A classic of alienation and horror, ‘The Birds’ was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man’s sense of dominance over the natural world.
The mountain paradise of ‘Monte Verità’ promises immortality, but at a terrible price; a neglected wife haunts her husband in the form of an apple tree; a professional photographer steps out from behind the camera and into his subject’s life; a date with a cinema usherette leads to a walk in the cemetery; and a jealous father finds a remedy when three’s a crowd . .
There are six stories in ‘The Birds and other stories’, the first five of which I liked:
- The Birds: a piece of speculative fiction about how humans react to a sudden and deadly change in their environment
- Monte Verità: a story about the pursuit of a life beyond the ordinary
- The Apple Tree: an unusual ghost story
- The Little Photographer: a story of indolent self-indulgence leading to violence and grief.
- Kiss Me Again, Stranger: an encounter with a stranger that changes the life of an otherwise ordinary man
I found each of the fiche stories to be deeply engaging. They’re original, character-driven, vivid, surprisingly modern and quite different from one another. I strongly recommend them.
I’ve reviewed each of the first five stories below. The final story, The Old Man didn’t work for me so I haven’t reviewed it.
Forget the Hitchcock movie, We’re not in California in the 1960s. We’re in coastal Cornwall shortly after the war. There’s no Tippi Hedren character delivering lovebirds. There’s just an observant, self-reliant farmworker, living in an isolated cottage on a peninsula, trying to ensure that his family survive an inexplicable and lethal change in the world.
The original story is forty pages of slowly intensifying threat as what starts out as a shocking aberration, a nighttime incursion into the children’s bedroom by apparently desperate small birds, lashing out in terror and confusion, but becomes something more sinister, more deadly and much harder to take in – all the different species of birds working together in an organised way to attack humanity.
‘The Birds’ is threaded through with threat, made larger by vivid violence and the struggle to accept the inexplicable but undeniable.
The thing that I liked most about the story was the skilful way in which, in a very few pages. Du Maurier turns a ‘No, that’s not possible‘ incredible idea into a grim, deadly, hope extinguishing reality. This is largely done by counterpointing the bizarre idea of an organised mass attack on humanity by all the birds working together with the observations and reactions of a very down to earth, uncharismatic farm worker who demonstrates the mental flexibility to accept and adapt to the reality of the threat and the focus and courage to do what can be done to ensure that his family survives. He is a man who understands terror and helplessness and who has no expectation of ‘the authorities’ doing anything to help him. He lived through the bombing of Plymouth and knows what it is to shelter in fear from an attack by a force you can’t defeat or deflect but only endure.
If ‘The Birds’ has a message, it’s that the world is not safe, new threats can emerge at any time and that survival depends on staying vigilant, adapting quickly and spending your energy on doing what you can to protect yourself and your family without waiting for outside help. That’s an interesting insight into the mentality of post-war England.
I was fascinated by the contrast between style and content in this story. In tone, it reads like an adventure that might have been written at the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth century – think H Rider Haggard’s ‘She’ or Edgar Rice Burrough’s ‘Tarzan’; yet the structure is much more modern than that – the narrative starts at the end of the story, sharing an outcome that we lack the context to understand, and then turning back in time to calibrate the loss that the start of the story describes.
The main characters are Englishmen, born to privilege at the start of the twentieth century, one a landowner with a country seat and one an international businessman. Mountain climbing is their shared passion, although one approaches the mountain with caution buttressed by careful planning while the other constantly falls under the spell of the mountains which call to him to climb to higher and more remote places. Their lives change when one of them meets and marries Anna, an extraordinary woman that they both fall in love with and who, eventually disappears into a strange, isolated community at the top of Monte Verità, the mountain of truth.
With its whispers of magic and immortality, the story seems to echo Haggard’s ‘She’ with Anna as a mystical twist on she-who-must-be obeyed; but, when the secret of the sect is finally revealed, the thinking behind it is not something any nineteenth-century mind would have come up with, it is too stripped of romance and too challenging of the values of our day-to-day lives.
The two disruptive ideas behind this story, the ones that mark it as the product of a mid-twentieth century generation that has lived through two world wars that have reshaped the world, are that: serenity is found only by those who hunger for and are prepared to accept the unvarnished truth and that the world hates truth-based serenity and reacts to is with violence, not just because it is beyond their reach but because the existence of such serenity undermines the value of their day-to-day lives, challenges the dream that they choose to live in and calls away their best and brightest.
I found this to be a particularly disturbing ghost story, not because the ghost was so terrifying but because the portrait of the man, haunted by the spirit of the man, haunted by the spirit of his recently deceased wife, is so vivid and so damning.
I had thought that the most challenging thing about this story might be making the idea that a man might be haunted by an old apple tree that has long stood outside his house but which now reminds him, by its abject posture and barrens, of his dead wife. Daphne du Maurier pulled that off easily. The haunting is suggested rather than explicit. No one but the haunted man see anything wrong with the tree or its fruit but he can tolerate neither. Even the way in which the tree brought harm to the man need not be attributed to anything supernatural but the man himself sees nothing but malice in what befalls him.
