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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