Enchanted

Daphne du Maurier has long been one of my favorite authors–ever since I discovered her short story collection Echoes from the Macabre when I was eleven or twelve; the first story in that collection, “Don’t Look Now,” remains one of my all time favorites; later in my teens I finally read Rebecca, and it has remained one of my favorite novels of all time, getting the periodic reread. One of the things I loved about du Maurier, as I tore through several of her other novels in the wake of Rebecca (The King’s General, The Flight of the Falcon, Jamaica Inn, and Frenchmen’s Creek) was that her novels subverted expectation; her books were marketed, or at least so it seemed to me, as romantic suspense novels and/or historical romances; yet the books were anything but that (whenever someone refers to Rebecca as romantic suspense it’s all I can do not to laugh in their face). The King’s General, for example, based on actual history, does not have a happy ending at all; and even the others aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. About seven or eight years ago I finally read My Cousin Rachel, at the recommendation of a friend who couldn’t believe I’d never read it; once I had, it immediately shot to the top of my list of all-time favorites.

I’ve not finished the du Maurier canon–not because I don’t want to, but primarily because she’s dead and I know at some point, I will run out of du Maurier fiction. I know this is silly; I should, now that sixty is just on the horizon, start finishing the canons of my favorites because it would really suck to die and not be finished with them. (But then we always think we have more time than we actually do, don’t we? It’s sometimes very difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that I am, indeed, as old as I am.)

But watching the film of The Other made me think of this particular du Maurier, and I decided to give it a shot.

I left the car by the side of the cathedral, and then walked down the steps into the Place des Jacobins. It was still raining hard. It had not once let up since Tours, and all I had seen of the countryside I loved was the gleaming surface of the route nationale, rhythmically cut by the monotonous swing of the windscreen wiper.

Outside Le Mans, the depression that had grown upon me during the past twenty-four hours had intensified. It was inevitable, always, during the last days of holiday; but this time, more than ever before, I was aware of time having passed too swiftly, not because the days had been overfull but because I had achieved nothing. The notes I had written for the lectures I was to give during the coming autumn were scholarly, precise, with dates and facts that I should afterwards dress up in language designed to strike a spark in the dull minds of inattentive students. But even if I held their flagging interest for a brief half hour, I should know, when I had finished, that nothing I had said to them was of any value, that I had only given them images of history brightly coloured–waxwork models, puppet figures strutting through a charade. The real meaning of history would have escaped me, because i had never been close enough to people.

It was all too easy to lose oneself in a past half real, half imaginary, and so be blind to the presesnt. In the cities I knew best, Tours, Blois, Orleans, I lost myself in fantasy, seeing other walls, older streets, the crumbling corners of once glittering facades, and they were ore live to me than any real structure before my eyes, for in their shadows lay security; but in the hard light of reality there was only doubt and apprehension.

There are very few writers who can write so poignantly about depression and dissatisfaction with life; the dark night of the soul, as it were. This is where the hero of The Scapegoat finds himself at the opening of the novel. John, our thirty-eight year old hero, is an Englishman who teaches French history, is fluent in French, and is becoming incredibly dissatisfied with his life. Although his French is flawless and spoken like a native, his fascination and love for France has slowly become disaffecting for him–he feels like he doesn’t belong there and doesn’t quite fit in as he is not actually French; his life is humdrum and routine and lonely; he has no family, few friends, no loves. He has stopped in Le Mans on his way to visit a monastery, and as he walks around the rain-drenched city, he feels his difference very deeply; and then something strange happens: someone mistakes him for someone else, and then very shortly thereafter he runs into his mirror image–and his life is never going to be the same again.

The double, Jean, the Comte de Gue, is also dissatisfied and bored with his own life, and the two men have a few drinks. Eventually they repair to a disreputable looking hostel for another drink–and then our hero, John, passes out, only to wake up more than fourteen hours later to find that “his” driver is there, waiting for him to take him home. He soon realizes all of his things–passport, wallet, ID, car keys–are gone; he has two choices open to him. He can either tell this fantastic story of his to the police and to the driver, who will most likely judge him insane….or go along with the pretense, and slip into the life of his double.

Naturally, since this is a du Maurier tale, he chooses the latter.

