Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and I now only have one of her novels left to read (Castle Dor, which was partly written by Arthur Quiller-Couch). However, I also still need to read several of her short story collections, having previously only read The Birds and The Rendezvous, so I decided to put this one, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories on my 20 Books of Summer list.
This particular collection is from 1971 and has been published as both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight. It contains five stories which are all about fifty or sixty pages long – the perfect length, in my opinion, as it means they are long enough to allow for some development of characters and plot, while still being short enough to read in one or two sittings.
The title story, the dark and atmospheric Don’t Look Now, is a strong opening to the book. John and his wife Laura are on holiday in Venice following the recent death of their young daughter, Christine. John has been doing his best to move on, but Laura is still grieving and, when they meet a pair of elderly twin sisters in a restaurant one evening, it comforts her to be told that one of the twins, who claims to be psychic, can ‘see’ Christine sitting beside her parents. When more strange occurrences follow – including the sighting of a little girl in a red hood jumping over the boats moored in a canal – it seems that something sinister is going on. Could he and Laura be in danger? This is a great story, and if you haven’t read it perhaps you have seen the 1973 film with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland?
Not After Midnight comes next and is another good one. Our narrator, schoolmaster and artist Timothy Grey, is visiting Crete where he hopes to find some inspiration for his paintings. Staying in a little chalet in a picturesque resort by the sea, Timothy is enjoying the peace and quiet – until he encounters an American couple, the Stolls, who are staying in one of the nearby chalets. The couple invite him to visit them in their chalet – as long as it’s ‘not after midnight’ – but Timothy feels uneasy. Why do the Stolls spend so much time out at sea, supposedly fishing? And what really happened to the last occupant of Timothy’s chalet? This is another dark and suspenseful story and I really enjoyed it – until I reached the ending, which I’ll confess to not really understanding at all.
I think the middle story, A Border-Line Case, was my favourite. A nineteen-year-old actress, Shelagh Money, has just lost her beloved father and heads to Ireland to track down his old friend, Nick. The two men had lost contact years earlier after Nick was injured in a car accident and became a recluse, living on an island in the middle of an Irish lough. On her arrival at Nick’s island home, Shelagh begins to feel uneasy and decides not to admit who she is or why she is there…but Nick is hiding a secret of his own – and not the sort of secret either I or Shelagh was expecting. Although I didn’t see that particular twist coming, there is another twist at the end which I found much more predictable, but I still found this the most enjoyable of the five stories.
I didn’t like The Way of the Cross quite as much as the first three stories. It’s about a group of people from the same little village who are on a tour of Jersualem, led by the Rev. Edward Babcock. Babcock has stepped in at the last minute to replace another vicar who has fallen ill, and he doesn’t know – or particularly like – any of the people in the group. They include a retired colonel and his self-obsessed wife, a young newly married couple, a wealthy middle-aged couple, an elderly spinster, and a precocious nine-year-old boy who is enjoying showing off his knowledge of the historical and religious sites they are visiting. Unlike the previous stories, there is nothing dark, supernatural or shocking about this one – the focus is on the tourists and the discoveries they make about themselves and their companions.
The last story, The Breakthrough, was my least favourite in the book. It’s a science fiction story which explores some of the ethical questions surrounding scientific progress and whether there should be a limit to how far it should go. The narrator, Stephen Saunders, is a scientist who has been transferred to a research facility in rural England where the eccentric Mac and his assistants are working on an experiment so controversial it must be kept completely secret. This is a disturbing story with the sort of unsettling atmosphere du Maurier is so good at creating. It wasn’t entirely to my taste, as I’m not much of a science fiction fan, but it is still an interesting story to bring the collection to an end.
Five very different stories with very different settings. I enjoyed reading all of them, some more than others, and I’m looking forward to reading the other du Maurier short story collections on my TBR: The Doll and The Breaking Point.
This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.
It is also book 7/50 from my second Classics Club list.