Daphne du Maurier’s weird fiction

Although she’s more well-known nowadays for her modern-Gothic/psychological suspense novels such as Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951), both of which have been filmed several times, Daphne du Maurier produced some good shorter fiction that can be classed as weird, supernatural, or science-fictional — in a couple of cases all three at once — some of which have also been filmed, including The Birds (by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963), Don’t Look Now (by Nicolas Roeg in 1973), and The Breakthrough (adapted for TV in 1975, and then filmed as The Lifeforce Experiment by Piers Haggard in 1994).

Hitchcock said that, when adapting, he would read the book or story once, then never look at it again, and it can seem that, with his film of The Birds (scripted by Evan Hunter), it’s only the basic idea of mass bird attacks on humans that the two have in common. Du Maurier’s story (in The Birds and Others, 1952) is set in rural Cornwall and has a male working-class protagonist; Hitchcock’s is set in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, and has a female upper-class lead. But there are moments of similarity, including a bird attack on school children, and a visit to a neighbouring farm where the farmer is found pecked to death. Both end without any solution or explanation. I’d say, though, that the roots of du Maurier’s story are more evident, in the way it draws so many parallels with the then still-recent Second World War. Her story is full of scenes of the family huddled round a wireless set, tuning in for news from the authorities, or blocking out the windows just as they’d have blacked them out during the war. As the bird attacks increase, the family bed down together in the kitchen, just as they might have in an air-raid shelter, and the wife says, “Won’t America do something? … They’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?” The main character thinks about the birds as he would an enemy army (“A lull in battle. Forces regrouping.”). At the end, as the attacks continue and the authorities struggle to do anything, it’s as though the state of how things were in the Second World War has somehow seeped out from the human world to become the natural order.

None of these are short stories — du Maurier preferred novella length, it seems — meaning that even when she’s working at an idea another weird-fiction writer might turn into a quick twist story, she explores it at greater depth. An example of this is “The Apple Tree” (also from The Birds and Others), about a man who can’t help being a little relieved at the death of his eternally hard-done-by wife, but who starts to notice a resemblance between a stunted tree in his garden and his late wife’s slouched posture, after which he suspects she’s using the tree to haunt him. It’s an idea that’s been used before (Lovecraft’s “The Tree”, for instance), but writing it at length, du Maurier really brings out the relentlessly stifling nature of the marriage, and the desperate futility of the husband’s attempts to find some joy in life now he’s no longer burdened by such a negative spouse. The supernatural element is just the icing on the cake — the final twist to a man who’s already haunted in a purely psychological sense.

Difficult marriages feature in a lot of du Maurier’s tales, and her own was, it seems, troubled at times. There were affairs on both sides (in Daphne’s case, with both men and women), and the couple seems to have been happier living apart — he in London, where he worked after his military career (he became Treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh), she in Cornwall. When her husband had a nervous breakdown, Daphne, learning he’d been having an affair, decided to do her best to save the marriage, but soon found the loss of creative solitude brought her to the edge of her own breakdown. Writing her next collection, The Breaking Point (1959), was her means of recovery.

Two of its stories stand out, for me. In “The Blue Lenses”, a woman who’s had an operation to implant new lenses into her eyes wakes to find she sees everyone with animals’ heads in place of their own, and seemingly the more she cares for them, the worse the head. (Her husband has a vulture’s.) It’s an unconventional idea for a horror story, at first absurd, but du Maurier quickly builds up the sense of inescapable isolation as her protagonist finds herself unable to hide her horror at what she sees. “The Pool”, meanwhile, is about a girl spending the school holidays with her brother at their grandparents’ house, for whose extensive garden she has an almost mystical reverence. She sneaks out at night to perform made-up rituals to bind herself, once more, to the garden, and to the strange world she can access through a pool in a thicket of trees. It reminded me of Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, which is also about a girl drunk on her own mix of nature-mysticism and fairy lore. But du Maurier brings in an element Machen, I think, never would, as this heady mix of fantasy and weirdness is linked to the girl’s first period. (I wonder how transgressive this was for a book published in 1959? Other stories in the same volume deal with pederasty, incest, madness, and the disposal of a dead baby — all of which, I can’t help feeling, must have felt incredibly shocking at the time.)

