‘Don’t Look Now’ by Daphne du Maurier

I saw Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now years before reading the short story on which it’s based, so the film was there like an undercoat as I read – I love them both anyway. John and Laura are holidaying in Venice in the wake of their daughter’s death, and John hopes to coax Laura out of “the numb despair that had seized her since the child died”. When they cross paths with twin sisters – “a couple of old girls” – who relay a psychic vision that the child, “poor little dead Christine”, is right there with them, Laura is “so happy I think I’m going to cry”, but John is troubled by the twins and their persistent presence.

The twins were standing there, the blind one still holding on to her sister’s arm, her sightless eyes fixed firmly upon him. He felt himself held, unable to move, and an impending sense of doom, of tragedy, came upon him.

Du Maurier’s story is intensely uncanny and increasingly sinister, with a brutal and haunting ending.

First published in Not After Midnight and Other Stories, Victor Gollancz, 1971. Also collected in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2006

‘Don’t Look Now’ by Daphne du Maurier

I still remember the effect that last line of this story had on me when I first read it however many years ago. I came to it, like so many, from the movie adaptation, which is something that has had a changing impression on me as I’ve gotten older (as a teen it was the last reels of the movie, and the terrible images as Donald Sutherland finally catches up with his obsession, but as I got older and started a family, it’s the beginning of the film, of course, that sticks). As a study of grief and loneliness, du Maurier is at her best, and Nick Roeg tapped into that for his film. But du Maurier also had this unshakeable darkness – the uncanny, academics like to call it now – this sinisterness bubbling away that is something other than the trauma of the worst life can throw at you. Nick and Laura are struggling in the slow levelling out of grief-into-life after the drowning of their child. Laura becomes entranced by a pair of psychic old lady sisters, and Nick becomes obsessed with a serial killer on the loose in Venice, where they have gone to try and realign. Du Maurier has a marvellous light touch considering all the plates she has spinning in the fifty-odd pages, but it all sets us up for that last sentence, the ellipsis trailing into the space of a fear I didn’t even know I had until she mentioned it…

First published in Not After Midnight, Gollancz/Don’t Look Now, Doubleday, 1971, currently available as a Penguin Modern Classic and NYRB Classic

‘The Birds’ by Daphne du Maurier

Well, how could I not?

I am, yes, a bird-lover. But there’s more to them than the Fotherington-Thomas “hello birds, hello sky” approach. There is room here for the uncanny, the twisted, the downright scary.

“On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter.” And it’s downhill from there, the birds overrunning humankind against a cold, bleak backdrop of frozen fields and churning seas. And serve us right, quite frankly, given what we’ve done to them over the years.

The genius of the story is the choice of birds as the vehicle of destruction. Familiar, not generally feared (unlike, say, insects), in du Maurier’s hands they are machines, possibly working at the behest of a greater power, united in their intent to do us in.

It starts with the garden birds – “robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks and bramblings, birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now, joining one with another in their urge for battle, had destroyed themselves against the bedroom walls, or in the strife had been destroyed by him” – and escalates from there. When the gulls get involved, you know there’s no way back. “Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands… They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide. To eastward, and to the west, the gulls were there. They stretched as far as his eye could reach, in close formation, line upon line. Had the sea been still they would have covered the bay like a white cloud, head to head, body packed to body. Only the east wind, whipping the sea to breakers, hid them from the shore.”

You do not mess with gulls.

The hardships of the Second World War hang heavy over the story, leavened with a touch of Cold War paranoia (“They’re saying in town the Russians have done it. The Russians have poisoned the birds.”) The language offers little hope. “It was bitter cold, and the ground had all the hard black look of frost. Not white frost, to shine in the morning sun, but the black frost that the east wind brings.”

It is, let’s face it, unremittingly bleak. Why the hell did I choose it?

First published in The Apple Tree, Gollancz 1952. Collected in Murmurations, Two Ravens Press 2011

‘The Apple Tree’ by Daphne du Maurier

Not a Christmas story, and it starts in spring, but it ends in winter, as retired City financier ‘Buzz’ (we never find out his real name) finds himself the victim of a strange old apple tree in his garden orchard, that seems to have taken on the vindictive personality of his dead wife, the equally long-suffering and insufferable Midge. It’s a fine predictable ghost story of sorts, and prickly and sad about a painfully stuck marriage, but it’s the later pages, with deep snowfall and freezing temperatures, that make this a perfect curl-up-by-the-fire winter’s story – if they didn’t show up quite how historical such things are. I remember whited-out fields and knee-deep drifts in the southern England of my childhood, but my own children only really know snow as something far less bountiful, rarely producing more than a few scraped-together snowballs. They’ve tobogganed, yes, but they’ve had to pick where to steer so as not to go straight through the snow to grass. So yes, a sad story is best for winter, but the saddest story of all is the story of how winter has changed in this country, in a single lifetime. 

