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“Darling”, she said, “I know you won’t believe it, and it’s rather frightening in a way, but after they left the restaurant in Torcello the sisters went to the cathedral, as we did, although we didn’t see them in that crowd, and the blind one had another vision. She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we should be in danger if we stayed in Venice. Christine wanted us to go away as soon as possible.”

Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg is one of my favourite films. Easily in the top ten. Along with Visconti’s Death in Venice it has successful convinced me never to visit that European tourist mecca.

This collection of short stories by Du Maurier comes with an excellent introduction by novelist and editor Patrick McGrath. He describes how Du Maurier had an impressive number of cinema adaptations of her work, with Alfred Hitchcock returning to the font a number of times. However, his version of The Birds, which is also featured here, not only transposed the setting to America, but lessened the apocalyptic feel of the story itself. McGrath reports that the author was most pleased with Roeg’s attempt, a fugue of visual associations that matches the supernatural paranoia of the novella.

The title story’s grieving couple try to escape the trauma of their daughter’s death by travelling on holiday to Venice. John and Laura play games over meals at their hotel, such as making up stories about the fellow guests. John delights in returning his wife’s smile to her face, erasing the worried frown that has haunted her since their child Christine died of meningitis.

Then one evening John notices two women staring at him from across the restaurant. He tries to include them in his comical banter with Laura, but feels uneasy. Despite comparing them to doddery old Australian spinsters, or more outrageously drag artists, the intensity of their stare disturbs him. Laura leaves to go to the bathroom and returns, suddenly elated. One of the women, Scottish sisters from Edinburgh, approached her with a message. Their daughter Christine is with them, standing in between them laughing.

John angrily dismisses any suggestion that these women have any kind of psychic gift and ignores their warning that the couple must leave Venice. They also insist that John himself has the gift of second sight.

The stage is set for a perculiarly unsettling supernatural tale of marital dischord and paranoia, with John’s growing anger at the sisters clouding his judgement. Du Maurier captures the two voices of Laura and John perfectly, as well as the sleeping hysteria that follows the death of a child, always moments away from being unleashed. The dark alleys of Venice are cloaked in menacing shadows, with the guileless blundering of tourists through the winding passageways leading them onward into danger.

The Birds also focuses on an English family caught up in a distressing situation, although Du Maurier describes a far more apocalyptic, post-WWII scenario. Nat tries to protect his wife and two children from an inexplicable rise in attacks from a host of birds on their small country farm. It quickly becomes apparent that the whole country is suffering similar attacks and unprepared for the savagery of the innumberable attackers, the authorities are quickly rendered powerless. Nat’s attempts to keep his family’s spirits up even as their supplies decrease and the emergency broadcasts on the radio are silenced makes for the emotional backbone of this story.

The imagery employed is brutal and bloody. Nat fights back against attacking birds in the upstairs bedroom by wielding a blanket like a club. Soon the flower is covered with the corpses of a multitude of birds. In attempting to repair the cottage’s defences he begins to stuff the bodies of dead birds into the cracks in the glass windows and damaged planks of wood (a macabre touch I thought would have suited the film quite nicely).

McGrath includes several other shorts by Du Maurier, including the ghostly fable Escort and a tale of tragic infidelity in a small Breton coastal village La Sainte-Vierge, where once again, as in Don’t Look Now,  a mystical vision is mistaken to mean something quite different.

These stories are perfectly poised, delicate and unwavering in their quiet sense of doom. An excellent collection from an unassuming master of supernatural horror.

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope Santa brought you plenty of good books!

I had seen men die violently before; indeed I had killed a few myself in the Matabele War; but this cold-blooded indoor business was different.

Buchan’s classic novel has been adapted to film at least three times (with another due in 2011), a television series and even a stage play. Last time I was in London I was strongly tempted to check it out, but I am glad I got a chance to read the novel first, as the Broadway production takes a more comic approach to the material. Alfred Hitchcock’s film in 1935 probably was inspirational for one of his later ‘American films’, North By North West, which has a similar plot of an unremarkable man becoming swept up into an international conspiracy. Furthermore the timing of Hitchcock’s film is relevant, with the original novel also being published for the purposes of propaganda in 1915.

Richard Hannay is our hero, a middle-aged bachelor who was born in Scotland and made his fortune in Rhodesia. Having settled in London he discovers that he has become bored with his life of easy leisure. He longs for a return to the dangers of working in a mine, or the wild beauty of the veldt. His prayers are answered when a strange fellow named Scudder, an American who claims his life is in danger. Hannay patiently lets the man tell his story, a thrilling yarn of international espionage, Zionist plots and an already lit powder-keg set to drive the chancelleries of Europe to war. Despite the extravagant claims of the stranger, Hannay finds himself believing this rum tale and agrees to hide him from his shadowy pursuers.