Penguin paperback cover, art by Dave and Sue Holmes

For me, du Maurier’s most satisfying single collection is Don’t Look Now and Other Stories (which came out in 1971, initially as Not After Midnight). It’s a collection dominated by recent deaths and troubled mourning, with three of its five stories being about people dealing with grief.

“Don’t Look Now” has a disturbing circularity to its plot. Its main character has unacknowledged clairvoyant powers, and his own death only occurs because he has a vision of what happens as a result of that death. If he hadn’t seen it — if he’d not looked now — he wouldn’t have died. It’s quite a subtly-balanced tale, and I have to admit it’s one I don’t think (though I may be the only person who thinks this) works as well in Nicolas Roeg’s film, which brings even more ambiguities to a story that’s rich enough in them already. Writing of du Maurier in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, Gary Crawford says “All du Maurier’s tales are symbolic and elegant, but they are less terrifying than simply strange, almost in the manner of Robert Aickman.” I don’t think du Maurier is often as outright surreal as Aickman, but “Don’t Look Now” may be her at her most dreamlike.

(And there’s a scene in the 1940 film of Rebecca, where the sinister Mrs Danvers urges the new Mrs de Winter to fondle her predecessor’s clothes, which seems straight out of Aickman’s “Ravissante” — only, of course, preceding it by nearly three decades.)

Still from Hitchcock's Rebecca

For a writer I most closely associate with Rebecca and the black & white Hitchcock/Selznick film based on it, “The Breakthrough” (which is copyrighted 1966, though I haven’t been able to find if it appeared before its inclusion in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories) feels very modern — or 1970s-modern, anyway. An electrical engineer is sent to help with an experimental government project to develop the use of sound as a weapon, but whose leader has co-opted the project to investigate what he calls “Force Six” — essentially, the sixth sense, and its possibility of providing “the explanation of telepathy, precognition, and all the so-called psychic mysteries.” This project leader, James MacLean, also believes that “Force Six” is released as pure energy when we die. Unconcerned with the idea of “souls”, MacLean believes that by trapping and using that energy, “We shall have the answer at last to the intolerable futility of death.”

This mix of secret research, up-to-date electronic gadgetry, and psychic phenomena recalls Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972) and the episode of The Omega Factor (1979) which was also about the military use of sound. (And I can’t help wondering if it was one of these that inspired Kate Bush’s “Experiment IV” (1986), also about the military use of sound.) It’s a satisfying tale, and the BBC2 adaptation (which you can watch on YouTube), is a good take on it.

Daphne du Maurier’s short story/novella output is quite varied, ranging from crime to satire to some outright strangeness (as with “The Lordly Ones” from The Breaking Point in which — I can’t be sure — a boy runs away from his indifferent parents and is briefly adopted by some ponies). My favourite non-fantastic story of hers is, I think, “The Way of the Cross” (from Don’t Look Now and Other Stories), in which a mismatched bunch of pilgrims visit Jerusalem and suffer their own betrayals, redemptions and resurrections in the space of a hectic twenty four hours. But overall my favourites are, of course, the weird ones, and generally those that have been adapted: “The Birds”, “Don’t Look Now”, “The Breakthrough”, and, among the un-adapted, “The Pool” and “The Blue Lenses”. I think a good single-volume collection could be made from her weird fiction, but perhaps they’re better left where they are, as the strangeness of her strange tales seems all the stranger for being couched amongst her other, more normal — though never mundane — stories.

Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair

This 2006 book from Wordsworth Editions reprints May Sinclair’s 1923 collection of the same name, plus one other long story, “The Intercessor” (from The English Review, July 1911), the first ghost story Sinclair wrote, and certainly the best included here.

