Gothic literature is one of those genres I will read the crap out of, no matter the author or subject. Ghouls? Gimme. Vampires? You betcha. Curses? Hell yeah. Zombies, and creepy castles, and uncanny valley, and hysteria, and racists, and – OK, not all gothic elements are satisfying. But they make one hell of a story.
So I’m not sure what was going on in my little world to have totally bypassed Daphne Du Maurier. For one – she wrote The Birds (I know guys, it’s not just a movie), and for another, she’s a fucking revelation. I’m appalled at myself.
She was, as so many female writers from the late 19th and early 20th century were, mystifying and fascinating. Unlike many of them, however, especially in this short story anthology, she writes from the first-person view of a man. This is particularly interesting given the way Du Mourier “explained to a trusted few people her own unique slant on her sexuality: her personality comprised two distinct people – the loving wife and mother (the side she showed to the world); and the lover (a “decidedly male energy”) hidden from virtually everyone and the power behind her artistic creativity.” She also mentioned that she wished to have been born a boy – such details which make me as a queer reader, all the more interested.
This might actually be my favorite short story collection of all time, which is saying something considering that ‘The opposite of loneliness’ by Marina Keegan, ‘Any other mouth’ by Annaliese Mackintosh, and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart by the legend that is Edgar Allan Poe exists.
There wasn’t a single story in here which I didn’t like – but there were three that are still haunting me, weeks after reading it.
You knew I was going to say it. And it’s not because of the movie or the fact that THIS exists. Double points for Kate McKinnon.
This is the very first story, and it really sets the bar high for the rest of the collection, with dark undertones of the reality of a world war.
The protagonist is Nat, a farmhand who lives in a house on the beautiful Cornish coast with his wife and two children. One night, small birds attack his children in their room, pecking at their eyes until he can fight them off. In the morning, the birds act normally again and Nat’s brutality upsets him: “Dawn, and the open window, had called the living birds; the dead lay on the floor. Nat gazed at the little corpses, shocked and horrified.”
But it isn’t long until he hears on the radio that birds have attacked people all over the country – and he sees seagulls starting to amass on the waves, “I looked out to sea and there are gulls, thousands of them, tens of thousands, you couldn’t put a pin between their heads, and they’re all out there, riding on the sea, waiting”, and decides to board up his windows and doors. Later that evening, with the rise of the shore, the birds start to attack again. Larger birds this time, seagulls and eagles – capable of making it through his wooden defenses.
It’s really quite amazing to read Du Maurier weave this beautifully written story around the subject of nature and its destruction by humans, as well as linking it to the war, and siege, and violence. It’s truly unsettling.
Some of the most explicit lines linking war and nature: “It was, Nat thought, like air-raids in the war. No one down this end of the country knew what the Plymouth folk had seen and suffered. You had to endure something yourself before it touched you”, “He did not want to tell her that the sound they had heard was the crashing of aircraft”, “Won’t America do something?’ said his wife. ‘They’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?’” and even when creating a game for the children, keeping them occupied and brave by encouraging them to listen out for the birds killing themselves against the sides of the house: “‘There’s another, Dad,’ cried Jill, ‘he’s done for.’ ‘He’s had it,’ said Nat, ‘there he goes, the blighter.’”
The stakes get higher, the neighbours are discovered murdered by the birds and trampled by their livestock. Nat continues to assess the danger, and reinforce the house, but you’re left on a cliffhanger, an uncertainty as to whether the young family even makes it out alive.
What really surprised me was the quality of the writing, considering the film that Hitchcock eventually turned this into. The way that Du Maurier describes the environment, and the way that she uses suspense rather than visceral horror is a real lesson in Gothic writing. Lines like “the east wind, like a razor, stripped the trees” gave me little shivers of satisfaction.
This short story started off a little slow – a little bit more of your typical Gothic male protagonist who is searching for something. Willing to travel and explore somewhere new in order to learn things about the world and about himself. Struck within the first few pages by the presence of a beautiful, serene woman. But the catch is that she’s engaged to his best friend.
Still, if you think that this is going to be a typical love story, ho-ho-HOLD THE PHONE. Because this is so much more. The biggest challenge, and the ‘character’ that brings everyone together is the mountain – Monte Verita. And this is more than just the mysterious love story it initially appears to be – it unfolds beautifully into a frightening and intoxicating treat that circles around mythology, sexuality, love and destiny.
It’s absolutely bizarre, and I don’t want to spoil a bit of it. Go read it.
The Apple Tree
And I’ve saved the best for last. The Apple Tree is a slow rumble of a short story. It starts with such a simple premise – a man who considers himself finally free from his long-suffering, deceased wife, “Midge”. Though it’s hinted that he was responsible for some of her suffering, Midge is presented as the kind of woman who will take on burden beyond her means and punish those around her for it: “It was just that the undercurrent of reproach, mingled with suffering nobly borne, spoilt the atmosphere of his home and drove him to a sense of furtiveness and guilt.” Cleaning and worrying to the point of exhaustion, whereas our portly narrator simply wants to be left alone, with little need for concern.
The simplest way to explain it is that when Midge dies, he starts to project all of her most irritating and frustrating qualities onto an apple tree in the garden. It was “a perpetual reminder of all the things he most detested, and always had, he could not put a name to them.” Contrary to the lithe, young sprout next to it, this tree spreads itself over wide ground, seemingly decaying in front of him, bearing the load of such fruit that it almost bends to the ground, groaning: “What in heaven’s name was the matter with the thing that it had to stand there, humped and stooping, instead of looking upwards to the light?”. Everything it creates, he hates – from the sweetly-scented wood turned poisonous in his fire, to the sour apples that his maid provides him from the tree. He hates it all and seeks to destroy it, not knowing that the tree will instead destroy him.
Nature and human emotion and experience are so tightly bound in this story in particular, it is just beautifully written, and unravels to its natural climax at the perfect rate.
I’ve thought about this short story every day since I’ve read it. I’ll definitely read it again, just to see if another layer of understanding sits beyond the first read.