Discovering Daphne Du Maurier

I love that moment when you come cross a new or old author, undiscovered until chance finds you in their section at the local bookshop, or someone recommends them to you, or you just stumble across a book you bought years ago and have been meaning to read but has gathered dust behind the bookshelf somewhere, amongst a pile of similarly unread copies.

During my last, annual trip to the Hay Literary Festival and the beautiful town of Hay on Wye in Mid Wales, as predicted, I bought many more books than I promised myself I would, with no idea of where they would fit into my small bedroom, on my tiny bookshelf. One was a collection of Short stories by Daphne Du Maurier, best known for her suspense story ‘The Birds’, which was made into a film by Director Alfred Hitchcock. The film would make both Hitchcock and it’s author famous. A few years ago I read Rebecca for the first time and from the very first page and those chilling opening lines, Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’ I was hooked. I followed the novels every twist and turn, thinking of it in pretty much every waking moment and in my dreams. The character of Rebecca seemed so real, so transcendental that she haunted my thoughts. On finishing the book, I had the rare sense that it would stay with me, probably for much of my adult life.

It was years later that on returning to Hay Festival and browsing in one of my favourite book shops in the town, I came across a collection of Du Maurier’s short stories, which included ‘The Birds’. At this point it was the only short story of hers that I knew well. I had come across ‘Don’t look now’ while studying for my English and Creative Writing degree but did not remember much about it, aside from the underlying creepy tone to it and the shocking revelation at the end of the film version we had been shown. A few weeks ago I began reading that book of short stories, a lovely Virago edition, with a deep purple cover and modern, colourful illustrations, which held a gothic/mystery theme.

‘The Birds’ was first. I remembered the film as I’m a huge Hitchcock fan and it’s one of my favourite films. But to read the story which began the legacy, was really exciting. The suspense element was there as expected, the slow build up as characters are introduced and unsettling things begin to happen. But the ending, the final few lines of that page, left me amazed, frustrated and in awe. I flipped the page, searching for another paragraph or further explanation, I checked to see if pages were missing. But eventually realised that Du Maurier had in fact chosen to leave her incredible mystery at that point during the story. The moment when the family are preparing for their second attack by the birds, their neighbours dead and no news of help on the radio, the father taking the last cigarette from a pack he had been saving. Du Maurier had done it again. She had left me astonished, haunted and wondering what happened to those characters awaiting their fate. I finished the book of short stories within a week or two.

I happened to be visiting family, near Hay on Wye, when I finished the book. With an afternoon free, I decided that Hay was the place I could find what I was looking for, more books to feed by new obsession. During that trip I picked up two other collections of Du Maurier’s short stories, as well as Jamaica Inn (which I haven’t read since School) and The House on the Strand, all but one were the wonderful Virago print editions. There’s something satisfying and magical about finding a complete collection of books with identical covers. I really enjoyed scouring the shelves of half a dozen book shops in the hope of finding the one book I was looking for (originally I was just searching for Jamaica Inn). A lost art in today’s society, governed by online retailers and e books. I also picked up new books by Author’s I had read in the past and long forgotten, as well as classics I had never read. These might be the start of a new journey.

One of my books contains the story ‘Don’t look now’ which I decided to re read to remind myself of the story that had left me with such a disturbed feeling, imagining it probably wasn’t just down to the work of the film maker as I had perhaps thought with The Birds.

Du Maurier is one of the best suspense writers I have come across. She can set up a situation and draw you in to the story, linking you closely with the characters before pulling the ground from under you, sending you spiralling in a different direction before she leaves you haunted by her final words. Reading her work has inspired me to return to short story writing, to immerse myself in the world of suspense.