Sinclair (1863–1946) was already an established novelist when she brought out Uncanny Stories, having been writing since 1891. She combined an interest in psychology (being a founding supporter of the first medical institute in Britain to offer psychoanalysis as a treatment) with parapsychology (joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1914), as well as being a suffragist and an early proponent of Modernism (she was the first to use the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the literary technique). Her grisly murder story “The Victim” (included in Uncanny Stories) was published by T S Eliot in the first edition of his magazine, The Criterion (in October 1922), alongside “The Waste Land”.

“The Intercessor” is a powerful story of a household in rural Yorkshire haunted by the death of a child. The narrator, Garvin, is in the area writing a county history, and his one stipulation is lodgings without children. Directed to the Falshaw farmhouse, he’s annoyed on the first night to hear a child’s sobs:

“…it was hardly a crying, a sobbing, a whimpering rather, muffled by closed doors. The wonder was how it could have waked him; the sound was so distant, so smothered, so inarticulate.”

The Falshaws — a stoic farmer, his pregnant wife, and their grown-up niece — are a grim, closemouthed bunch, with Mrs Falshaw in particular treating their paying guest as though it’s predetermined he’ll soon want to leave. Garvin at first assumes the cries are from a child who has been locked into the small room opposite his own in an effort to comply with his not wanting any children about. It cries every night at the same time:

“There was no petulance in it and no anger; it had all the qualities of a young child’s cry, except the carnal dissonances and violences. The grief it uttered was too profound and too persistent, and, as it were, too pure; it knew none of the hot-blooded throes, the strangulated pauses, the lacerating resurgences of passion. At times it was shrill, unbroken, irremediable; at times it was no more than a sad sobbing and whimpering, stifled…”

In contrast to the Falshaws’ dour uncommunicativeness, this crying feels like a desperate expression of all the sad coldness at the heart of this tragic but inarticulate household. Soon, Garvin sees the “child”, and even feels it climbing into his bed to sleep at night.

In contrast to, say, M R James’s ghost stories, which are all about the horror of the spook, and revel in its weird and demonic nature, Sinclair’s ghosts are human things, giving voice as much to the anguish of the living as the tragedy of their own demise. They return not for revenge, or to punish the living, but often simply to be acknowledged, even listened to (at least one of Sinclair’s ghosts delivers a lecture on how the afterlife works, but the more powerful, like the Falshaw child, are pure emotion). Sinclair takes her ghost stories beyond the point where James would end them (the moment the thing is revealed), into having her characters understand and resolve the ghost’s torment (and, usually, their own).

In a very un-Jamesian way, that torment is mostly about love. Sinclair’s fiction, though, isn’t generally sentimental. Love, in these tales, is tangled with guilt (over the transference of love from a dead wife to her successor, for instance, in “The Nature of the Evidence”), or control (a mother’s smothering influence in “If the Dead Knew”), or is stifled, unrequited or poorly expressed (as in “The Token”, where a young wife lingers after death for a sign that her stoic husband truly loved her). And sex, in Sinclair’s stories, just complicates things (as in “Where their Fire is not Quenched”, a bleak vision of an afterlife in which a woman whose one consummated affair was with a man she soon found boring, but she has to live and relive that affair forever after death).

The longest tale here, “The Flaw in the Crystal” (originally published as a separate novella in 1912), is not a ghost story, but a tale of psychic powers. Agatha Verrall has moved to a house in the remote countryside so she can receive weekend visits from her lover, the married Rodney Lanyon. She has an inner link to a “Power”, a gift that allows her, somehow, to extend a circle of psychic protection around people, and to heal them, or at least keep them free of illness (mental illness, anyway) while she holds them in this way. She knows, though, that this gift works best with a very light touch, and an assumed indifference, even though it’s the people she loves that she uses it on — at first, anyway. But when the Powells, a couple she’s acquainted with, move near because of the husband Harding Powell’s bouts of paranoia, Agatha extends her gift to include him. At first it works, and she makes the mistake of telling the wife, Milly, what she’s done. Milly tells Harding, and he, though a staunch non-believer, comes to expect Agatha’s protection. When Agatha realises that the protection she’s so far been giving her lover, Rodney, is waning because of this, she finds herself having to fight for control of her gift from the strong-willed Harding.

