Review Of The Birds & Other Stories, by Daphne Du Maurier
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/22/06
The name Daphne Du Maurier was familiar to me only in relation to the Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds, based upon a short story she had written. Yes, I knew that the films Jamaica Inn and Rebecca were based upon her novels, but it was The Birds that was my reference point, and as I thought the film was a good one, although not one of Hitchcock’s best, I was never motivated to read the source for the film until my wife bought this book, which contained the tale, as well five others. Originally this collection of six stories was released under the title of one of the other stories, The Apple Tree, over half a century ago.
Simply put, this is a great book, and all the tales are worth reading. The titular tale follows pretty much the same storyline as the film- that is the birds go wild. The only major difference is that the tale is set in rural Cornwall, England while the film is set in California. It opens on an average day in December, where Nat Hocken and his clan live. He notices a large flock of birds gathering nearby, but thinks little of it. Over the next few days the swarms of birds grows exponentially and start attacking people, and the tale focuses more and more intensely on Nat’s family’s struggles to survive, to build the sense of isolation and claustrophobia they feel inside their dwelling, until the end comes. Ostensibly the push for the attacks is that the winter has been colder and harsher than normal, but the intensity of fear builds within and without the characters due to the birds and the human terrors. The success of the story has been attributed to its metaphoric relation to the still fresh terror Londoners, especially, felt during the Nazi air raids of a decade earlier, as it was amplified by Cold War tensions.
The next tale, Monte Verità, is simply put, one of the three or four greatest short stories ever written, and at 74 pages may really be classified as a novella. It follows that oldest of dramatic tales- a love triangle- but makes it utterly fresh. The troika are best friends Victor and the nameless narrator, and Victor’s Welsh wife, Anna, who is also loved, of course, by the narrator. The two men are mountaineers who gallivant around the Alps until Victor falls in love with Anna. All seems well when the narrator pays them a visit, some months after their marriage, yet he senses Anna is different, and falls in love with her. When he comes back from business in America for some months he finds Victor has been institutionalized, and is muttering that Anna left him at the mystical Monte Verità, a mountain whose precise locale is never given. The narrator assumes that she first left him, then that she died whilst mountaineering, but Victor insists that she did not die, nor leave him for a lover, but that she joined an all female sun worshipping cult at mountain’s top. Victor goes with his friend to where his wife left him, and he vows to return once each year to leave a letter for his wife, who always answers it. Both men resign themselves to the fact that she is gone. Years pass, and it is now the late 1930s, as war looms on the continent, and the narrator finds himself back in the vicinity of Monte Verità, where, in a village, he finds Victor, near death, who asks him to deliver his annual missive to his wife. So moved by his old friend’s fortitude is the narrator that he assents, climbs the mount, and finds himself face to face with Anna- who has not seemingly aged with the years. He revels with the cultists, who are anathema to the villagers below, where Victor is staying, and confesses his own love to Anna, as well. She rejects him, and he learns a grim truth, before war comes to Europe, and the sun cultists flee the mountain- which is where the tale starts. In the characterizations, the philosophy, and the structure of the tale, is a story unlike ant other I’ve read. It is a masterpiece- period.
The next story, The Apple Tree, is almost as good, if not as complicated. Having recently read the two stories- The Death Of Ivan Ilyich and Master And Man, by Leo Tolstoy- not long after reading this story, his tales pale by comparison. The Apple Tree follows a rich landed man who orders the removal of an old apple tree on his property after his long neglected wife dies. For some reason he senses that it represents his dead wife. Any of the apples from it, to him, taste horrible, although to others they are perfectly fine. After months of assorted ‘adventures’ with the tree, the man finally orders it removed, after driving off his servants. The end comes with the man’s death at the behest of the apple tree’s remains during a snowstorm. The hows and whys you will have to read, but the tale is a dandy, and the equal of the two great tales that precede it.
The fourth story is the weakest, The Little Photographer, which follows a photographer’s intrusion into his subject matter. It’s not a bad tale, but not up to par with the rest. The fifth tale, Kiss Me Again, Stranger, is about a shy auto mechanic who one night, at a film theater, falls in love with a beautiful usherette, and accompanies her home- to a graveyard. Smitten with her, he leaves her there, only to find out the next day that a serviceman he and she met, at a local eatery, was murdered. All signs point to ‘his girl’- whose name he does not even know. Then, he remembers some of the odd things she said to him the previous night and things fall into place. The last words of the tale seem utterly clichéd when read apart from the piece, but in context it’s a devastating end. The final, and shortest story, comes last- The Old Man. It follows a family, from the point of view of an old neighbor who keeps an eye on them, and chronicles their tale as something of a local legend. They are legend because it is revealed that the father murdered one of their children. Yet, it is not what you think, and the surprise ending has to be one of the absolutely greatest twist endings in literary history. It’s rare that I’m knocked for a loop, but I was. This terrific little tale caps a memorable volume.
If, like me, Daphne Du Maurier’s name only connoted one of the films based upon her novels, you will see that she was a lot more- she was a hell of a great writer, and these are simply, with one exception, great, great short stories in every aspect of the craft. You will not regret reading them.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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