Time-travelling horrors

The House on the Strand
by Daphne du Maurier

I read this book as part of Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. I seem to have skipped the book that they both raved about (Mary Anne) and chosen to join in with another that didn’t entirely bowl me over.

This is one of du Maurier’s stabs at science fiction (though Tim and I are still debating whether Rule Britannia counts as SF or even speculative fiction). In this instance she’s looking at time travel, but with a curious twist, and really it’s a book about a marriage in trouble and the effects of addiction. Intrigued? I was.

First off, I was thrown to have a male narrator. I don’t think du Maurier does a bad job of giving Dick Young a realistic male voice, but I never warmed to him. He’s middle aged, has just quit a publishing job he disliked in London and is trying to find an alternative to the future his American wife has planned, which is to work for her brother’s publishing firm in New York. To give him some breathing space, his good friend Magnus (or, “the Professor”) has loaned Dick his cottage in Cornwall for the summer rent-free. The only catch is that Magnus has persuaded Dick to try an experimental drug he has produced – a drug that takes the mind back six centuries in time while the body remains in the present.

It’s an unusual idea and du Maurier has thought through the practicalities. Each “trip” lasts a few hours so Dick can sneak them in when his wife and stepsons are not around, though he cannot hide the side-effects from them. It being a small community – and indeed an even smaller one in the 14th century – Dick quickly gets to know the characters that he sees on his trips and is increasingly fascinated by their lives – who is sleeping with who, who is loyal to who – in a way that he would never care about gossip in his own world. He is particularly intrigued by the beautiful Isolda, who he learns early on is married but does not care for her husband.

There are drawbacks to this method of escaping from reality. Dick is seen wandering aimlessly through field and marsh after his invisible cast. He starts to conflate past and present, confused about what has happened in reality. He gets bad tempered with his family and his wife’s friends, constantly distracted by where this or that particular manor house from the 14th century must have stood. He looks up the people from the past in local archives, obsessing about every detail of their lives. He starts to need more of the drug for it to work and suffer worse side-effects.

All of which is gripping and well written and a believable picture of dangerous drug addiction. The problem is, all of the stuff in the past I found deadly dull. The relations between people and their allegiances I found confusing; for the first half very little happens in the past; and I just didn’t care about any of the historical characters. Which is a problem when we are supposed to believe that they are fascinating enough for Dick to become obsessed. The thing is, this is another case where du Maurier has been doing her historical research and has used genuine historical figures of significance to her (in this case the people who lived in and near her beloved Fowey) to build a story around. But she has put in too much of the dull stuff you can learn from archives – names, dates, facts – and not enough character and storyline. It’s a shame when she has used her research so well in other books (e.g. The Glass-Blowers).

It’s fascinating and shows that du Maurier had many strings to her bow, but it’s not her best. Next up in Discovering Daphne? Don’t Look Now and other stories, to be discussed next Sunday.

First published in 1969 by Victor Gollancz.