Don’t Look Now

by |
01/21/2009 12:00 AM |

The dead of winter may be the perfect time to rediscover the deliciously dark stories of Daphne Du Maurier. Du Maurier, who died in 1989, was known mainly for her historical novels, but in the newly published collection Don’t Look Now, novelist Patrick McGrath has assembled a rich sampling of her unsettling short fiction, most of it written between 1940 and 1971.

In “Split Second,” a woman returns home from her daily walk to find strangers occupying her house. When she tries to prove her identity, there is no record of her existence, and no one to recognize her or come to her defense. “Blue Lenses” focuses on a woman who has just had surgery to correct her sight. When the bandages are taken off her eyes, she can see clearly but for one thing: everyone around her appears to have the head of an animal. The title story finds a British couple vacationing in Venice shortly after the death of their young daughter. They meet a pair of elderly sisters, one a sort of psychic who says she can see the child they lost. This encounter sets off a chain of increasingly anxiety-producing events, and Du Maurier heaps one disorienting twist upon another until we’re no longer sure what to be most afraid of.

“The Birds” (the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of same name, with which Du Maurier was apparently none too pleased) is the collection’s best story. Set in a small seaside town, it centers on one man’s modest attempts to protect his family from the masses of birds that have, for no clear reason, begun violently attacking. Very quickly, the unexpected force of them becomes overwhelming, and Du Maurier dwells hauntingly on the sounds of hundreds of wings, beaks and talons beating against the windows of the family’s house as the birds try to force their way in.

But it’s not all terror, here. The grimness of stories like “Indiscretion” and “La Sainte-Vierge” comes from revelations of trickery and deception, an almost sarcastic kind of light-heartedness amid so much dread. Either way, Du Maurier’s skillful and elegant exploitation of our most primal fears makes these stories feel timeless.