In the hands of a lesser writer this contrivance–obviously, without making this decision the rest of the novel cannot happen–would be too glaring, too crazy, too much, really; but du Maurier does such a magnificent job of capturing his own boredom, ennui, dissatisfaction with the dull, plodding life he has made for himself that it actually almost makes sense for him to made this insane decision, for how can he possibly hope to pull off such an imposture? The look-alike story has been done to death over the years, and its overuse on soap operas–generally used when a popular actor has left the show, was killed off, and wants to return; or the double is evil and is taking over the good character’s life (they did this on Dynasty, poorly, with a Krystle look alike)–has made it seem trite and boring and over-used, as well as ridiculous. But Dickens used it for A Tale of Two Cities (even making his dopplegangers English and French, as du Maurier did), and of course, Mary Stewart’s brilliant The Ivy Tree also used the look-alike trope quite ingeniously. (Apparently Josephine Tey did the same with Brat Farrar.) Du Maurier does make this work–ironically, the only creatures who doubt that the Comte is actually the Comte are dogs; but then again, even when he behaves out of character for his look-alike or doesn’t know something he should, no one has any reason to doubt him or believe that a double has replaced their Jean. Would you suspect someone you love and know quite well has been replaced by a twin? There are also some wonderful subplots, regarding the real Comte’s relationships with his family, and while there really wouldn’t be much consequence if he is caught out, a lot of the thrill of the book comes from him not just uncovering the truths behind the fraught relationships with his relatives and the darkness of the past, but also figuring out ways out of situations where he would be found out.

And du Maurier’s writing style itself is the real star. There’s a hypnotic, dream-like quality to her voice; she weaves her words and sentences and paragraphs together softly but beautifully; there’s a melancholy to her style that always hypnotizes her readers into buying into the conceits of her stories and plots.

I greatly enjoyed this read, and am now looking forward to finishing the du Maurier canon.

Like I said, limited time.

The Story of Us

Well, this has been an adventure. The power just now came back on.

It went out on Wednesday sometime between four and four-thirty; and of course, it’s fall, so it also starts getting dark around four-thirty/five every day. It is pitch black inside the Lost Apartment, by the way, when we don’t have power and night falls. Even the candles don’t help. I am so tired of disruptions, you know? It seems like every time I get centered and get ready to pull it all together, there’s another fucking life disruption. Wasn’t it just the other day I was talking about trying to focus on positivity, and figuring out how to get my act together, and so forth? Then along comes a hurricane out of literally fucking nowhere and everything is fucked again. Sure, the house survived, Paul and Scooter and I made it through without harm, and not having power is a very small thing in the overall scheme of things–but I’m just so tired. No power of course means everything in my refrigerator has to be thrown away–yay! because I can certainly afford to replace it all!–and it means no computer, no lights for reading, no internet, no stove, no food, no hot showers, and most heinous of all: NO FUCKING COFFEE.

The storm was bad enough to live through–the winds were literally one mile per hour lower than a Category 3 hurricane, so it was classified as a 2–and it was scary. The rain was coming down so hard and so fast I was certain that the streets would flood–and the howling of the wind was bone-chilling. I kept worrying about the roof, about trees and branches, about the car…and then of course the power went out, leaving us in pitch blackness. I lit some candles but it was way too dark to read, and just started dozing off a bit in my easy chair, off and on. I finally just went to bed at nine-thirty, after moving my car back to the street from the high ground, and I just spent Thursday reading, and when the daylight faded and the candles weren’t enough, grabbed a flashlight so I could finish reading. And of coure, Friday we were still without power. The office was also without power, and even though it was a work-at-home day for me–and I did have the option to stay home and count it as work, I decided to go into the office; just to be in the light and have power and be able to charge my phone again and…also, for some reason, it takes my phone forever to charge in my car now. I don’t know what that is all about, but I spent over an hour in the car yesterday charging my phone.

An effective use of gasoline.

