Tag Archives: Horror & Suspense

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne readalong #5

5 stars5/5

I’ve been pretty busy lately and left my reading of the fifth Discovering Daphne choice rather late, but I’m rather glad now that I did as my tardiness resulted in me sitting down to read it in a couple of long reading sessions. When my mind is bothered by the to and fro of everyday life there is something really wonderful about holing myself up with a book, and what better novel to consume within thirty-six hours, than the utterly mesmerising Rebecca? I get a little anxious about re-reading much-loved books in case I find them lacking the second time around, but I needn’t have worried.

Avon press, 1971 paperback edition (first published in 1938), 380 pages - personal library

For those that don’t know the plot of this famous book, I’ll try to summarise without giving too much away. Rebecca is written from the point of view of a young un-named woman who while acting as a companion to a rather tactless and sycophantic American woman – Mrs Van Hopper – is introduced to Maximilian de Winter. Our protagonist who is hampered by a crushing sort of shyness and self-consciousness about her youth which she believes makes her terribly unsophisticated and unattractive, however Maxim de Winter is drawn to her in part because of her sweet and innocent nature. It seems that he is running away from some former life, seeking escape in this fresh young personality. When Mrs Van Hopper decides to leave Monte Carlo, where they are staying and go to her daughter in New York, Maxim makes a rather straightforward proposal to our narrator – that she should come and live with him as his second wife at Manderley, his grand estate in Cornwall back in England. The second Mrs de Winter is rapt by the beauty of Manderley and it’s wonderful gardens, yet from the moment that she sets foot in the house she feels ill at ease, not helped by the fact that the housekeeper Mrs Danvers who adored the first Mrs de Winter (Rebecca) looks down on her as an unwelcome intruder and unworthy second mistress to the great house.

Rebecca is a beautiful and disturbing novel about jealousy, hatred and obsession. The narrator, in her innocence should almost be irritating, yet because as a reader I was let into every little moment of her experience, I understood her fears and her little fluttering moments of joy – I sympathised with her as a friend might do. One moment she is full of anticipation and the next minute her spirit is crushed. She adores Maxim and in seeking to understand his feelings for his dead wife her mind runs away with her into dark tunnels, not helped by the disconcerting and ever-present personality of Mrs Danvers who adds to the seeds of doubt in her mind. I had forgotten some of the specifics about how the story plays out so on re-reading the novel I actually felt for the first half of the novel almost sympathetic to Mrs Danvers. Perhaps I thought, she is just looking for the new Mrs de Winter to step up and take charge, but after the fancy-dress ball I had to concede that she was simply cruel and twisted. If I really give her the benefit of the doubt I can see how being in the thrall of Rebecca might have made her that way but it is from the young Mrs de Winter’s perspective that the story is told so it is her that I really feel for.

Antique print of Menabilly, Cornwall - the inspiration for Manderley (from antique-prints-maps.com)

Perspective… I do wonder, how Rebecca would be as a novel if it was told from the point of view of the other characters. How would Mrs Danvers tell the story? How would Rebecca herself describe her life and relationship with Maxim before her death. Normally, I can’t help but have a sneaky respect for the anti-hero in a novel but somehow this just wasn’t so for me when reading Rebecca, but it does make me wonder if had we had Rebecca’s own account (as you might in a Wilkie Collins novel), or the story of her cousin Favel, I might have felt differently. Even though I was mentally in support of the second Mrs de Winter, I have to admit that she is just as blinded by obsessive love for Maxim de Winter as Mrs Danvers is for Rebecca’s memory.

Apart from a fabulous and twisted plotline one of the things that I find so special in Rebecca it is the atmosphere that du Maurier creates. The way that she personifies Manderley, making it into a living and breathing thing. It is part of the narrator’s nightmares and her dreams. I revelled in the descriptions of the gardens and the beautiful images that du Maurier creates, yet, almost every sentence holds a counter-point, an edge of darkness:

“The daffodils were in bloom, stirring in the evening breeze, golden heads cupped upon lean stalks… Too early yet for blue bells, their heads were still hidden beneath last year’s leaves, but when they came dwarfing the more humble violent, they choked the very bracken in their woods, and with their colour made a challenge to the sky.”