Sinclair herself was an atheist, but there’s an evident belief in some sort of afterlife in these stories, as well as, in “The Flaw in the Crystal”, a “Power” behind it all. In this novella, Harding Powell’s utterly unbelieving worldview starts to seep into Agatha’s own:

“Harding’s abominable vision of the world, that vision from which the resplendent divinity had perished…”

It’s quite a heavy going story at times, being tangled so much in the abstractions of Agatha’s inner world, and the mental battles she has with Harding for control of her “gift”. Sinclair’s writing is at its best, perhaps, in “The Victim”, whose protagonist (a thick-accented chauffeur with an uncontrollable temper) is mostly seen from the outside rather than (as with Agatha Verrell) so intensely from within. Some of her stories rely on someone coming forward to explain the reason for the haunting and so resolve it (“The Token”, “If the Dead Knew”, “The Victim”), but the more powerful ones dramatise the emotion behind it rather than the reason (“Where their Fire is not Quenched”, for instance), while “The Intercessor” attains the best balance between these approaches, to deliver an emotional wallop of an ending, which feels, oddly, at once redemptive and bleak.

For someone writing supernatural fiction at a time when Freud’s ideas were beginning to be known (which, as Julia Briggs suggested in Night Visitors, marked the beginning of the end for the popularity the ghost story had been enjoying since Dickens’s day), there’s a real feeling of psychological depth to Sinclair’s tales, and although they may have been influenced to some degree by Freud (the title of Uncanny Stories, for instance), I feel, reading them, that her understanding is definitely her own, and far more nuanced than a merely derivative take on Freud’s ideas could have served up. The most successful tales, dealing with the inequality of love in relationships, or of the very human horrors of emotional neglect, certainly transcend any merely psychological reading to become powerful dramas.

“The Intercessor” is the must-read story here. It was adapted (very faithfully) by Alan Plater (who I mostly know for his quirky comedy The Beiderbecke Affair from 1985) for the ITV Shades of Darkness anthology series (in 1983). (Which is how I first heard about May Sinclair, via a post on the Wyrd Britain blog, which has a link to the Shades of Darkness episode on YouTube.)

You can read “The Flaw in the Crystal” at Gutenberg, and I have “The Intercessor” as an ebook on my free ebooks page. You can learn more about May Sinclair herself at the May Sinclair Society’s site.

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

In 1859, George Eliot — not yet known to the world at large as Mary Anne Evans — wrote her most uncharacteristic work, “The Lifted Veil”. She had recently had her first major success with Adam Bede, and took a break from her second novel, The Mill on the Floss, to write this supernaturally-tinged tale in March. It was a difficult time for Eliot, as she was torn between revealing her identity (which would mean having her two-year ménage with George Henry Lewes exposed to the Victorian public) and having other people take credit for her work (a man called Joseph Liggins had been suggested by some as the mysterious “George Eliot”, and Liggins was busy doing nothing to deny it). On top of these obvious reasons, there was, perhaps, a sensitive person’s natural need for privacy. In the light of this, “The Lifted Veil”, a story about a young man who, after an illness, finds himself burdened with a constant telepathic awareness of other people’s thoughts, as well as the occasional doom-laden prevision of his own future, feels like a nightmarish unloading of anxieties on Eliot’s part.

For a story about telepathy, “The Lifted Veil” is remarkably unconcerned with exploring the possibilities of being able to read other peoples’ minds. In fact, to Latimer, already a sensitive and slightly “morbid” young man, this gift feels like a curse, revealing to him as it does nothing but the petty selfishness of other minds, even those closest to him. Here’s a sampling of how he describes the sort of thing his gift reveals:

“…vagrant, frivolous ideas and emotions… the trivial experience of indifferent people… all the intermediate frivolities, all the suppressed egoism, all the struggling chaos of puerilities, meanness, vague capricious memories, and indolent make-shift thoughts… worldly ignorant trivialities… their narrow thoughts, their feeble regard, their half-wearied pity…”

And as he can’t shut it off, it becomes “like an importunate, ill-played musical instrument, or the loud activity of an imprisoned insect”, a constant background drone of dreary, wearying banality.