Before we lost power on Wednesday, I decided to stream The Other while making condom packs. I had never actually seen the film, written and produced in 1972 by Thomas Tryon from his novel of the same name; the book is one of my all-time favorites and I also consider it to be a big influence, not just on my writing but in my reading tastes as well. The novel is fantastic, absolutely chilling, and has two big plot twists that completely change the complexion of the story, and the reader’s perception of what is going on at the Perry house just outside Pequot Landing, Connecticut. I have always avoided the film, primarily because I love the book so much, and secondly because, as much as I do love the novel, I’ve never really seen a way to film it effectively. The film is okay–the big surprise, for me, was seeing early in their careers John Ritter and Victor French in supporting roles–but the concept of the book itself, while not particularly original (identical twins, with one being good and the other being evil; it’s been explored in films, novels and soap operas going back decades)–in this case, though, the twins are young–only eleven–which also throws the book into the “bad children” category, along with The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and We Need To Talk About Kevin–as opposed to adults, the way the good twin/bad twin story is generally presented. The movie is flawed, and doesn’t necessarily hold your interest the entire time–but it did make me want to read the book again. It’s time, methinks.

But watching The Other drew me to a Daphne du Maurier novel I’d not read before, The Scapegoat. Du Maurier takes the twin concept and gives it a bit of a twist; rather than having her twins be related by blood, hers are merely look-alikes; total strangers (one British, one French) who happen to look exactly alike (people always used to say that everyone has a twin somewhere in the world; I always wondered about that because whenever I would visit New Orleans–and for about a year or so after we moved here–I used to get mistaken for someone else in gay bars. It was quite weird.), and run into each other by chance at a train station in Le Mans; they have a few drinks together only for the Englishman to wake up the next morning in a sleazy hotel room, and all of his things–passport, ID, wallet, car, etc.–are gone and the other man’s things in their place. So John becomes Jean…because who, after all, would believe his story? If he went to the police, would they not think him completely insane? So he takes the du Maurier step of deciding, okay, I’ll be Jean and live his life, despite knowing very little about his double. And yet no one in his family–neither wife, mother, brother, sister-in-law, daughter, mistress one and mistress two–suspect for even a moment that he isn’t Jean, the Comte de Gue; which is kind of weird–but then again, they do notice he isn’t acting quite the same. And much as I love du Maurier, the entire set-up of the story is quite contrived, yet somehow she makes it work, which is part of why I admire her so much. Literally, what John is doing is quite mad; and yet, as he gets to know the family and his counterpart’s relationships with each of them–there’s also a brilliant subplot about a feud between Jean and his younger sister, going back to the Nazi occupation and resistance–he begins to care for them, and tries to do better by them than their actual blood relative did. It definitely held my attention, and I kept reading, wondering how on earth she was going to end it–and she ended it with the typical du Maurier cynicism and disdain for the “happily ever after” that holds true for all of her stories, or at least the ones I have read.

And now I must figure out how far behind I am now on everything; the mind reels, quite frankly. I was very definitely behind before the storm came; I am absolutely unnerved at how terrifying it will be to take a look at my inbox and what has been going on while I have been, quite literally, powerless. But there’s really no sense in allowing myself to get overwhelmed, is there? There’s so much work that needs to be done around the Lost Apartment–cleaning and straightening and so forth–and of course there are football games this weekend. But at least the power is back so I can watch the LSU game. GEAUX TIGERS!

Heavy heaving sigh.

The Moment I Knew


Thursday, y’all, and I think I am going to take a vacation day tomorrow to try and help me get caught up on all the things I need to get caught up on. Another three day weekend, following up on the one just past already? To be fair, it kind of needs to actually happen, to be honest. I also have to remember to dedicate myself to making sure all the things I need to get done actually get done.

Which, you know, is the real trick here.

I also kind of need to pull myself together. While I am fully aware that there are certain things about myself I cannot control–depression, the mood swings, etc–it is still enormously frustrating to have to deal with them, try to work through them, get through them while trying to keep going with everything I am juggling these days. Part of it comes, undoubtedly, from my inability to ever get a handle on everything; even when I am making lists and working from them there’s always something I am forgetting when I make the list or something that comes up new after I make the list–and the list is so long and daunting to begin with that the thought of adding something else to it is paralyzing, which drags me back into the endless cycle of plate spinning to “Flight of the Bumblebee” again.

Obviously, the insomnia never helps either, nor does fearing, every night when I go to bed, that I am going to have insomnia again.