The unusual blood red colour of the rhododendrons, associated so closely with Rebecca suggest passion, but also something uncomfortable and unnatural. When the narrator returns to Manderley in her dreams she sees the gardens engulfed by ‘malevolent ivy’ and a ‘half-breed plant’. Reading these sinister and voluptuous  descriptions I was completely drawn into the world of Manderley with our narrator and shared her simultaneous sense of attraction and fear of the place.

I could go on forever about this novel. It is just so beautiful and absorbing, and also utterly unsettling because du Maurier fixes on the dark human fears and emotions that concern us all. As our narrator treads the thin line between perception and reality, so do we as readers question what is reasonable, who is right, and are reminded how slight the divide between happiness and ruin can be. It was also fascinating to read this novel after sampling a wide variety of du Maurier’s works this month. I smiled to myself as I noticed common themes – stormy seas, classical references (the ominous satyr in the garden) and mad urges to drive off a cliff reminded me of The House on the Strand, however even though I notice these trademarks more and more now, I always feel as if I’m experiencing something different with du Maurier. Of all her novels, I think this is the one that really gets under my skin and even though Jamaica Inn will always be my first love, I have to admit that I think Rebecca is du Maurier’s masterpiece.

Do pop over to read Simon’s thoughts at Savidge Reads and tell us what you thought of Rebecca as once we’ve come out of our Manderley haze I’m sure that we’ll do a bit of a wash-up post with links to the Discovering Daphne posts from this month.

I’ll also be putting up my thoughts on the spooky Don’t Look Now and Other Stories tomorrow (belatedly, but rather aptly on Halloween don’t you think?).

The Doll, by Daphne Du Maurier

4.5 stars4.5/5

The short stories collected in this new Virago edition of The Doll were only recently discovered and thank goodness they were!

The Doll, Daphne Du Maurier

Virago Press, paperback, 2011 edition, 224 pages - review copy.

As a big fan of Daphne Du Maurier, I found it fascinating to read her early work and gain an insight into the author who went on to write the wonderful Jamaica Inn and Rebecca.

I was quite surprised by some of the stories in the collection. The title work, The Doll is unsettling, and… I want to say racy! Du Maurier explores obsession and unrequited love and finishes the tale with a disturbing finale.

The opening story – East Wind, was one of my favourites. The lives of the inhabitants of a remote island are changed forever when a ship arrives. It breezes in, the sailors bringing with them drink and debauchery. The islanders are sucked into a sort of haze, so that when the wind changes and the ship finally leaves, the damage is irreparable.

Piccadilly and Maisie both feature prostitutes. Maisie spends a moment to reflect and dream about a better life before being sucked back into the game. She sees a vision of her future self, but blocks it out preferring to stay with her head in the sand. In Piccadilly, a young girl is led astray by the thief, she has fallen in love with. Well, is she lead astray? She sees signs, that she believes are compelling her along a certain path. Is she stupidly accepting or just resigned to the inevitable when she sees a message in red neon at the end of the platform?

The tale that really gave me the shivers was Tame Cat. Without giving away the main thread of the story, I can say that the main character is a girl who discovers that growing into an attractive young woman is not necessarily as lovely as she expects.

There were a couple of depressing, anecdotal stories about relationships, which seemed cynical for the sake of it – perhaps Daphne was just working out some issues! Otherwise, this collection is as chilling as any of Du Maurier’s other works. For me it is as if in these early stories, she serves up in individual dollops the ideas that she subsequently brought into her later novels. A compelling read for any lover of Du Maurier and a fascinating introduction for those not yet inducted.

Are you a lover of Daphne Du Maurier or are you yet to discover her?

Look out for another Daphne Du Maurier related post going up today with a special announcement from Savidge Reads and myself. You can also read his thoughts on The Doll over at his blog.

Novel Insights’ March Review

March has been a funny mix of reads on Novel Insights! I started the month with a crime-wave of sorts, but also randomly read some spooky short stories, a social commentary on Egypt and a Chilean novel. Here’s the summary, favourites first:

Lasting Damage, by Sophie Hannah

4.5 stars4.5/5

“…delivered a typically twisted finale.”

Lasting Damage

 

 

 

 

The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson

4 stars 4/5

“…a brilliant bite-sized selection of unsettling moments and everyday horrors.”

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, The Tooth, Shirley Jackson

 

 

 

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany

4 stars4/5

“…vibrant characters and an engaging narrative.”

