As I was working through a pile of books that didn’t quite work for me, I was glad to have this new collection of Daphne du Maurier stories to return to. For one thing, my enjoyment of these stories convinced me that my lack of enthusiasm for the other books I was reading couldn’t entirely be attributed to a cantankerous mood. For another, these stories are good.
Most of the 13 stories in this collection were published either in the 1920s and 1930s in various magazines and anthologies or in the 1955 collection Early Stories. All were written before du Maurier was 23 years old, and her potential as a storyteller is present in each and every story.
All of these stories have some sort of dark element at their core. Sometimes the darkness is in the form of a nasty twist at the end, as in the opening story “The East Wind” in which a temporary madness overtakes a seaside village or in “Nothing Hurts for Long” in which a wife’s self-assurance about her marriage gets called into question. This latter story is one of several examples of stories in which the main character is shown to be unaware of the potential disasters around them. In “Tame Cat,” for example, a teenage girl makes herself a target for gossip and jealousy when she naively misinterprets a man’s affections. And then there are the characters who aren’t what they seem. The priest in “And Now to God the Father” appears to be a perfect man of God, as long as you don’t think too much about what a man of God ought to be. Sometimes the darkness has a comic twist, as in “Frustration,” the story of a just-married couple that seems unable to get even a single moment alone.
Perhaps the oddest story in the collection is the title story, purportedly the transcript of a sodden journal found between the crevices of a rock in a bay. In the story’s opening, a Dr. E. Strongman, the man who found the journal, speculates that the journal’s owner drowned himself or wandered away to escape the tragedy described in the journal’s pages. The tragedy involves a women intriguingly named Rebecca who bewitched the journal’s owner with her beauty and talent. The revelation that turned him against her is excessively strange, but what interested me about it is what the secret he discovers represents. The horror here is not in what he learned, perhaps, but in two ideas: (1) That a woman can be utterly self-sufficient, not needing a man and (2) That a woman can have a strong sex drive. Which of these facts sent him over the edge?
Although there were aspects of every story that I liked, a couple of them stand out as less successful. “The Happy Valley” seems to be about a woman who can see the future, or is it the past? And does it matter? I like ambiguity, but none of the possibilities are developed enough. “The Limpet” is a sometimes wickedly funny story of a woman who manipulates everyone into doing what she wants, all while claiming to be a victim. The idea is good, but the story itself goes on too long. (I’ve come to the conclusion that I like my short stories really short.)
I’d only read one of du Maurier’s stories (“The Birds,” which I loved) before reading this collection, which I’ve seen some readers classify as lesser du Maurier. If these are her less successful stories, I’m excited to dig into her best ones!