Everybody knows Nicholas Roeg’s film, but Du Maurier’s story has a creepy flavour all of its own. The unheimlichdoes not announce itself gradually, but rather leaps into view, like an adjustment of light. Everything changes, defamiliarizes just enough for the familiar to maintain a presence. Surely it is this doubling, between the familiar and the unfamiliar, that makes twins a potent and recurrent symbol in uncanny fiction. I say that, chuckling, as an identical twin myself. It’s elderly twins that discombobulate us at the very start of Du Maurier’s tale. The blind psychic and her sister are first introduced in speech, in a playful conversation between the central characters, John and Laura, a couple who are temporarily (from John’s perspective at least) escaping the grief of a young daughter’s death. As soon as the twins are introduced, a sickly change of light is cast over the story. Du Maurier maintains it to the end, that unsettling vision of the future, the three women standing like sentries in a vaporetto boat.
First published in Not After Midnight, Gollancz, 1971. Now available in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2006