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..
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
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
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 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’ 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
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)
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)