The Yacoubian Building

A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah

3.5 stars3.5/5

“…a couple of little frustrations for me… overall a cracking page-turner…”

A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah

 

 

 

 

The Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

3.5 stars3.5/5

…playfully written…”

Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

 

 

 

 

What were your favourite reads in March?

The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson

4 stars4/5

After so enjoying two other editions from the Penguin Mini Classics set, I bought a copy of The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson. What a curious collection! Of the five stories in the book, I found three brilliant and the other two a little baffling.

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, The Tooth, Shirley Jackson

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, 2011 edition (paperback), 70 pages - own purchase.

The highlights for me were the shortest stories The Lottery, Charles and The Witch. All three sent shivers down my spine. In Charles and The Witch the stories are set in quite an ordinary situation, but as you read on, Jackson introduces an element of unease and plants an uncomfortable idea about what might be happening. These two stories also centre around the behaviour of children and what they might be capable of. The Lottery is more about community and the ability of the collective to affect the will of an individual.

The Tooth is the longest story in the book and I freely admit that I didn’t ‘get it’. It describes the experience of a young woman who travels to the city on her own to have her tooth extracted. I found it a little disorientating – which incidentally, is probably the point. In her drugged up, post-op state the woman experiences dreamlike moments of confusion. I thought it was evocative but something was missing for me because it was a little too abstract. I felt the same also with the final story – The Intoxicated.

I think that it is actually to be expected when reading stories designed to be disturbing that a reader should be more affected by some than others, if only because certain ideas will make a specific person feel more uneasy than others. As a collection I thought The Toothwas a brilliant bite-sized selection of unsettling moments and everyday horrors.

More Mini Moderns: You can read my reviews of other Mini Moderns – Children on their Birthdays, by Truman Capote (4/5), and Through The Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (5/5), and see a list of other blogger’s reviews of this excellent series at the Curious Book Fans blog. Savidge Reads also read The Tooth and loved it.

Have you read any Shirley Jackson stories?

Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

3.5 stars3.5/5

Published in 1872, Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula, by 25 years, and is the account of a young woman named Laura who unwittingly becomes susceptible to the attentions of a female vampire.

Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

112 pages, Downloaded via the Eucalyptus App for iPhone (Picture is from the 2000 Prime Classics Library edition).

While thinking of a book choice for the November Novella Challenge II, I remembered that I had downloaded this Gothic Novella on my iPhone (Eucalyptus App) and so decided to read the book that influenced Dracula and countless lesbian vampire films!

I found Carmilla to be written in an easy and engaging style. Le Fanu makes good use of description to create atmosphere and form images in the reader’s mind but doesn’t divert too much from the plot which progresses at a good pace. I was quite enchanted by one description of the landscape of Styria (in Austria) where the story is set:

“We sat down on a rude bench, under a group of magnificent lime trees. The sun was setting with all its melancholy splendor behind the sylvan horizon, and the stream that flows beside our home and passes under the steep old bridge I have mentioned, wound through many a group of noble trees, almost at our feet, reflecting in its current the fading crimson of the sky.”

While most people now would not consider Carmilla to be a frightening story it does have an eerie creeping atmosphere and Le Fanu creates intrigue by dropping hints (not always subtle) about the danger that threatens Laura along the way, like the fact that a friend’s daughter has recently died in strange circumstances.

“The fiend who betrayed our infatuated hospitality has done it all.”

There is a heavily suggested sexual dynamic between Laura and Carmilla, which adds a more disturbing dimension to the story. The vampire, who takes pleasure in prolonging full possession of her victim, is grooming Laura. While Carmilla seems almost in love with Laura at times, it becomes apparent as the book goes on that the passion that she displays is a result of her lust for blood.

“Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering…”

Carmilla is definitely worth reading if you are at all interested in the gothic genre. It is a much better story than The Castle of Otranto (which I read a few months ago), because it has the right balance between being melodramatic in parts and also well written. It is also a much quicker read than Dracula if you fancy curling up for an afternoon and devouring (excuse the pun) a vampire story in one sitting.

Have you read any novels that you would recommend in the gothic genre?

