I hope that you like Daphne Du Maurier (1907 - 1989).
Because if you don't, you won't want to read a sizeable number of my book reviews over the next 18 months or so. After two years semi-immersion in Rudyard Kipling, it's now time for something similar between me and Miss Du Maurier.
In 1952 London-born Du Maurier issued a collection of six novellas and short stories called THE APPLE TREE, named for one of the stories. Almost immediately the same collection was reissued by another publisher (for the U.S. market?) titled THE BIRDS AND OTHER STORIES. Years later English movie director Alfred Hitchcock acquired the movie rights to "The Birds," changed its setting from Cornwall to Bodega Bay, California and released it in 1963, as a feature film starring newcomer Tippi Hedren.
All six of the 1952 tales deserve four star or better ratings. In my opinion, the most memorable is Monte Verita. I save it for last in this review and content myself with sketching the plots of the other five as follows:
--(1) "The Birds," 7 - 43
"On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter" (8). So begins "The Birds." For workman Nat Hocken, autumn, the best season for his beloved bird watching had suddenly ended. Many kinds of birds winter in Cornwall, always in peace. But now there are far too many birds. And they are aggressive. They attack Ned's house, wife and children. The next day the wireless informs the family that the killer birds are everywhere, even in London. An Arctic air stream covers the British Isles, driving birds south. The birds are planners, they coordinate attacks with the rise and fall of the tides. Warplanes and naval vessels vainly attack the birds. The BBC stops broadcasting. Ned to wife: "There isn't going to be any news," said Nat. "We've got to depend upon ourselves" (37). They then heard "the first thud of the suicide gulls upon the step" (42).
--(2) "The Apple Tree," 114 - 157
"It was three months after she died that he first noticed the apple tree" (114). That nearly dead itself tree had to be dead wife Midge come back to torment him! "He could not remember Midge ever losing her temper or quarrelling. It was the undercurrent of reproach, mingled with suffering nobly borne, spoilt the atmosphere of his home and drove him to a sense of furtiveness and guilt" (116). The apple tree knew how to take revenge. She produced sour fruit. Even chopped down, her wood would not burn. Her stump could be a trap for the unwary.
--(3) "The Little Photographer," 158 - 201, begins: "The Marquise lay on her chaise-longue on the balcony of the hotel" (158). She was on holiday with her daughters on the coast. Business had made her husband break his promise to join them. She is beautiful and knows it but, oh, the tedium! She had been born upper middle class, her husband the marquis was an immensely rich aristocrat. Her old school chum Elise takes lovers. What Madame la Marquise needs is "passion between strangers" (163). And the marquise finds it with crippled Monsieur Paul, poor but gifted local photographer hired to make portraits of her children. At noontimes they make love high on a cliff. She decides to break the liaison off but he will not hear of it. The results are frightening.
--(4) "Kiss Me Again, Stranger," 202 - 226
"I looked around for a bit, after leaving the army and before settling down, and then I found myself up Hampstead way..." (202). Then I met a gorgeous usherette at the cinema. She was very cool to me, but I was smitten. She got on a bus, I followed and sat beside her. She let me put an arm around her. We rode to the end of the line, a long way from where I lodged. In a coffee shop she looked hungrily at an anti-woman Air Force chap (212). Before we left off our tombstone lovemaking in a graveyard, she asked me: "Kiss me again, stranger" (218). Next day they found his corpse. Lucky for me, I had told her that I was army, not R.A.F. She hated all fliers after a German bomb had killed her parents in the late war. Three airmen have been murdered in three weeks, each time near a graveyard, "ripped right up the guts" (225). Simple revenge? Or might she be a vampire?
--(5) "The Old Man," 227 - 237
"I don't remember when he (the old man) first came. Nobody can" (227). It was long before the war. He and his missus lived here beside the lake -- in a funny sort of "lash-up." But they didn't complain. A big fellow he was who sometimes gets fighting mad, even if he's not as young as he used to be. More plot would entail spoilers.
By the way, this story has one of the all time greatest "surprise" endings in English literature! Amen!
--(6) "Monte Verita," 44 - 113.
Daphne Du Maurier writes perceptively about religion(s) although she is not personally empathetic to those worshipping a male father God who is distinct and aloof from His created universe. She preferred her gods to be female, mothering, immanent within the earth itself.
"Monte Verita (Truth Mountain) is the story of two Englishmen -- Victor and the unnamed narrator -- who went through school and then Cambridge together, lifelong best friends, in the process becoming passionate amateur mountain climbers together before World War One.
Victor married Welsh Anna. The narrator was, of course, best man, immediately falling in love with Anna himself. Victor took austerely living, religiously seeking Anna for, allegedly, her first ever mountain climbing in a remote, unspecified part of Italy or somewhere else in Southern Europe.
Planning to ascend together mysterious even hated Monte Verita (Truth Mountain), they lost contact with each other at night. Anna climbed alone to the peak where she joined an otherworldly, perhaps extraterrestrial monastic group of beautiful people who worshipped moon and sun and who believed they would remain beautiful, pain and sickness free and live happily albeit austerely and in silence forever. Every year, even throughout World War One, late in the climbing season, Anna's husband Victor climbs to the shunned, fortified monastery to exchange notes with Anna. He had seen her there only once.
Decades later, late in 1937 or 1938, the now America-based nameless narrator's passenger plane makes a crash landing not far from Monte Verita. He has a vacation coming, decides to take up mountain climbing again and by sheer coincidence finds a dying Victor in a hamlet hut far up the slopes yet still below the peak, It is clear that enraged people of valley and hamlet are about to take up arms, destroy the fortress and kill the inhabitants who are blamed for the latest voluntary disappearance of a local peasant girl who has become a novice there.
Victor persuades his friend to climb to the top of Monte Verita and give his final letter to Anna. This the narrator does, is admitted to the interior during worship of the sun, meets Anna, declares his love and warns of the coming attack. Anna, the sun- and moon-worshipping monastery's abbess or high priestess, thanks him, sends him back to console her husband Victor and assures him that the monks and nuns have no need to fear the irate people from the valley.
This great, great story echoes themes of the equally great Du Maurier novel THE SCAPEGOAT. Men are not good at managing women. But women profit from firm direction. Religion is important. But true religion may look like something from outer space or Druidism. Men and women are made to seek truth. Perfect as Monte Verita is, it is no Eden. But I will drop no spoilers.
Bottom line: THE BIRDS AND OTHER STORIES are six of the greatest shorter tales you will ever have the pleasure of reading.
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