“Classics of the Macabre” by Daphne du Maurier

RomanaC - Hipster Guys Owls
This image fits the book perfectly.

A collection of six best short stories by Daphne du Maurier is a must-read for any horror and grotesque fan. This book will bring you nightmares. Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg felt compelled to adapt two of these stories to the big screen. After reading them, you won’t wonder why.

Daphne du Maurier's "Classics of the Macabre" book coverAs you might have noticed in my first post about Edgar Allan Poe’s “King Pest,” I love reading short stories. And I mostly agree with canonical rules that Poe established in his “The Philosophy of Composition” in 1846. Especially the one about “a distinct limit… to all works of literary art – the limit of a single sitting.” Simply put, a short story should be short! The number of characters should be limited and the whole story should have singular focus. However, there are some short stories that are more complex but are still able to captivate me in their worlds. Daphne du Maurier’ stories do it with ease.

I am going to discuss the stories from the oldest to the newest one and encourage you to read them without giving away any spoilers (as there are spectacular twists in some of them!).

The Apple Tree (1952)

An old man feels at last alive after his forever nagging wife died. But the twisted apple tree in the garden starts to make him uneasy as it hides the sun from a sweet young apple tree… The story concerns topics like guilt, love and appearances. Is the long-lasting marriage a really happy one? What does it mean to care for someone?

It is not my favorite, but I‘ve got a feeling I may appreciate this story more as I grow older.

The Birds (1952)

Hitchcock's "Birds" - birds waiting
Still from the movie “Birds” (1963)

An epic short story which will always be read thanks to a classic Hitchcock’s adaptation. Nevertheless, it must be said that the movie and the short story have only one thing in common: the title birds and their violent behavior. The protagonist in the short story is a WWII veteran who tries to save himself and his family from an invasion that no one is prepared for. The style is simple but full of gripping details: “He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks.” The story has a more political overtone than the movie, but remains universal at the same time. How is one to protect oneself from the enemy that can be anywhere?

The Blue Lenses (1959)

Daphne du Maurier "The Blue Lenses" book coverMy favorite one and the most grotesque of the six. A woman is a patient of the expensive clinic after the eye surgery. The nurses and doctors take good care of her, everything seems fine. But after she has bandages removed, she sees other people heavily distorted…or not?

Basically, she sees everyone with a head of some animal in spite of a human head. Her nurses are a cow, a cat and a <spoiler removed>. Her doctor is a terrier. But her visiting husband turns out to be…

The mixture of human and animal features constitutes a basic element of grotesque imagery. It frightens and disturbs us. It goes back to ancient mythologies. Various cultures believed in creatures (or gods) of both humanoid and animal characteristics (centaur, manticore, Horus, etc.). However, when the mix is unexpected, it is a source of horror (think “The Island of Doctor Moreau” which I will certainly review some day). Animal heads in this short story possess mainly a symbolic meaning, giving away the true nature of each person.

It is a very ambiguous story, as the explanations for apparent sight malfunction may vary. It bases on psychological fear rather than physical repulsion, though a few disgusting elements also appear. I wonder why it isn’t more well-known. It certainly deserves it.

The Alibi (1959)

A seemingly normal middle-class man decides to murder somebody, it does not matter whom. He meets a desperate single mother in a desolate tenement house and decides she will be his victim. He begins to rent the room in her apartment. He pretends to be a painter, considering it the best alibi. But he cannot foresee everything…

Sometimes we may get a wrong impression that the end of the 20th century invented cold-blooded, perverse murderers and psychopaths as main characters. But literature always described sick individuals and their misdoings. I think that a sick human mind is one of the main focuses of art in general.

“The Alibi” remains shocking, even if we read similar stories, not only in literature, but also in the news.

Don’t Look Now (1970)

A married couple starts to recover after their small daughter’s death. They are on vacation in Venice. They meet a pair of strange-looking twin sisters. One of them is a blind prophetess who says that Christine, their daughter, worries about them and wants them to leave Venice immediately. They intend to leave but the skeptic man keeps seeing a figure of small girl in a red raincoat who seems to be in danger…

"Don't Look Now" the girl
Still from the movie “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

The movie by Nicolas Roeg is one of my favorite horrors, yet I enjoyed the short story. The adaptation differs in some details from the story, and the husband, played by Donald Sutherland, is in Venice because of his job. Also there is an infamous, rather explicit, sex scene which is only referred to in two sentences in the short story. Aw, the cinema of the 1970s!

The story is more ironic than the movie. I suggest you check both.

