Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Doll: Short Stories by Daphne Du Maurier, Virago Press

The long-harboured snobbery of the literary establishment over genre fiction has, I must admit, been matched only by my own misconceptions.  The greatest being that Du Maurier was a writer for women only, whose tastes resided in a form of melodramatic romance.  How wrong I was.  The recent reissue of her back catalogue - in the light of Jane Dunn's new biography ('Daphne Du Maurier and Her Sisters,' Harper Press) - reveals a writer with tastes both uncanny and, by contrast, purposefully comedic; highlighted in her shorter fiction. (Other collections in the series, such as 'The Birds,' 'Don't Look Now' and 'The Breaking Point' each harbour tales with these moods).
  Couched within are themes showing her as sceptical of her fellow woman's motives in relationships as she is with men's; while emotions are things that might be subjectively interpreted in a multitude of ways. Here in each case, (bar one), the protagonist is unaware, and so unskilled, in his or her ability to handle the situation they find themselves in.  
  Written between 1926 -32, with Du Maurier only in her early twenties, she treats her subject matter as if her puberty had felt more like an open wound to grit one's teeth against and challenge than a stage in life from which to project.  Each scenario depicts the fatal consequences of perceived betrayal in sexual mores; be it on a long-isolated isle suddenly and fatally exposed to an unforeseen landing. ('East Wind'); or an unstable narrator delusionally in love with a woman who may - or may not - be as disturbed as himself and who already harbours a partner - a silent and still mechanical mannequin.  Or not...? This title tale is, for lovers of the uncanny, a masterpiece of ambiguity, where we are left to question, but never solve, the narrator's true perception.
  In 'Tame Cat,' a girl (most likely Du Maurier herself, as you feel is so often the case) receives the key-to-the-door with excitement and anticipation for the future that also suddenly, cruelly, condemns her.
The girl's ultimate contempt for the man who's perceived her in the way he has is undoubtedly the author's own, and yet also sounded is a certain pity.  That both are victims of circumstance; their natural programming.  Another sub-theme through the tales.
  'Maizie' parallels the previous tale with the girl - now, one of the streets - wishing to escape from the strictures circumstance has forced upon her, only to discover she is, almost literally, upon the bed she's already made. Episodes of sleeping sickness act as precursor to a premonition in 'The Happy Valley'; another tale in Du Maurier's canon of the uncanny.
  Of the 'comedies,' 'The Limpet' is the supreme example.  A narration by one who sees herself the wronged and innocent party through each life we witness her at the same time destroying.  A more wry, telling portrait of a gold-digger even Dorothy Parker would've been hard=pressed to match.  'Frustration,' a lesser and lighter tale, is no less blackly comic.  A couple engaged for seven years finally agree to get hitched. What subsequently plays out in their attempt to so do is the domino-effect scenario where everything that can go wrong - does.
  If you've purposely been avoiding Du Maurier merely for her fame, I'd advise a serious re-think on her shorter fiction.  Her clear-sighted understanding of male/female relationships, a healthy cynicism underlying, easily bridges the gap of the passed eight decades.

                                                        *     *     *     *     *

                                             ALBERTINE'S WOOERS

An occasional, covert glance at other enticing items...Pushkin Press have made a welcome reissue of Stefan Zweig's back catalogue in paperback, with his short fiction to be collected in a hardback volume this autumn....Dadelus have republished Stefan Grabinski's first collection - 'The Dark Domain' - as an e-book...the ever productive Mark Valentine has a new collection 'Herald of the Hidden', out on Tartarus, as are his main poetical, mystical contributions to 'Star Kites'....finally, for now, Swan River Press have just made available the first issue of 'The Green Book'; a quality bi-annual overview of Irish supernatural literature.... 

Friday, 15 March 2013

The Sea Change & Other Stories by Helen Grant, Swan River Press

With the current vogue of European influence in much independent
fiction, it is not surprising how most of novelist Helen Grant's first
short story collection should be inspired primarily by her former
abodes in southern and eastern Europe.
  Fantasised from these landscapes are the strong echoes of its
traditonal voices.  'Grauer Hans' convinces as a Grimm tale tinged
with Hoffmann.  Her narrator recalls her childhood fear.  After her
mother insisted upon sending her off to sleep to her croon of a
warning lullaby, an aged, seemingly benevolent, goblin subsequently
'appears,' scratching at her window for access.  We already know he
cannot truly be as he seems, but Grant well maintains the narrator's
retrospective naivete, allowing space and time for us to share in the
build-up of its horrific revelation.
  The title tale holds the collection's greatest scare as an aging, mono-
syllabic but experienced diver becomes increasingly obsessed by an
unaccountable wreck.  So obssessed that his capacity for underwater
exploration takes an impossible turn, leading to a nightmarish
encounter. The retrospective horror here is in something much more
subtle than in 'Grauer Hans.'  The reader's realisation that "one of the
most laid-back people I have ever met" on the first page and the "dark
shape in the fading light" at the end are minimally rendered through-
out as one and the same. 
  'The Game of Bear' is an incomplete MR James tale previously
turned by Grant into a competition winner in Ghosts & Scholars,
wherein an actual nightmare ambiguously manifests as an out-of-body
  'Self Catering' is the prankster in the pack.  A man intent on a change
from his usual holiday destination stumbles across a high street travel
agency - with a major difference; one offering "spiritual journeys"
with "a range of unique supernatural experiences" by its exotically-
named and slightly sinister proprietor. (Think an occult 'Mr. Benn').
Its one-joke pay-off the reader may well have seen coming but it's no
less enjoyable for that.
  'Nathair Dhubh' Grant later cites as her first published tale. 
Redolent of 1920s' / 30s' Buchan, it atmospherically paints that world
of rock-climbing derring-do and how some aspect of nature always has
this nasty habit of claiming he who oversteps its mark. 
Grant's effortlessly simple prose style is already set in this otherwise
well-trodden, haunted path of loss and guilt.
  It is these topics of loss, guilt, possession and nightmare which
combine in 'Alberic de Mauleon'; what Grant calls a 'prequel' to
James's 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook.'  A very unexpected type of
brotherly retribution is played out from a devil's bargain in this 17th
century period piece that leads neatly to the door of its subsequent
  In 'The Calvary at Banska Bystrica' we're back in the present, in
Slovakia, where the atoning search for a hateful brother is replayed.
Only there is a greater mystery here as to the brother's true raison 
d'etre, his fate only part-revealed at the end of an ascending path in
some grotesque, physical sublimation.  It is perhaps the most
sophisticated tale in the collection, yet as simply rendered as the rest.
A mix that often makes re-reading a repeatable pleasure.

Coming soon . . . 


Friday, 1 March 2013


Greetings Pan-readers,

This is just to confirm that Pan will return in time for the Spring on FRIDAY 15th MARCH.

Pan Himself willing...