopper. Still more girl than woman, the narrator is shy and unsophisticated, not bothering much about the clothes she wears or the style of her hair. Mrs Van Hopper scrapes an acquaintance with Maxim de Winter, a rich and handsome Englishman staying in the hotel alone because, as Mrs Van Hopper informs the narrator, his wife recently died in a tragic sailing accident. Our girl is rather dazzled by this man of the world who so easily deals with all the little social problems she finds so difficult, and he in turn seems to like her quietness and unadorned simplicity. Within a few weeks, Maxim proposes and finally, thank goodness, our narrator has a name – the second Mrs de Winter.

(FF’s Sixth Law: Unnamed narrators should never be used by authors who would like people to review their books.)

The book begins, of course, with one of the most famous opening lines in literature – “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” The ensuing dream sequence acts as a prologue and warning of what is to follow, and straight away du Maurier builds up an atmosphere full of unease. As Mrs de W2 in imagination moves towards the house, she describes the lush vegetation taking back the once cultivated grounds and gardens, now growing out of control. There’s an earthiness and sensuality to the descriptions, and a sense of growth and decay – a kind of raw, malignant vitality that seems to represent the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, while being a stark contrast to the rather sexless childlike personality of Mrs de W2. It’s a magnificent start to the book, setting the mood superbly for what is to follow.

I saw that the garden had obeyed the jungle law, even as the woods had done. The rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they had entered into alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs, poor, bastard things that clung about their roots as though conscious of their spurious origin. A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners.

The book is famously compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever is. She infuses every room with the strength of her personality, as our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, or like the lowliest little maid, afraid to touch anything. Beautiful and vibrant, no-one who knew Rebecca remained untouched – it seems to Mrs de W2 that everyone adored her, some to the point of obsession. Even Mrs de W2’s beloved dog Jasper was Rebecca’s dog first. Gradually Mrs de W2 begins to think that Maxim made a mistake in marrying her – that he’s still in love with Rebecca. And then one day, a storm leads to the discovery of Rebecca’s lost boat, and suddenly everything Mrs de W2 thinks she knows about Rebecca and her husband is turned on its head…

All three of the female characters in the book are brilliantly drawn; dead Rebecca, her glittering exterior hiding a more complex personality underneath, whom we only get to know through other people’s memories of her; the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose grief for her first mistress makes her cold and cruel to the point of madness to the woman who has replaced her; and Mrs de W2 herself, a woman who seems to exist only to serve as an adjunct to people who need a doormat, moving from being the paid companion of a peevish and demanding elderly lady to becoming the unpaid companion of a peevish and bullying middle-aged man. I couldn’t help but wonder if life with Mrs Van Hopper wouldn’t have been more fun in the end…

Oh, I do apologise to Maxim fans! The first time I read the book many years ago, I’m sure I fell a little in love with Maxim myself. This time round, I wanted to slap him with the proverbial wet fish. He treats Mrs de W2 as just slightly lower down the social pecking order than Jasper the dog for most of the book. Granted, she kinda asks for it but she’s only young. Too young, Maxim – too, too young for a man of your age! Patting a woman on the head, physically or metaphorically, is never a good idea – if you behaved like that to Rebecca no wonder she turned out as she did! Couldn’t you have reassured Mrs de W2 – told her you loved her, maybe even called her by her name occasionally? Why were your tender little feelings so much more important than hers? Your behaviour at the party was a piece of shameful bullying and a man of your age should have shown more understanding, and a bit of kindness. And, you know what? Last time I forgave you for what you did. But not this time! You behaved abominably and you should have paid a higher price! And don’t think you can wheedle your way back into my affections just by looking like Laurence Olivier…

Clearly my attitude to men who treat women like doormats has changed somewhat over the years! More seriously, though, the book gives a great picture of the relative positions of the genders at the time, especially how Rebecca’s unconventional behaviour, which would have barely merited a raised eyebrow had she been a man, put her beyond the social pale as a woman. Du Maurier is just as incisive in her portrayal of the British class system in operation, with the squirearchy ready to build a defensive shield round one of their own regardless of his merits or otherwise.

That corner in the drive, too, where the trees encroach upon the gravel, is not a place in which to pause, not after the sun has set. When the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly, and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the patter, patter, of a woman’s hurrying footstep, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe.

But as always with du Maurier it’s the atmosphere of growing tension that gives the book its true greatness. Even though we more or less know how it ends within the first two chapters, du Maurier holds enough secrets in reserve to ensure the reader is kept in suspense all the way through. The descriptive writing is fantastic, creating strong visual images and making both the house and grounds of Manderley become living things, playing their own role in the unfolding drama. If there’s anyone left out there who hasn’t already read this masterpiece of psychological suspense, then I highly recommend you grab it as soon as you can!

Audiobook

I part read/part listened to the book this time round. Anna Massey’s narration is very good – she has just the right kind of posh English accent for the subject matter, and every word is enunciated clearly. She does it as a straight reading; i.e., she doesn’t “act” the parts, though she does differentiate the voices to some extent. I wasn’t always totally thrilled by her “voices” – Maxim, for example, sounded a little gruffer than I would have gone for. But that’s simply a matter of personal interpretation. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed her reading, and would look out for her as a narrator again.