Not After Midnight (1971)

The weakest one in my opinion, still captures the sense of uneasiness in a strange land. The land is Crete, an island in Greece, where a lonely teacher decides to spend his holidays. He meets an odd American couple. The wife invites him to their house but “not after midnight.” The myth of Dionysus takes an important part in the story as the teacher discovers that the previous inhabitant of his house drowned. And he visited the couple beforehand.Theatrical masks. Roman mosaic from the 100s BC.All of du Maurier’s stories in this volume feature ordinary characters in the ordinary setting (home, garden, hospital, holiday resort) who face extraordinary, or even surreal, challenges.

I get the notion du Maurier says that while you fear the unknown, you should fear the known more. It may surprise you.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “King Pest” – Introduction to the Grotesque

Social status vs. death

A few years ago I bought a beautiful edition of Poe’s complete short stories and devoured it with great pleasure. To my pleasant surprise, Poe rewards his faithful followers. Sure, all of us heard about the infamous “The Black Cat” or “The Fall of the House of the Usher.” Poe is talked about at school to the point that we want to say “Nevermore!” However, it is the author that will reward you with wonderful, little-known gems when you read more that the canon.

“King Pest” is such a precious short story. It was very appropriately included in the collection “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque” in 1840. I think it can illustrate perfectly what the term grotesque means.

The plot is simple, yet the descriptions of places and people create an atmosphere that is rich with meaning. The style is extremely flowery on purpose. It contrasts with the horrific reality. The same with the events: they are treated humorously while remaining scary and disgusting. Add a bit of profanation and sexual exploitation and you have an ambiguous story that critics don’t know how to approach. The ambiguity haunts the grotesque. The bewildered audience is a preferable result.

Image inspired by the Black Death.

“King Pest” is like “The Hangover” if it happened in the 14th century London during the Black Death pandemic. Before the hangover part. It relates the adventure of two drunk sailors who venture into a deserted part of the city, escaping without payment from the local pub. They come across a strange meeting in the house that was previously inhabited by an undertaker. Six people sit around the table, four men, two women. Each of them is grotesque to the point that he or she stops resembling a human being.

It’s hard to choose my favorite. A lady with “a soft smile played about her mouth; but her nose, extremely long, thin, sinuous, flexible and pimpled, hung down far below her under lip, and in spite of the delicate manner in which she now and then moved it to one side or the other with her tongue”? Or a paralyzed man, “habited, somewhat uniquely, in a new and handsome mahogany coffin”?

Each of them calls himself a part of nobility and each of them is dying.

And the setting is so bizarre that it deserves a mention:

“Before each of the party lay a portion of a skull, which was used as a drinking cup. Overhead was suspended a human skeleton, by means of a rope tied round one of the legs and fastened to a ring in the ceiling. The other limb, confined by no such fetter, stuck off from the body at right angles, causing the whole loose and rattling frame to dangle and twirl about at the caprice of every occasional puff of wind which found its way into the apartment. In the cranium of this hideous thing lay quantity of ignited charcoal, which threw a fitful but vivid light over the entire scene; while coffins, and other wares appertaining to the shop of an undertaker, were piled high up around the room, and against the windows, preventing any ray from escaping into the street.”

I think it is every horror fan’s dream come true movie setting. The characters are not familiar but fascinating. The title character is a ruler of this place and he orders our two sailors to drink “a gallon of Black Strap.” If not, they shall be “duly drowned as rebels in yon hogshead of October beer.” The two men disagree and expose King Pest to be Tim Hurlygurly, the stage-player. The result is a brawl which ends up in the whole place being flooded by liquor. Two sailors escape, each kidnapping one lady.

The whole short story can be read here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/King_Pest

Arthur Rackham – Legs and Hugh Tarpaulin escape from King Pest’s court (a fragment)

Atmosphere of prevailing death dominates the story, though the pompous speeches are genuinely funny. I really like this story because it says something about human behavior during hard times. If you knew you were to die (and the whole world you had known with you), would you moan and pray? Or would you gather in a blasphemous setting, with people doomed like you, enjoying drinking, sex, luxury, and imaginary honors? Each reaction is probable, but the second one is  somehow less obvious. It can evoke pity, horror, disgust, laughter. Such mixed feelings are part of the genre called the grotesque.

I hope you enjoyed this opening post and I will see you here again. I plan to write about movies and books that belong to the grotesque genre. You will see what I mean in the next posts. Feel free to comment, like and subscribe. I am here to stay. :)