I’ve never read anything by Du Maurier – and to be honest, I doubt I ever would have done, had I not stumbled upon/been given a couple of old editions of her work. Seemed a shame to throw them out, I thought, or to keep them if I detested her work, so I decided to give her a chance, starting with this collection of her short stories. I’m glad I did.
Du Maurier’s work is… peculiar, to say the least. The stories defy easy genre classifications, and indeed that seems to be a large part of their design: placing her plots on the fine edge between supernatural and mundane, romantic and prosaic, tragic and hopeful (though mostly tragic), she gives the reader no warnings, no time to get comfortable. Some stories will seem realistic, only to veer into fantasy; others will appear to aim for the supernatural, only to slide into the perfectly ordinary. These are stories of suspense – but to a large degree, what we are suspended by is not concern for the characters, but concern for the story itself: the reader is in the position of watching a literary game of three card monte, sometimes not knowing what sort of story they have been reading until the concluding paragraphs.
Not After Midnight contains five stories. They’re big stories – all five have the heft and form of novellas, albeit short ones. They tell a whole story, rather than simply showing us a moment; and ‘telling a story’ is the operative phrase. Du Maurier is very much, at least in this case, in the storyteller mould of author – her prose is not bad, but she is not aiming at aesthetic qualities, and she may in passing address themes or explore the human condition, but these are not what the stories are for. These are stories to thrill, intrigue, and surprise. They should be prefaced with the words ‘are you sitting comfortably?’. Yet even here there is an element of duality – the short, sensational story seems to war against the sober, realistic, slice-of-life detailings.
As a result, it’s no surprise that the writing did occasionally give me pause. It is never, strictly speaking, bad writing; though I don’t think there were more than a handful of sentences that I actually enjoyed for their look or their sound. Rather, it has a tendency to the functional, and this amplifies the datedness of some of it. In particular, a lot of the dialogue feels stilted, old-fashioned, unrealistic. It is a cosy, Victorian sort of style. But in all honesty, this was not much of a problem for me – the prose did its job, and was obviously not what the reader was meant to be there for.
The collection was published as Don’t Look Now in America, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a catchy story, later made into a successful film, which plays on the edges of a ghost story, with obvious suggestions of the supernatural counterbalanced by a sensible, skeptical narrator. It’s very tense, and misdirects well throughout – it took me a long time to realise even what direction it was headed, let alone predicting details of the plot. It’s also backed up by a rather clever, albeit not entirely original, idea – but unfortunately, the execution was rather too light, not able to take the smug shine off the gimmick. In particular, the ending was poor – attempting to unite multiple strands, it lacked sufficient build-up, was far too abrupt, and was too reliant on co-incidences to wholly convince. On the other hand, the flaws are probably integral to the plot – the lack of build-up is a by-product of the author’s technique of hiding important foreshadowing in the middle of dumps of other, irrelevant, colouring information.
Not After Midnight itself, on the other hand, is a misshapen little grotesque of a story that is hardly going to appeal to the widest audience. The ending is even more ridiculously abrupt, and provoked confusion and a vague sense of being cheated. It felt like an elaborate pearl secreted around a core of nothingness. I can’t deny the pearl was beautiful – a complex mystery story that twists and turns with admirable suspense – but the resolution was frankly off-putting.
A Border-Line Case seemed to be, by far, the most sincere and heartfelt of the tales. After a brief glance at some facets of Du Maurier’s (fascinating) life and personality, it’s hard not to read a great deal of her into the strangely two-natured actress heroine of the story – especially when the reader arrives at the final page; on the other hand, given her alleged fondness for fantasising, roleplaying and deceit, I also can’t shake the idea that perhaps this ‘obvious’ self-insertion is a joke told at our expense; the stories she tells about fictional people intersecting with the stories she told, perhaps true, perhaps false, about herself. Yet this is not a coy or capricious story. The plot is light, but the sentiment is heavy, and of the five this has the most piercing examination of real thoughts and emotions – right from the opening death and the agonies of bereavement, in which it is difficult to avoid seeing the memories of the death of the author’s husband, only a few years before the collection was published. From then on, the plot bounces around chaotically; in this story, the author’s dichotomous approach to private is most strongly displayed. On the one hand, her characters can be very straight and direct, in thoughts and in speech; on the other hand, the author hides, or only hints at, a considerable amount, forcing the reader to pay close attention. It is perhaps only a fancy, but I have to wonder whether this selective vagary is in fact connected to the pre-occupations with story-telling and sleight-of-word: sometimes, it seems as though the present is unspecified to allow the character to select their own past; when the heroine tells another character what she was thinking when a certain event happened, we do not know whether she is telling the truth or not, because we were not notified at the time, and it seems as though the author is suggesting that there is no truth of the matter. The thoughts and feelings are only given conscious, concrete, form at a later date.
As a side-note: I particularly liked the many layers of meaning hidden in the title.