Book 6 of 90

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Tuesday Terror! The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Six of the best…

If proof were needed that Daphne du Maurier knew how to tell a chilling tale, then the fact that Hitchcock chose to make three of her stories into films surely provides it. Rebecca and Jamaica Inn are both full-length novels but the third of the trio is based on the short story which provides the title for this collection. So what could be a more appropriate choice for…

TUESDAY TERROR!

the birdsThe introduction to this edition tells us that Hitchcock did not claim that his film of The Birds was an exact reproduction of du Maurier’s story. “What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.” However, although Hitchcock moved the setting from Cornwall in England to Bodega Bay in California and created a character suitable for one of his famous blondes (in this case, Tippi Hedren), the suspense and horror all originate from du Maurier’s story.

He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as a pointed fork.

On a cold winter’s night, Nat Hocken is awoken by the sound of tapping at his window and discovers it’s a bird seemingly trying to get in. Then screams come from the children’s bedroom and when he rushes there, he finds hundreds of birds have come through the window and are attacking his son and daughter. He fights them off, but when he tells his neighbours about the attack the next day they don’t believe him – until reports start to come in over the radio that attacks have been taking place all over the country. No-one knows why the birds have suddenly started attacking and no-one knows how to stop them. Du Maurier creates a wonderfully terrifying atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia as Nat battles to protect his family, and as with the film both the reasons and the ending are left ambiguous, adding greatly to the horror.

the birds

* * * * * * * * *

The other five stories in the collection stand up well in comparison to The Birds. For me, the highlight was The Apple Tree, which I have already reviewed in Tuesday Terror! The other four are:

Monte Verità – the tale of a mysterious sect which lures women away from their families, never to be seen again. Is there something supernatural about it, or is it a religious cult? And what happens when the villagers eventually decide they will destroy it?

The Little Photographer – a bored and lonely Marquise starts a casual affair with a local photographer, but when he begins to take it too seriously, she finds her marriage and lifestyle threatened. No supernatural threat in this one – this is a story of cruelty and guilt as we are taken inside the mind of the Marquise. Starting light, the story gradually gets darker and darker as we see the lengths to which desperation can drive people…

Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier

Kiss Me, Stranger – on going to the cinema one night, the narrator falls in love at first sight with the usherette. This is a very ambiguous story – the narrator believes the girl is flesh and blood, but the reader is left with the sneaking suspicion that she may be a ghost. Touching on the psychological aftermath of the war, this is another deceptively dark story with an ending that is guaranteed to surprise.

The Old Man – the story of an isolated family as seen through the eyes of an outside observer. As the story builds towards a seemingly inevitable tragedy, the narrator watches helplessly – unable to intervene because he doesn’t speak the same language as the family. An odd story, perhaps my least favourite of the collection, but nonetheless beautifully written and building up a truly chilling atmosphere.

…the old man turned like a flash of lightning and came down the other side of the lake towards the marshes, towards Boy. He looked terrible. I shall never forget his appearance. That magnificent head I had always admired now angry, evil; and he was cursing Boy as he came. I tell you, I heard him.

The whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. From mountains to lakes, bright summer to freezing winter, frightening trees to terrifying birds, nothing can be taken at face value in du Maurier’s world. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

IT’S A FRETFUL PORPENTINE!

porpentine

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier

Seeds of fear…

 

Daphne du Maurier’s collection The Birds and Other Stories contains not only the title story that Hitchcock turned into one of his greatest films, but also five other perhaps lesser known stories. So in advance of reading the full collection, I have randomly picked one to feature as this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

Suddenly, for no reason, he was seized with a kind of fear, a feeling of panic almost. What if the smell filled the whole house through the night, came up from the kitchen quarters to the floor above, and while he slept found its way into the bedroom, choking him, stifling him, so that he could not breathe? The thought was ridiculous, insane – and yet…

the birdsThe Apple Tree tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. A self-appointed martyr, she had always managed to make him feel guilty about how little he did around the house and how hard she worked, though he always felt she took on tasks that could easily have been left undone or left for the daily maid. She had always taken the pessimistic view of any piece of news and for years he had felt she sucked the joy out of life. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…

This is a fine example of what du Maurier does best – creating a chilling atmosphere just bordering on the supernatural but never clearly crossing that line. Although the story is told in the third person, we see it unfold through the widower’s eyes, giving it the effect of an ‘unreliable narrator’. If Midge was as the widower saw her, then his happiness at her death is understandable. But how much did he contribute to making her what she became? We catch glimpses of the young woman she once was, trying to please the husband she loved and having her enthusiasm stamped on by this man who clearly looked down on her. Is the widower to be pitied or condemned? And is the story one of a ghostly haunting or of self-inflicted psychological horror brought on by guilt?

As the seasons wear past, the tree affects the widower more and more – its blossom horribly overblown to his eyes, while seeming to be admired by others; its fruit disgusting to him while seeming fine to his daily maid; the smell of the wood from a fallen branch that he burns nauseating…choking. And in all its oversized ugliness, it hides the beauty of the little tree next to it – a tree that reminds the widower of a girl he once knew, perhaps a little too well. At last he decides to do what he has been putting off for too long – he will chop the tree down…

Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.

Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier

Supernatural or psychological, either way this is a superbly written chiller. Du Maurier uses the weather to great effect, as she often does, going from the contrast of sunny blossomy summer days to the bitter cold and snow of deep winter. She never piles on the horror – instead she lets the atmosphere build slowly and gradually, making the reader share in the widower’s growing revulsion. And the ending works beautifully to leave the reader’s spine a-tingling…

Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

NB This book was provided for review by the publishers, Little, Brown and Company.

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