The most challenging part of the story turned out to be the way in which Daphne du Maurier slowly brought me not only to have no sympathy for the haunted man but rather to despise him. We meet him three months after his wife’s death when he notices the apple tree for the first time. We follow his actions as he adjusts to life as a widower and reflects on how it differs from his married life. There is no overt condemnation in the authorial voice. It remains a dispassionate narrator of events and the man’s interior reflections and memories. Yet, with each thing I learned about the man, the more real he became to me and the less I liked him.
He is a naturally solitary, mildly hedonistic man who wants nothing of life except to be left alone to enjoy it. He has no need to connect with the people around him. He prefers to swim among them anonymously, while he takes his pleasure. He is the kind of man who does not seem to be temperamentally suited for married life. This, I could have understood and forgiven. Yet he did marry and he had reached the point where he saw his wife as the bane of his existence. The first examples he gives of she brings misery to his life seem convincing enough but bit by bit it becomes clear that he has, for many years, withheld himself from his wife, rejecting and belittling her and making her unhappy.
The details of who this man is and how he thinks and behaves build slowly, like wind-driven leaves piling up in a corner, until my distaste for him was palpable. He was not a monster. Sadly, he is the kind of man it is not at all hard to imagine existing in their thousands. He would see himself as a perfectly reasonable man, burdened with an unsuitable wife, who, now that she’s dead, is finally free to live as he pleases.
Which brings me to the haunting.
It’s tempting to attribute to this unlikeable man a lack of self-knowledge. I found myself thinking of a question asked in ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’
“Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?”
It’s plausible that he’s the kind of man who is so easily comfortable with himself because he never truly sees himself.
Do apple trees really haunt people? Do dead wives, who suffered years of emotional neglect, come back and haunt their husbands?
Does a man who has been suppressing what he knows about himself find his subconscious eating away at him, tainting the lie that his life has become, forcing him to face the truth and change or hold on to the lie and take the consequences?
What I like most about this story is that Daphne du Maurier leaves me to pose the question and to from my own answer to it.
‘The Little Photographer’ is a character-driven story structured around a crime and its consequences but the power of the piece comes not from the crime but from the portrait of the woman who commits it.
Daphne du Maurier shows us the world as seen by Madame la Marquise as she sojourns at a luxury hotel somewhere on the French Riviera in the company of her two little girls and their English nanny. Her husband has chosen to pay attention to his business affairs rather than join her. She is bored, not just with her life at the hotel but with the monotony of the life that she has married into, surrounded by old things and old people, locked into routines that never vary. The only solace the Marquise finds in her boredom is her own beauty and the admiration that it generates whenever she appears in public.
The story is told at a pace that fits the indolence and ennui of the Marquise as she seeks stimulation and admiration wherever she can find it. Her narcissism dominates her life. She is obsessed with herself to the point where she is incapable of seeing the people around her as real. They exist for her only to the extent that they satisfy or frustrate her desires.
What I liked most about the story was the way, caught up in the dream of her own image, the Marquise falls into an affair with a local photographer with no more agency than if she were sleepwalking. The man has talent but he is poor and has a clubfoot that limits his mobility. The Marquis is interested in him primarily because she sees him as having been instantly enslaved by her beauty. She thinks only of herself. She seeks only to bathe in the admiration of a man besotted by her. She has no awareness of either risks or consequences.
The crime follows when she is violently woken from her dream and made to see the sordid mess she has created and the threat it poses to her privileged life. Her reaction is exactly what I would expect from someone so self-obsessed.
I wondered if Daphne du Maurier was going to let this privileged woman escape the consequences of her crime. I should have realised by now that her answer would be more ambiguous than that. The range of consequences that Marquise will face is only hinted at by the end of the story, with freedom still being a possibility, albeit at a price.
I had wondered why Daphne du Maurier decided that the photographer should have a clubfoot. I couldn’t see why that particular disadvantage was necessary. It was the Marquis, who arrived to pick up his wife at the end of the story, who gave me the answer. He explained to his wife that a friend of his had had a clubfoot but that it hadn’t hindered him from marrying a beautiful, healthy woman. Yet, when their son was born, he too had a clubfoot. The taint in the blood could not be bred out.
Nothing is made of this remark. The Marquise doesn’t seem to register its implications. Her mind is occupied with more pressing matters. I was left wondering whether this signified that there would be at least one consequence from which the Marquise could not escape.
‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ is another character piece but this time the character is a nice but ordinary man who has a close encounter with a beautiful but strange cinema usherette that, through the filters of his innate decency, he fails fully to understand until it is over.
Told as a first-person account of a man looking back on a defining moment of his life, the power of the story comes from the tension between the incidental details that reveal the narrator to be a good man or modest means and ambitions to whom something extraordinary has happened and the growing sense of threat that the reader feels like a too-fast pulse beneath the fingers but which the narrator is completely blind to.
It’s a simple story, skilfully told. It delivers a quiet sense of dread while drawing a vivid picture of a quietly contented man who, after being de-mobbed from the Army, has built a new life for himself as a mechanic, only to have the limits and omissions of that life revealed when he meets someone who wakes in him a hunger for something more.