A vibration, very far off, chafing the air

The Greatcoat
by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore, who sadly died on 5 June, spent the last years of her life in Bristol. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of her books and I wanted to honour her by reading one I had heard praised many times. It doesn’t hurt that this book was part of the launch of Hammer Books – a horror imprint from Arrow Books and the great film studio Hammer.

The story is set at the end of 1952. Winter is closing in on the small Yorkshire town where Isabel has moved with her new husband, Philip. He’s a doctor, working at the local surgery. She’s educated and would like to work, but Philip is keen for her to learn how keep house and prepare herself for motherhood. This leaves her sat at home struggling to learn to cook with still-rationed food, or out meeting other housewives who make it clear her education marks her as different. She’s lonely.

“She put her hands on the cold sill, ready to draw her head back inside, but a sound arrested her: a vibration, very far off, chafing the air. She listened for a long time but the sound wouldn’t come any closer and wouldn’t define itself. As it faded it pulled at her teasingly, like a memory that she couldn’t touch, until the town was silent.”

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Even the moonlight could not give it beauty

the-birds-and-other-storiesThe Birds and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an excellent collection of short stories. The tales are all weird, spooky, dark with flashes of humour.

The title story is the one that Hitchcock adapted into the film of the same name, but there is little resemblance between book and film. Both are excellent but I was surprised by quite how different they are. Du Maurier’s story centres on farm labourer Nat who lives on the Cornwall coast with his wife and two children. There’s no glamorous California or pet shop but there is the added peril of children being in danger. The birds on the attack are truly terrifying.

However, my favourite story was “The apple tree”, in which a widow becomes convinced that a sick old tree is taunting him with the spirit of his dead wife. It sounds ridiculous but is in fact a brilliant story that includes many of the same themes as Rebecca.

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Under the Dark Moon

The Invisible Circus
Bristol Old Vic, 10 April 2015

Photo by Joe Clarke
Photo by Joe Clarke.

From the opening shadow theatre sequence, Under the Dark Moon‘s atmosphere of macabre beauty combined with the blackest humour is clear. The silhouettes of elegant dancers are chased across the stage by giants. A child won’t stop eating, becoming grotesque.

When “Old Victor”, the ringleader/storyteller (see what they did there?), introduces his troupe, he invites us – even implores us – to delight in their misfortune, to laugh at their pain and sorrow. They have suffered for their art, and he positively encourages that. One by one he tells their stories, and while there is plenty of clowning fun, they don’t shy away from plumbing the depths of human despair.

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October reading round-up

Dorothy Canfield, 1907.
(Dorothy Canfield, 1907)

Ah autumn, time of cold weather and rain when the best thing in the world is snuggling up with a book. Well, we had two weeks of that and then it got warm again; weirdly warm. And then I wasted a week reading a book I disliked (more on that tomorrow), so my reading completed list doesn’t look too impressive this month.

I had planned to read some horror for Halloween, maybe some Daphne du Maurier, but the closest I got was making a start on David Mitchell‘s new book The Bone Clocks, which sounds spookier than it is, though I have a feeling that might change when I get further in. I did, however, watch the film of Gone Girl, which is super disturbing in an entertaining kind of way. I haven’t read the book as I’d heard mixed reports about it, but I think now I’d quite like to, even if I do now know all the twists and turns of the plot.

A quick catch-up on my reading aims/challenges for the year, as I only have two months left to get where I want to be with them! I’ve read nine popular-science books, so I only need to read one more of those. I’ve read seven books in translation, which is not so good. I was hoping for one per month but that would be more catching up than I have time left for. Must do better on that front next year. And as for science fiction, I’ve read six so far this year, which is as many as I read total in 2013 so I only need to fit in one more to achieve my aim of reading more SF!

Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley (my review)

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (my review)

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley (my review)

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (my review)

Short stories
“The magic barrel” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel)

“The first seven years” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel, available online here)

“The mourners” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel)

“The bill” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel, available online here)

“The girl of my dreams” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel)

“The sexes” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

“In the throes: the precious thoughts of an author at work” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The standard of living” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The waitress” by Robert Coover (Selected Shorts podcast)

This, which seems like time, must be instantaneous

The Victorian Chaise-longue
by Marghanita Laski

Almost exactly a year ago I went on what I hope will be the first of many trips to Persephone Books in London and, as well as being bought a book by my lovely friend H, I bought this book for myself on the back of several glowing reviews I had read around the internets. I can now add to all the glowing praise with some of my own!

I love end papers

This novella could well be described as sci-fi horror, but it’s both easier to read and more deeply soul-searching than that implies. It explores, through a deceptively simple story, questions about life, death, love, illness, pain, secrets and probably other things that I missed. (Simon of Savidge Reads wrote a fascinating review of this book that pointed out how it depicts the role of women in society.)