We started watching Mythic Quest last night on Apple Plus, and it’s not bad; we watched two episodes and I think it has the potential to become really funny; it stars Rob McIlhenny of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I was really surprised to discover that not only was he the driving force behind that show, but this one as well. We’re also watching We Hunt Together on Showtime–we started the other night, before getting distracted by Ted Lasso, which I absolutely love–and while it’s not bad, it’s not the best British crime show I’ve watched. It’s very unusual in that it features two mixed couples (a Black man and a white woman) on opposing sides of the law–the investigating detectives and the criminal couple killing people–and reflects the similarities of relationships and their dynamics in both; it’s like they are mirror images of each other if it’s a funhouse mirror. It’s an interesting choice, and the acting is superb; the female cop is played by Eve Myles of Torchwood fame, whose work I always enjoy.

During my condom-packing hours yesterday I also returned to the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, this time watching Jane Fonda in her Oscar-winning role as Bree Daniels, the call girl, in Klute (what is with women winning Oscars playing prostitutes, anyway?). Klute is a very strange film, and it’s the first of what is called, by film scholars, the Paranoia Trilogy of director Alan J. Pakula (I have recently watched the other two, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men). Klute, to me, is a deeply flawed film, but an interesting one all the same. It’s a crime movie, the title character is a cop who takes a leave of absence to investigate the disappearance of a friend, and yet neither the cop nor the investigation are the lead story of the movie; it’s really a character study of Bree Daniels. Klute, the detective, is played almost completely emotionlessly by Donald Sutherland (obviously a choice made by both director and actor; since this is also the same period that produced his stunning performance in Don’t Look Now), so the emotional heart and center of the movie is Fonda’s performance. I came away from the film not entirely convinced by that performance; there was complexity there and some moments of truly fine acting, but over all–the film hasn’t really aged all that well (the underground world of orgies and call girls and pimps and heroin of Manhattan in the 1970’s it is trying to depict feels very screenwriter-ish to me; a film studio’s thoughts about how that particular subculture would look, walk and talk)–but I can see why she won an Oscar; those scenes where she is able to really inhabit the character are stellar. Klute is a subversion of noir/crime thrillers, really; by focusing on the character study of Bree rather than the story, it becomes less a crime story than the story of the unfortunate aspiring actress/model who turns to tricking to pay the bills and then is trying to leave the life but isn’t entirely able to; not only because she needs the money but because she likes the power of being in control–or at least, the allusion of control hooking brings her.

Imagine Double Indemnity if the focus of the film wasn’t the plan to kill Phyllis’ husband, but rather who she is and why she is the way she is.

The paranoia is also there in that Bree’s phone is tapped, not only by Klute but also by the killer. There’s another part of the film that is a flaw; the motive for the killing and the motive for hiring and paying Klute doesn’t really wash; but’s that probably also the crime writer/editor in me. I had also thought the film was based on a book but was apparently wrong; I could have sworn I remember seeing a paperback novel of Klute on the wire racks at Zayre’s, but of course it could have simply been a novelization of the film.

I did find Don’t Look Now also available to stream somewhere as I idly looked through all my streaming services apps last evening before we started watching Mythic Quest; I definitely want to watch that film again–and it’s not a bad idea for me to delve back into Daphne du Maurier’s short stories again. I may even have to read one of the novels she wrote that I haven’t read yet; there appears to be an adaptation of The Scapegoat (which I’ve not read) available to stream as well. The concept of the book intrigues me–the concept of the look-alike, which is something I’ve always wanted to write about myself. I’ve always had this idea of a bartender in a gay bar being approached by someone who thought he was someone else as a great starting place for a thriller; the problem, of course, being that now DNA would take away any possibility of an imposter passing for someone else. (FUCKING technological improvements.)

This idea came to me–not the least because of The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart–but because when I used to visit New Orleans before moving here, consistently people–locals–would come up to me and start talking to me like I was someone else; eventually I would point out to them that they didn’t actually know ME and they would be very startled. This continued for a year or so after we moved here–I would sometimes get bought drinks by total strangers who thought I was someone else, and now that I think about it, perhaps the reason so many bartenders gave me a drink for free now and then was because they thought I was someone else. But it stopped after living here for a few years–I’d forgotten this used to happen–but they would always tell me I had a double here in New Orleans; one that I never met or saw anywhere. Isn’t that strange? But I always thought it was a good opening or idea for a story–but of course now, as I mentioned before, DNA has ruined the imposter stories forever.

Today is a better day, so here’s hoping it lasts and I can get back on track.

Fancy

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.

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