Don't Look Now: Nicholas Roeg's film version starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Casey
It isn't giving too much away to say that Don't Look Now ends unhappily. There's an aura of doom about the novella right from the get-go. It seems inevitable that things are going to go wrong – and the tension comes from finding out how – not if – Du Maurier's luckless protagonists are going to meet their end.
Don't Look Now and Other Stories (Penguin Decades)
by Daphne Du Maurier
It is, as Patrick McGrath wrote in the Guardiana few years ago, "a deeply unsettling story". But what makes it so? McGrath continues: "Its power arises in part from its few supernatural effects, but is more a function of the slow, inexorable accumulation of incident and feeling that almost imperceptibly acquire a kind of critical mass, to the point that tragedy inevitably occurs – and when it does, it leaves the reader both shocked and relieved, for an intolerable tension has at last been relaxed. This is narrative control of a very high order."
I'm now hoping that we can look in more detail at the way in which Du Maurier creates that critical mass? How is it that from almost the first line we know something is going to go wrong – horribly wrong – even though that line is actually a joke?
"Don't look now," John said to his wife, "but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me."
Is it hindsight that makes that reference to hypnotism eerie? Perhaps – but that doesn't account for all the uneasiness in these opening pages. Is there something about the way the twins are staring at John and Laura, something hysterical about the couple's banter? Following on from the joke, most of the writing remains similarly light and frothy, but somehow that only serves to accentuate the dark shades, shown in Laura's "worried frown", and John's desire that she manages to "get over it" – whatever "it" may be. Quickly, the portrayal of the "almost exactly identical" twins starts to seem stranger and then comes the revelation that John and Laura's daughter has recently died. From then on (and especially if you're a parent), it's a story you feel not so much in your head as your stomach, where everything starts fluttering, tightening and aching… But why?
A poster on the Reading group Dan Holloway has already pointed outthat Du Maurier here employs one of "the great chiller staple themes… the notion that a character or set of characters seeks to escape a troubled situation by physical flight, only to find their troubles have not only follwed them but to their new destination but have become externalised there in the shape of some kind of semi-physical presence. It's a great metaphor for the way the mind turns on itself."
That's definitely true, and as Dan Holloway also said in that post, Venice becomes a potent symbol of that process, the city changed as John Self wrote in a review of the book from "city of romance to a tawdry, soiled backdrop for cruelty and paranoia." Venice's waters are dark in Don't Look Now, her pathways confusing, her alleys bleak, narrow, dangerous. John and Laura spend much of their time in the novella feeling lost and the effect is, well, haunting.
On the subject of haunting, Du Maurier is also an expert at weaving in strange portents, eerie reflections from the future – and also moments of relief that are actually unbearable because you just know they are temporary. For me, the most chilling incident came when John calls home, and actually gets to speak to Laura… But that's late on in the story. For now, I'm keen to hear your thoughts on the techniques Du Maurier uses to make even apparently happy moments so horrible – and how effective you feel they are.
Before we get to that, however, a pleasing announcement. Thanks to the generosity of StudioCanal we have 10 DVDs of the celebrated Nicholas Roeg film adaptation of Don't Look Now to give away. (They're the latest DVD editions of the film, released just a few weeks ago on September 19, following on from a Blu-Ray special edition in July.) We'll send them out to the first 10 people who post below the line requesting one – so if you don't have a copy, now's your chance! Oh and if you haven't got a copy of the book yet, there's a tasty discount on the Penguin edition at The Guardian bookshop. We'll be discussing the film later on in the month, together with a great deal more. Watch this space!
Semalo wrote: "The fright factor was totally missing for me." And Vishweshwer wrote: "Personally, I did not find anything exceptional in the story nor did it turn out to be "spooky", "spine chilling" "nightmarish" or "creepy" as it was adjectivised in the run-up to the choice."
So have I got it wrong? Is it actually not scary at all? All thoughts much appreciated.
Ethan Rutherford is the author of The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories.
I'd seen the movies before reading the stories — Nicolas Roeg's masterful version of "Don't Look Now" featuring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; and Alfred Hitchcock's strangely flat-footed and clunky version of "The Birds" — so I thought I knew what to expect from Daphne du Maurier's fiction. I was, in fact, a little bored by the prospect of reading these stories, since I'd already seen the movies, but one day a friend insisted, loaned me her copy of Don't Look Now and just said: Trust me. I sat down while it was still light out, didn't move from the chair until dark and have had a hard time sleeping ever since.
What I love and admire about the stories collected here — and all of them are great, but I will confess to loving "Don't Look Now" and "The Birds," the two stories that open the collection, more than the rest — is that they are eventful, by which I mean: Things happen. I had been on a streak of reading collections packed with stories that hinged on small misunderstandings, or featured passive characters typing emails to one another and being sad about their inability to express themselves. There is nothing wrong with stories like this, at their best you could say this sort of story is Chekhov 2.0, but at the time I was frustrated with my own writing. In my stories, nothing much seemed to happen; I was lucky if my character was able to, say, move a couch into his bedroom. It was depressing for everyone.
And then: that long day and this book. The stories collected in Don't Look Now feature U-boats and ghost ships; murderers and femme fatales; love on the rocks; episodes of clairvoyance and psychic shock; and, of course, birds attacking humans. "Nothing's been the same since. Nor ever will be," says the narrator of "Kiss Me Again, Stranger" — and that is what you come to these stories for: each features characters who endure the strange and the extreme, and who are forever changed by the events that befall them.
Do some of these stories telegraph their endings? Do a few of them read like genre exercises? Sure, a few of them do. But the first two alone are worth the price of admission. "Don't Look Now" is a strange and intimate masterpiece: a perfect distillation of the confusion and desire that attend grief, which, as the story progresses, adventures forward through the winding streets of Venice with the logic of nightmare. And then there's "The Birds," set on the desolate coast of Cornwall following World War II, which opens with a white cloud of gulls rising and falling in the trough of the seas "like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide" — well, you know the story, or think you do. The movie is hammy and corny, but the story — both a precursor to the zombie scenarios so familiar these days and an early herald of the sort of environmental cataclysm we find ourselves on the verge of now — is absolutely terrifying. These stories open the book, and neither, once you turn the first page, lets you go.
All the stories in Don't Look Now are, in their own way, refusals of comfort —they do not end well for the characters — but we, as readers, knew that would be the case going in. This is du Maurier, after all. The pleasure in reading this book lies in being plunged into situations that are so fraught with tension that you begin to look for a release, which, when it does come, is never from the anticipated direction. They are strange stories; they are surprising. "Are you in distress?" comes the hail from a ghost ship in "Escort." The answer, as a reader, is surely: yes. But would you have it any other way?