Anyone who follows this blog, or follows me on social media, or has ever heard me on a panel anywhere talking about influences and so forth on me as a writer, knows that I love Daphne du Maurier. My novel Timothy is an homage/pastiche of her greatest success as a writer, Rebecca, a terrific novel I reread every year or so because it’s so multi-layered and so surprising; despite the near-constant rereads for most of my adult life, I can still pick it up and marvel at her mastery and how I can still find things in the book that surprise me; new nuggets of insight that change the entire way the book reads. It’s exceptional, it really is, and part of her incredible gift as a story-teller. I would love to–and definitely need to–reread My Cousin Rachel, which Megan Abbott encouraged me to read several years ago and it, too, blew me away completely; I want to reread it because, like everything du Maurier wrote, it changes when you reread it and I can’t wait to see how My Cousin Rachel reads differently on a second time through.
The opening of Mardi Gras Mambo is also an homage to Rebecca; I opened the book with this sentence: “Last night I dreamed I went to Mardi Gras again” and then the next paragraph also was a pastiche and homage to Rebecca. (Little known fact: almost every Scotty book opens with an homage/pastiche to the opening of a famous novel.)
Du Maurier was a terrific novelist, and there are still novels of hers I’ve not read; as I often say here, I hate knowing that there are no more books by an author I love to read, and since du Maurier is dead…yes, there will be nothing new from her, ever again; and so some books, like The House on the Strand and Rule Britannia and The Scapegoat I will pick up off my shelf, pause, and then put back. What also makes it easier to not finish her canon is the fact that, as I mentioned above, you can always reread her novels and they always seem fresh and new. (I would like, at some point, to also reread Frenchmen’s Creek, Jamaica Inn, and The King’s General.)
Du Maurier was also a short story master.
“Don’t Look Now” is one of my all-time favorite short stories (the Visconti film, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, is also a masterpiece), and I reread it from time to time. It came up again on a thread by Ed Aymer on Facebook recently, which was all about favorite short stories, and I remembered again how much I love this particular story, and wanted to read it again.
My story “Don’t Look Down” is sort of an homage to this du Maurier tale as well; but I made a very deliberate point of not rereading “Don’t Look Now” while I was writing and revising it because I was not only afraid that I might copy her story but I was also concerned that reading her story and being reminded of how good du Maurier was at writing short stories might intimidate me into not finishing it. This morning I took the book down and reread the story, and now I am kind of furious at myself for not rereading the du Maurier during the writing process of my own story; because as I read the du Maurier I realized oh I could have done such a better job on that story. Inevitable, of course, that I would feel that way, but…
“Don’t look now,” John said to his wife, “but there a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotize me.”
Laura, quick on cue, made an elaborate pretence of yawning, then tilted her head as though searching the skies for a non-existent airplane.
“Right behind you,” he added. “That’s why you can’t turn around at once–it would be much too obvious.”
Laura played the oldest trick in the world and dropped her napkin, then bent to scrabble for it under her feet, sending a shooting glance over her left shoulder as she straightened once again. She sucked in her cheeks, the first tell-tale sign of suppressed hysteria, and lowered her head.
“They’re not old girls at all,” she said. “They’re male twins in drag.”
Her voice broke ominously, the prelude to uncontrolled laughter, and John quickly poured some more Chianti into her glass.
“Pretend to choke,” he said, “then they won’t notice. You know what it is–they’re criminals doing the sights of Europe, changing sex at each stop. Twin sisters here on Torcello. Twin brothers tomorrow in Venice, or even tonight, parading arm-in-arm across the Piazza San Marco. Just a matter of switching clothes and wigs.”
“Jewel thieves or murderers?” asked Laura.
And so du Maurier begins her tale, of mystery and supernatural intrigue and suspense, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Venice. It starts out innocently enough; a happily married couple on holiday, having a bit of fun at their lunch. But as the story continues, and John and Laura keep joking about the possible identities of the twin sisters. Finally, Laura decides to follow them into the bathroom to “check on them”, with a joking request that if she doesn’t come back, John is to notify the police. So far so good, and actually incredibly charming. But while Laura is gone, John reminisces on the reason for their trip; their daughter, wearing a bright red coat, had drowned accidentally, and while they still have a healthy son at school, he’s brought Laura here to get away and to help her get over how miserably unhappy she’s been since. This immediately shifts the focus of the story in a way only du Maurier can; a charming domestic scene between a happy couple, only to strip away the artifice and expose the raw nerves and unhappiness below. Laura is gone long enough for John to become concerned; and when she does return, what she tells him, high-spiritedly, is that the blind twin is actually psychic, and could see their daughter seated at the table with them! John’s heart sinks, as he is worried about Laura’s mental health, and he immediately concludes the two sisters are charlatans trying to pull some kind of scam, and he worries about their influence on his emotionally fragile wife. There’s also a great throwaway line here, that foreshadows the outcome of the story–there’s no such thing as a throwaway line in du Maurier, you must pay attention to everything, because she’s so brilliant at sleight of hand; she does this throughout the story, indicating how we all can become so self-obsessed that we don’t see what is plainly in front of us, and a danger–where Laura off-handedly mentions to John that the blind twin also said that he was also psychic, but wasn’t aware of his own gifts.
The construction of this long story is absolutely marvelous, and even when you know the big twist ending, you really have to look for the way du Maurier set up the big twist, and was setting it up, the entire time; almost from the very beginning, and that’s why, when it comes, once the shock and surprise wears off, you kind of smile to yourself, because she didn’t cheat–she was setting you up the entire time.
I tried doing that with my story “Don’t Look Down”, and obviously, didn’t pull it off as well as du Maurier did in “Don’t Look Now” and in many other stories…which is why she is a master and I merely a Gregalicious.
If you haven’t read this story, you really need to–and I also highly recommend, once you’ve read it, that you watch the film, which is also extraordinary.