Escape Into du Maurier
NYRB , 2008
Reviewed by Seana Graham
“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.”
So begins the title story of a New York Review Books Classics collection of creepy tales that seems just right for the shortening fall days leading up to Halloween. John and Laura have come to Venice after the death of their young daughter in an effort to “move on”. Their initial playful if slightly cruel speculations about the two women are fated to be the last light exchange they’ll have on this trip, as the “two old girls” soon sweep Laura up in their claim to have a clairvoyant connection with her dead daughter. A chasm opens up between husband and wife as John’s skepticism prevents him from believing in the medium’s news, and his desire to make a fresh start is in conflict with Laura’s need to remain somehow connected with her child. As with so many tales set in Venice, the Gothic architecture and the twisty little alleys add to the creepy atmosphere. Nicholas Roeg filmed a very faithful adaptation of the story (though he added a notorious sex scene), which du Maurier is said to have approved.
The same cannot be said for Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movie version of “The Birds”. Du Maurier did not understand why Hitchcock had so distorted her work. You may think you already know the story from the movie, but it is well worth reading the original. Although Hitchcock moved the tale to California, the original setting of “The Birds” is the remote Cornish coast, and centers around farm hand Nat Hocken and his valiant if perhaps futile attempt to save his family from the onslaught of birds. While Hitchcock’s story focuses a lot on the drama between individual human beings, the original tale focuses largely on the interspecies struggle. As the story ends, Nat feels that the birds en masse are settling an ancient score with humanity:
“[Nat] wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.”
We discussed this book in the NYRB book group over on Good Reads, and one member made an interesting point. “The Birds” was originally published in 1952, and the fear of German invasion and the actuality of aerial bombardment during WWII were still in the collective British memory . It’s perhaps why the original story has a sense of national (and global?) rather than just localized calamity.
Personally, I did not find the other stories of the collection quite up to the level of these first two tales. But other people had other favorites, and in particular, the last story of the book, “Monte Verita”, about a mysterious mountain sect, was a hit with many.
We’ll be reading another creepy tale in the NYRB group over at Good Reads this October—the newly re-released The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gothelf. The group is open to all, so please follow the link below if you’d like to join us.