Scudder proves to be a master of disguise and conspires with his host to hide his identity. Hannay observes him writing copious notes in a little black book, presumably a record of his investigation. Excited at the sudden injection of adventure into his life, the retired Rhodesian mining engineer enjoys aiding his companion in his efforts to prevent Europe falling into war. Then one day he returns to find Scudder dead in his home. Shocked, Hannay has no choice but to flee the scene of the crime. His tale is so outlandish no police man would believe it. He takes Scudder’s black book and takes the first train to Scotland, where he hopes his childhood memories of the landscape will help him evade pursuit. Everywhere he goes he sees strange figures watching him, just as the dead man had described. Finding himself hunted through the moors and mountain ridges of the Scottish highlands, Hannay has to think quick on his feet, disguising his appearance as Scudder had. His only hope is to decipher the cryptic code he finds in the American’s black book that may prove his innocence and identify the threat amassing against England.

Buchan’s redoubtable hero became a recurring character in his fiction, the archetypal ‘stiff-upper lip’ chap with a ready fist and a gentlemanly manner. The novel itself is a product of its time and not just due to the anti-semitic remarks attributed to Scudder (although a character later remarks that this was an ‘odd bias’, of his). Published in 1915 it is similar to the Riddle of the Sands, a jingoistic work released in 1903 that strongly encouraged the idea of an impending European conflict. The difference with The Thirty-Nine Steps is that it came out after hostilities had already commenced, all the better to reinforce the case for war. The men and women Hannay encounters during his hazardous flight across Scotland are mostly good, hearty ordinary folk. He becomes more convinced of the importance of succeeding where Scudder failed, so that the people of Britain should be protected from a disastrous war. Scotland itself is infested with spies from abroad, able to disguise themselves in a blink of an eye. Hannay, and by extension readers of the time, must be vigilant to ensure they do not manage to sabotage the defenses of the country.

Also particular to the setting of the novel is that peculiar condescension towards the Scots. I was reminded of my favourite scene from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace whenever Buchan essays a Scottish brogue. I find the smug superiority strange, as the author himself was raised in Scotland and the landscape is described beautifully, as only one who lived there could achieve.

Despite some of the dated attitudes present in the book, it remains an entertaining read. A bladdy good yarn!

In the middle of the afternoon, she went down to the first floor and bought a card in the greetings-card department. It was not a very interesting card, but at least it was simple, in plain blue and gold. She stood with the pen poised over the card, thinking of what she might have written – ‘You are magnificent’ or even ‘I love you’ – finally writing quickly the excruciatingly dull and impersonal: ‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s’. She added her number, 645-A, in lieu of a signature.

Patricia Highsmith’s books are tightly plotted and emotionally jagged noir mysteries. From the chameleon-like Tom Ripley to Strangers on a Train’s Charles Anthony Bruno, the author specialized in characters with a lump of ice in their hearts. The Price of Salt is something quite different. It has the requisite Highsmith paranoia and emotional blackmail common to her other novels, but it draws upon her own life, the plot inspired by a brief period the author spent working in a department store. It is a story about an affair between shopgirl and aspiring stage designer Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Unusually for a Highsmith novel the book is ultimately hopeful, the love between the characters genuine and was considered revolutionary at the time of publication for being a story about homosexuality with a happy ending.

Therese is a young woman just out of boarding school with artistic ambitions trying to make it in New York. Estranged from her family, who packed her off to boarding school once her father died, she has become solitary and possessed of changeable moods. She is in an unfulfilling relationship with an aspiring artist named Richard, who is a lot more secure than she is, both emotionally and financially. He also seems to merely be dabbling in art, whereas Therese pounds the pavement trying to get stage designer jobs with theatre companies. To make some extra cash she takes a job working in Frankenberg’s department store selling toys in the run up to Christmas. The monotony and boredom of the job suddenly evaporates one afternoon when she meets a customer named Carol, whom she helps find a doll to give to her daughter as a Christmas gift. Therese leaps at the chance to strike up a friendship with the cool and contained woman, who is involved in bitter divorce proceedings. As the two grow closer, Therese realizes that she loves Carol and that she feels nothing romantic for the feckless Richard. However, the more she gets to know this woman who seems so self-assured and calm, the more she realizes that it is Carol who has everything to lose, as her ex-husband Harge is eager to use whatever leverage he can to win full custody of their daughter. What possible future do the two of them have together, if their love carries such a terrible price?

Highsmith writes with a singular intimacy and intensity, establishing the conflicting thoughts that rush through Therese’s uncertain mind. When Therese meets the elderly shop assistant Ruby Robichek one night for a quiet meal, the encounter proves to be a brief vignette on a life wasted by loneliness and failure. Ms Robichek is a presentiment of what could happen to Therese if she gives in to convention and abandons her desires. We also begin to understand just how pressurized Carol Aird’s life has been to date, with her husband and in-laws arrayed against her. She describes how Harge chose her to be his wife in the way he might have chosen a carpet, as an object he could possess. Her crime is not that she is a lesbian per se, but more that she refuses to toe the line and lead a conventional life as a doting wife. Richard’s confident belief that Therese will agree to marry him is also rooted in the narrative conventions of typical male and female relationships. He has put the time into getting to know her and surely this is what happens next?

This edition of The Price of Salt comes with a quote from Terry Castle of The New Republic arguing that the transgressive sex and climactic cross-country car chase of the novel inspired Nabochov’s Lolita. I feel this is a tacked on conclusion that risks equivocating Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia with homosexuality. The novel is a corrective to the dour fates assigned to lesbians in pulp fiction, (suicide; acceptance of a dutiful husband).

An underappreciated classic.

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