The Way of the Cross is more disappointing. It’s a story of a visit of a small group of people from a small English village visiting Jerusalem for a day, told from the perspective of each protagonist. Their characters are presented, and are then gradually demolished, showing how slight the foundation on which they have built their lives truly is. It’s an ambitious and worthy idea – but she doesn’t pull it off. The characters are simply too boring to interest us, too two-dimensional to surprise us, too unreal to inform us. If the intention was to undermine comfortableness by putting a cast of people into a crucible, the reality reads more like putting a set of obnoxious stock strawmen into the stocks to be uncharitably stoned. Showing how pitiable are a coterie of, in essence, background characters from an Agatha Christie novel packs very little punch unless you believe that Agatha Christie accurately captures the subtleties of English village life in the first place. She gives little credit to her opponents, and this weakens her own case.
The Breakthrough is a weird little story, and the author doesn’t seem to feel entirely comfortable with it. It doesn’t really go anywhere, is more eerie than tense, and it suffers particularly from the necessity of a massive info-dump. Far too much of it feels like set-up – and set-up of the kind particular to supernatural and near-supernatural stories, where an excessive degree of simultaneously credulity and calmness is required on the part of the characters. On the other hand, it IS eerie – and the characterisation of the narrator is particularly impressive. His character is never complex or original, but the vividness of it, and the ease and brevity with which that vividness is created, is something to be admired. The plot doesn’t particularly make much sense. Overall, it’s not a very satisfying story to rest a collection on, but as an interesting little morsel (and it is the shortest of the five, I think) thrown in among the rest it’s not a bad space-filler.
Numbers per story:
Adrenaline: 4/4/4/2/2. The first three stories are all more than averagely gripping. The Way of the Cross is dull and pointless and predictable. The Breakthrough isn’t dull, and has a bit of foreboding about it, but couldn’t honestly be called exciting.
Emotion: 2/2/3/1/2. Being emotive is not her forte. Don’t Look Now should score more highly, but the rather cold, sensible narrator reduces the potential for empathy; A Border-Line Case stands out as being more human, but the detached style and ever-changing plot are limiting factors. The Breakthrough OUGHT to be emotional, given its content, but is only slightly so.
Thought: 3/3/3/2/2. No great conundra, but the stories keep the reader thinking ahead, and have some interesting moments. I thought the penultimate story bland and obvious, and the final story too nonsensical and farfetched to engage the brain much.
Beauty: 3/3/3/2/3. Not the most elegant, but bits of striking imagery; nothing terribly bad beyond a bit of stiltedness.
Craft: 4/3/4/2/3. The Way of the Cross is let down by its heavy-handedness, but all the stories have sophisticated storytelling, adequate prose, and skilful misdirection. In general, her endings are rather too quick. The Breakthrough is let down by weight of exposition (which is also felt in the imbalanced dialogue), but given the difficulties that the story idea poses for the writer, the author does a good job with the challenges her imagination has set her.
Endearingness: 3/2/3/2/3. Not the warmest, most friendly stories, but some are reasonably likeable.
Originality: 3/4/5/3/4. This is definitely a strength of the author – genre-teasing and unpredictable plots make each story one-of-a-kind. Don’t Look Now and The Way of the Cross are quite recognisable types of story; A Border-Line Case is unique.
Scores for the Collection
My review of Borges last year has forced me to think about how to score short story collections, as I think I was rather too hard on him. This, I think, is because I judged the collection as though it were a novel – but many people will not read it in one sitting. So perhaps a collection’s value is more about the value of the individual stories. Or to put it more directly: I think that that ‘in total’ view effectively weighted all the stories equally to find an ‘average’ score, when in fact, when it comes to our opinions of a collection, we tend to weight the good bits higher. We’re more likely to recommend a collection with one genius story and four rubbish ones than one with five mediocre stories – at least, I am.
So, my new idea is to score the best in each category, and then remove points for how unrepresentative that story is of the collection as a whole. For each category, I will take the top score, and then subtract one point if it is unrepresentative, or if there is a significant number of bad stories, and a further point if it is entirely unrepresentative (but not if this brings it to an unrepresentatively low score), or if most stories are bad. “Bad” stories here will be those that score 1 or 2 in that category AND that are ‘bad’ overall, in order to take into account the way that a collection can contain stories with different objectives – reading a brilliant story that is terrible in one dimension drags the book down less than reading a terrible one. So:
Adrenaline: 4. Highest score, and thoroughly, thought not entirely, representative.
Emotion: 2. The peak is 3, but only one story got this, so 2. Could argue that it’s entirely unrepresentative, but subtracting a further point would be equally unrepresentative, as only one story got 1.
Thought: 3. Representative high score.
Beauty: 3. Ditto.
Craft: 3. High of 4 not representative – less than half the book got it.
Originality: 4. 5 was not representative, but 4 is.
Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. A collection of competent, intriguing, imaginative stories. Not mind-boggling, however, and may feel a bit dry and archaic to impatient readers. Traditional-feel ‘storytelling’ approach. I’ll probably try one of her novels.