Melanie is a young, bubbly wife and mother recovering from a serious bout of TB in the 1950s. After being confined to her bed for eight months, she is thrilled when the doctor says she can be moved to another room, where she is lain on the Victorian chaise-longue, which she bought on a whim while pregnant but has never before been able to use. When she falls asleep in the afternoon, she wakes up in what appears to be not only another house but another time, almost a century earlier, in the body of someone called Milly, the only thing in common being the Victorian chaise-longue, or so she thinks at first.

“It must have been the chaise-longue, argued Melanie. There is no other link; something to do with Milly and the chaise-longue that was so powerful, that even I in the present, just by lying on it, couldn’t help but feel it…This, which seems like time, must be instantaneous, without duration or reality. But I seem real…”

I liked the way Laski dealt with time travel, answering some of the key questions that always come up with her own (possibly unique?) solutions. For instance Melanie can’t say anything out loud that doesn’t fit with the time and place – there’s a disconnect between what she intends to say and what comes out. But Laski also leaves Melanie to puzzle over some of the other time-travel issues, such as how the timeline works: has all this happened before? is this an alternative past? what is time doing in her present? She rejects outright the idea that this is a previous incarnation of herself, which leaves her with the creepy knowledge that if this is real, all the people she is interacting with, including Milly, are long dead in her own present.

“This body I am in, it must have rotted filthily, this pillowcase must be a tatter of rag, the coverlet corrupt with moth, crisp and sticky with matted moths’ eggs, falling away into dirty crumbling scraps. It’s all dead and rotten…She shuddered, and knew she was shuddering in a body long ago dead. Her flesh crawled away and it was flesh that had turned green and liquescent and at last become damp dust.”

I thought Melanie was a great character, full of life and realistic frustration that just as she is recovering from her near-death and is ready to enjoy her husband and child, she is spirited away to some puzzling situation in someone else’s past. She is at times a little too stiff and snooty, but then that’s a key part of the story – Melanie believes herself above these people she finds herself surrounded by, and that’s one of the obstacles she has to overcome to understand what’s going on.

It works brilliantly as a horror story because at first you think the only question is when will she get back to her own present, but then you gradually realise that the details of Milly’s situation mean there are other dangers here. It’s genuinely scary, which is not something I say often!

Marghanita Laski was a fairly well known member of the British literati who was nearly forgotten all too quickly, until Persephone Books republished this. They have subsequently picked out three more of Laski’s books for reissue. I am so grateful that there are outfits like Persephone out there preserving great literature for the future.

First published by the Cresset Press in 1953.
This edition published by Persephone Books in 1999.

Twists and turns

Don’t Look Now and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

Though I’ve read quite a few du Maurier novels and even a guidebook to Cornwall that she once wrote, I hadn’t tried her short stories before this week. Thanks to Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights, I have now, and I’m glad.

The title story was of course made into a successful and critically acclaimed film of 1973, a film I have never seen and only had a rough idea of the storyline to, so I was able to come to it without foreknowledge. I think this greatly helped with my enjoyment of the story so I won’t reveal more of the plot than I knew beforehand: it’s a horror/thriller about a couple who travel to Venice following the death of their child. That’s all I knew (well, okay, I knew there was also something to do with a red coat, but then that’s really it).

As always, du Maurier is greatly skilled at creating complex, believable characters. All of these stories have some element of horror, but for the most part that horror comes from within, from the very human flaw of misreading a situation or other people, from imagining something that isn’t real. When there are “real” horrors, they tend to be somewhat banal, nothing like the troubled or possibly disturbed minds of the characters.

Another great skill of du Maurier’s that is evident here is her ability to describe diverse locations, imbuing them with real atmosphere. (This must be a skill she developed over time because it was something I found specifically lacking in scenes set outside of Cornwall in The Loving Spirit.) This book ranges from Venice to Crete to Ireland to Jerusalem to East Anglia, each time taking a character away from their home in England to a strange new location. There’s the schoolmaster on holiday who gets caught up with a strange American couple. There’s the young actress who decides, following her father’s death, to track down his former best friend. There’s the working class vicar who reluctantly agrees to guide a group of rich strangers around holy sites. And there’s the electronics engineer whose boss seconds him to work on a secret project that combines science fiction and spirituality.

All these stories have a certain tendency to mislead the reader, or at least I personally felt many times that I had been led down one path and was then blindsided by the story’s very different conclusion. As horror goes, there is none of the gore or violence you might expect. Or if there is it’s not described in any detail. These stories are all about the psychological, and even when it gets a bit supernatural or spiritual, the emphasis is on its effect on people rather than whether or not the apparently supernatural is real.

I think “Don’t look now” in particular will bear repeated readings, if only to hunt for the clues to how things turn out that I missed first time around. I think it is the best written and cleverest story in the collection, though none of them was by any means bad. They all share the same fish-out-of-water, sinister atmosphere, yet they are very different. I’m looking forward now to reading the other du Maurier short story collection I have, The Breaking Point.

This collection first published 1971 by Victor Gollancz.