If you are interested in the November Novella Challenge you can find details by clicking on the lovely button below:

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I’ve wanted to read a Sarah Waters novel for a while, so when The Little Stranger was chosen for my book group at work I was really pleased. I was promised a creepy old house, spooky goings on and shivers down my spine and I wasn’t disappointed, although the story was more than the sum of its parts.

The story begin with the impressions of protagonist and narrator, Doctor Faraday as a child taking in the glory of grand Hundreds Hall. Years later in the post-WW2 era, now an adult, he returns to the house at the request of the  residents the Ayres family who inhabit the house which has fallen into disrepair and the family fortunes have dwindled. The Ayres are struggling to maintain the crumbling house while seemingly being unable to keep pace with a society that is changing around them. At the same time the house appears haunted by something  sinister when strange events begin to occur.

The central theme of the book – the haunting, made for brilliant book group fodder (and reading) because Waters keeps it ambiguous and sows lots of little seeds which means that I came up with lots of theories as it went along. In some regards it reminded me a little of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw in the way that Waters inspires a vague, unsettling feeling as the book goes on, although in contrast to James, I felt I could actually develop quite a clear conviction about what might be happening which I found more satisfying.

I found the ‘horror’ in the book to be very slow-building. The book sets the scene in detail and you shouldn’t expect jumps on every page. Some members of the group found this to be quite frustrating but I felt that the overall impact was very effective as Waters really visualises the house and family members for you through the eyes of the doctor so that it’s like you are there! I made an effort, and I recommend you do if you choose this novel, to try to find relaxed moments in which to read chunks of it at once as you need to give yourself time to fully get involved.

The characters in the novel all have complex personalities, most notably the Doctor, whose narration allows us a window into the house. Having moved up from being the son of a servant at Hundreds Hall to being a doctor, pushed by his parents, he is in many ways a symbol of the way that class structure was changing in England at this time. However at the same time, he resists modernity with worries about what will happen when a National Health Service is introduced, and his desire to return to Hundreds Hall which is anything but progressive.

The Inhabitants of Hundreds Hall are Carolyn Ayres, a plain but wilful woman, her brother Roddie who is also the heir but somehow struggles with stepping up to the role, and Mrs Ayres the fading matriarch of the household. Together they make a sad but fascinating group who seem to be dwindling into obscurity along with Hundreds.

I was super-impressed with how Waters managed to bring together so many complex social and psychological themes, while writing descriptive but useful (not flowery) prose and also working these things into what I call a ‘proper story’. I don’t think that it will be everyone’s cup of tea, as it is a slow-burner and it’s not a straightforward ghost story but the suspense and action does escalate in the second half of the book. I loved this book and I will definitely be reading more Sarah Waters novels in future.

Have you read The Little Stranger, and if so what did you think?

What Sarah Waters novels have you read (if any)?

Book Review – Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

Don't Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne Du MaurierWhen I was compiling my list of books to take on holiday, I was delighted to find that there was a Daphne Du Maurier short story called Don’t Look Now which was set in Venice. In typical Du Maurier style, Don’t Look Now is a little masterpiece of suspense fiction. It drew me in and gave me a short sharp shock that left me decidedly unnerved.

In the story, John and Laura visit Venice to try to find an escape from the pain of the loss of their daughter and to help patch up their relationship. While out for lunch one day they encounter two old women – twins – one of which is blind and appears to have second sight. They make an alarming prophecy. Instead of finding solace on their holiday, John and Laura find themselves entangled in a series of strange events.

Quite simply, Don’t Look Now is one of the creepiest short stories I’ve ever read. I’m sure that it didn’t help that I was in Venice at the time of reading it but I think even without that it would have frightened me.

What I thought was so effective about the story was that the characters of John and Laura were so plausible, their conversations so typical in the way that they joked with each other and then argued over the Twin’s prediction. John takes the rational route, where Laura feels that there could be something in it. Are they really in danger or is Laura just overwrought after the loss of her daughter? It’s actually a pretty sad state of affairs, but Du Maurier is a totally unsentimental author which I think is part of why I love her writing so much.

I’ve only read one of the other stories from this compilation, (Not After Midnight) which I thought was good but nothing like Don’t Look Now. I would totally sanction buying the book just for this one tale though as I haven’t found as suspenseful short story since I read Sophie Hannah’s The Octopus Nest from The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets.

Don’t read Don’t Look Now if you’re easily spooked!

Have you read any really good short stories recently?