The one exception to this is Bertha Grant, his older brother’s fiancé. Latimer can’t hear her thoughts, and so is free to relate to (and idealise) her as any young man might a pretty woman. He falls in love with her, despite her evident cynicism:

“What! your wisdom thinks I must love the man I’m going to marry? The most unpleasant thing in the world. I should quarrel with him; I should be jealous of him; our ménage would be conducted in a very ill-bred manner. A little quiet contempt contributes greatly to the elegance of life.”

Although the “veil” of the title brings to mind images of the gauzy barrier Victorian Spiritualists saw as standing between the worlds of the living and the dead, in this story it refers to the block Latimer has against reading Bertha’s thoughts. Despite knowing she’s engaged to his “florid, broad-chested, and self-complacent” brother, Latimer has a bittersweet vision of his own future, in which he is married to his beloved Bertha — bittersweet because, in this future, she evidently hates him.

And, when this vision comes true and they do marry, the veil lifts:

“The terrible moment of complete illumination had come to me, and I saw that the darkness had hidden no landscape from me, but only a blank prosaic wall: from that evening forth, through the sickening years which followed, I saw all round the narrow room of this woman’s soul…”

It’s a very dim vision of human relationships, though one that recurs in the only novel of Eliot’s I really know, Middlemarch, in its desolate mismatches of Dorothea Brooke with the emotionally dead scholar Casaubon, and of the ambitious Lydgate with the frivolous Rosamond Vincy. In both cases in that novel, marriage seems to clang down like a portcullis, preventing escape until all the illusions of pre-marital love have been stripped away.

To Latimer, the “sweet illusions” we live with are, in the end, essential to life, as is all mystery:

“So absolute is our soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between…”

There’s even a note of cosmic or religious horror, as Latimer, in the latter stages of his condition, experiences more generalised visions of the world at large:

“…of strange cities, of sandy plains, of gigantic ruins, of midnight skies with strange bright constellations, of mountain-passes, of grassy nooks flecked with the afternoon sunshine through the boughs: I was in the midst of such scenes, and in all of them one presence seemed to weigh on me in all these mighty shapes—the presence of something unknown and pitiless.”

That “presence” remains unexplained, though the next thing Latimer says, “For continual suffering had annihilated religious faith within me”, implies that the “something unknown and pitiless” is his feeling of what the God of this world must be like. (Eliot herself had long struggled against her own religious upbringing. At one stage, her father threatened to throw her out of the house because of her rejection of it.)

Read as horror fiction (and coming nearly thirty years before the boom in Victorian classics that saw the publication of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw), “The Lifted Veil” is more about the horror of other people, and the weariness of the “incessant insight and foresight” of a sensitive soul. Nevertheless, it ramps up the Gothic at the end, for a post-deathbed confession scene, in which Bertha’s maid, freshly expired from peritonitis, is revived long enough by an experimental blood transfusion to issue a dreadful confession and accusation.

(Given that Latimer has visions and can read minds, this ending, with its Gothic appurtenances of blood, death, illness, fringe science, and a dramatic revelation, seems hardly needed, and, indeed, Eliot’s publisher Blackwood tried to persuade her to remove it.)

In the end, “The Lifted Veil” was printed anonymously in the July 1859 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (a periodical which had an established reputation for tales of Gothic horror, to the extent of having been satirised even by Poe, in his essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article”).

A muted horror tale, but one that fits very much into George Eliot’s work as a whole, full as it is of moments of extreme sensitivity to the subtleties of her characters’ emotional lives, “The Lifted Veil” is a significant piece of Victorian fantasy.

The text is freely available online, and I have a downloadable version on my free ebooks page.