First collected in The Apple Tree, Gollancz, 1952, which collection is now available as a Virago Modern Classic, retitled The Birds and Other Stories

Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs. Jonathan is the author of two novels, Randall and The Large Door, and a book-length poem written under lockdown in 2020 – and modelled on Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal – called Spring Journal (CB Editions). He teaches Creative Writing at City, University of London, and curates the A Personal Anthology project. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.. 

‘Don’t Look Now’ by Daphne Du Maurier

For most people the phrase ‘don’t look now’ evokes a Nicolas Roeg movie. The story that inspired the cinematic masterpiece is very different in terms of detail, tone and structure, but packs a similar emotional punch and offers its own set of puzzles, ambiguities and weird set pieces. A carefully crafted tale of self-deception, misperception, sex and mystery, it’s also a compelling portrait of overwhelming loss and a relationship under pressure. The central characters, John and Laura, are adroitly realised: it’s easy to sympathise with Laura’s desperation and John’s impatience, as well as their shared grief, wit and sarcasm. The other key character is the city in which the story is set – Venice. The city’s canals, bridges and cramped, labyrinthine streets are key to the way events are foreshadowed and tension is ratcheted. The story couldn’t possibly be set in any other city. Du Maurier’s ability to create fear and wonder from conventional interactions in familiar places is key to this story’s well-deserved reputation as a classic of the modern gothic.

First collected in Not after Midnight, Victor Gollancz, 1971. Currently available as the title story in collections from Penguin Modern Classics and Pocket Classics, Virago Modern Classics and NYRB Classics

‘The Doll’ by Daphne du Maurier

I can’t handle contemporary horror but I love du Maurier and her modernist Freudian-horror flavour. The Birdsis a masterpiece. Then there’s this hysterical shocker, which is the filthiest 1930s story I’ve read (though maybe I’ve been sheltered), which pre-empts contemporary angst about sex robots. It’s not just the luridness that’s great, though; the story also deploys that “found narrative” framing device that I find irresistible every time.

First published in The Doll and Other Stories, Virago Modern Classics, 2011 – you can read about how it was discovered here– and available to read online here

‘Don’t Look Now’ by Daphne Du Maurier

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

‘Monte Verità’ by Daphne du Maurier

Monte Veritá is not one of du Maurier’s best-known stories but it is an astonishing piece and my favourite by her. An unnamed narrator and his friend, Victor, are mountaineers. Victor meets a quiet beauty, Anna, who unnerves our narrator with her preternatural calmness. Victor and Anna marry and soon go off to a mountain range in some unnamed Southern European country that contains Monte Veritá. One morning Anna disappears and Victor is told of that she has almost certainly been inducted into a strange sect that lives in isolation just below the summit of Monte Veritá. He goes off to discover if the myth is true… A stunningly original story of Truth, fidelity and denial with a cruel twist in its tale.

First published in 1952. In Don’t Look Now: Stories, ed. Patrick McGrath, New York Review Books, 2008. Also in The Birds: Stories, Virago, 2015.

‘Don’t Look Now’ by Daphne du Maurier

‘Don’t Look Now’ is wildly brilliant, and genuinely terrifying. A tale of grief, fantasy, and terror, it’s the kind of story I love – where something can turn, can pitch into an altogether different reality and register. The writing has an unsteady heartbeat to it, but a tightly controlled surface; my heart starts racing just thinking about it.

First published in 1971, by Victor Gollancz

‘Monte Verità’ by Daphne du Maurier

A newly-wed couple go on a mountaineering holiday in a remote region of an unnamed European country. They are warned by the locals not to climb Monte Verità as the wife will be inextricably drawn into the mysterious monastery at the summit of the mountain. Many of the young women of the village have been lost to the monastery, never to be seen again. Of course, the wife, who already has the strange light of the ‘called’ in her eyes, disappears in the middle of the night, before her husband can stop her. This story is reminiscent of Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of my favourite films, and is equally creepy and memorable.

(from The Birds and Other Stories)

‘The Blue Lenses’, by Daphne du Maurier

A decade ago  I compiled an anthology of Daphne du Maurier’s menacing short stories for the Folio Society, with an introduction by Patrick McGrath (this has since been republished by NYRB Classics). ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘The Birds’ are probably the best known, but to me ‘The Blue Lenses’ is the most sinister. A woman, Marda West (even her name is weirdly off-key), undergoes a serious eye operation. Weeks later, and once the bandages have been removed, with replacement lenses implanted, she perceives that the heads of her fellow humans have been gruesomely replaced with those of animals, the worst saved for those closest to her: her surgeon, her personal nurse and her husband. In 2015, like Marda in the story, I began a series of sight-saving operations. I’d completely forgotten about ‘The Blue Lenses’ till the morning of the first procedure, when it inconveniently came back to me in all its full horror. Du Maurier’s cleverness at building suspense into the everyday, using, as Patrick McGrath describes, a ‘reverse anthropomorphism’ to emphasise the old adage of seeing people as they truly are, is told with quiet matter-of-factness which only increases the helplessness and fear of both Marda and the reader. I’ve omitted the brilliant final twist.

(From The Breaking Point and Other Stories, 1959. Available in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, NYRB Classics, 2008, and The Breaking Point, Virago Modern Cassics, 2009)