I have never enjoyed reading short stories as much as full length novels and my various attempts over the years at increasing the number of short stories I read have generally failed. However, one of the few authors whose short stories I do enjoy is Daphne du Maurier (in fact, I’ve loved almost everything I’ve ever read by du Maurier, whatever the format). I have actually read The Birds before (soon after reading Rebecca for the first time as a teenager) but I never went on to read the other stories in this collection so when I saw that this book was available through NetGalley, it seemed a good opportunity to rectify this.
I read another du Maurier collection a few years ago – The Rendezvous & Other Stories – which contained some of the earliest examples of her work, but I found the stories in The Birds and Other Stories much stronger – the work of an accomplished author rather than a beginner. There are six stories in the book, including The Birds, and all of them are excellent, although I felt that two were slightly weaker than the other four.
The Birds, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, is the first story in the book and one of my favourites. For those of you not familiar with the plot, this is the story of Nat Hocken, a farm worker who lives with his wife and two young children. When Nat notices an unusually large number of birds in the skies above him, he senses that the weather must be about to change. The next day a national emergency is declared: Britain is under attack from huge flocks of birds. Nat begins to board up the windows and doors, but will he and his family survive the night?
This is such an atmospheric story; you can feel the claustrophobia inside Nat’s house, you can hear the sounds of pecking and tapping at the windows, and you can see the birds gathering in the sky:
He walked down the path, halfway to the beach and then he stopped. He could see the tide had turned. The rock that had shown in midmorning was now covered, but it was not the sea that held his eyes. The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent.
I loved this story and it was certainly worth re-reading, but the next two that followed were also very enjoyable. Monte Verita is a haunting tale of a lonely monastery high in the mountains, an isolated community of priestesses and a village of superstitious peasants. The Apple Tree is a great little story about a man who becomes obsessed by the old apple tree in his garden, believing that it is taking on the characteristics of his dead wife, Midge. Whether this is really happening or whether it’s all in his imagination you will have to read the story to decide.
Stories four and five were the ones I didn’t like as much as the others. The Little Photographer tells the story of a beautiful married woman who has a summer affair with a photographer and gets a lot more than she bargained for when she tries to end the relationship. In Kiss Me Again, Stranger, the narrator remembers a girl he once met and fell in love with, only to have his heart broken when he makes a macabre discovery. There was nothing wrong with either of these stories, but they didn’t have the eerie, otherworldly feel of the previous three.
Finally, The Old Man is the shortest story in the book, but also the cleverest. I’m not going to give any more details except to say that when I reached the end of this particular story, I was so surprised and delighted that I had to go straight back to the beginning and read it again!
So, a very impressive selection of stories! They contain many of the same elements that du Maurier uses in her full-length novels, such as the male narrative voice, the unnamed characters, the ambiguous endings, the wonderful use of atmosphere and the vivid sense of place. They are the ideal length too – each one is long enough to allow the reader to be fully drawn into the story, but short enough to read in one sitting. I would highly recommend this collection even to those readers who, like me, don’t often choose to read short stories.
Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for providing a review copy via NetGalley
Last week I posted my thoughts on Laura Silver Bell by Sheridan Le Fanu for Irish Short Story Week. I then wanted to read another short work by an Irish author and remembered that A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde was one of the free ebooks that came with my Sony Reader. Perfect!
A House of Pomegranates contains four short fairy tales by Wilde. I originally intended just to read one of them but ended up reading the whole book! Each story has a moral lesson for the reader but first and foremost they are enjoyable fairy tales – although quite dark in tone, as many fairy tales are.
Wilde apparently said that the stories in A House of Pomegranates are “meant partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy, and who find in simplicity a subtle strangeness.” Having read the book I would agree with this assessment of it. Although I’m sure there are a lot of children who would enjoy the stories (I know I would probably have loved them if I’d read them when I was younger), I think they might be too long and too heavy on description for some, and in many ways will be appreciated more by adults.
In The Young King, we are warned against the love of beauty and luxury. On the eve of his coronation, the young king, who loves all the beautiful things in life, has three dreams in which he learns exactly where his magnificent new robe, sceptre and crown have come from – and suddenly, they don’t appear so beautiful after all.
The Birthday of the Infanta is a poignant story about the King of Spain’s daughter, who is celebrating her twelfth birthday. Among the entertainments that have been arranged for her is a performance by a dwarf, who later becomes convinced that the Infanta is in love with him. It quickly becomes obvious that the Infanta has a very sad and lonely life, but my sympathy was for the dwarf, who can be seen to represent anyone who is the victim of cruelty and prejudice. Even the flowers in the palace garden ridicule him.
The Flowers were quite indignant at his daring to intrude into their beautiful home, and when they saw him capering up and down the walks, and waving his arms above his head in such a ridiculous manner, they could not restrain their feelings any longer.
‘He is really far too ugly to be allowed to play in any place where we are,’ cried the Tulips.
‘He should drink poppy-juice, and go to sleep for a thousand years,’ said the great scarlet Lilies, and they grew quite hot and angry.
The Fisherman and his Soul is the longest of the four stories and to be honest, I didn’t think it needed to be quite so long. It felt very repetitive, which was a shame because it was otherwise an excellent story about a fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and sacrifices his soul for her. It can almost be seen as a re-working of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, but instead of the mermaid longing to become human as in Andersen’s story, this is the reverse.
My favourite story in the book was The Star-Child, about a child who is found by a woodcutter after a shooting star falls from the sky. The child grows up to be selfish and conceited, but finally gets a chance to redeem himself.
A House of Pomegranates is certainly worth reading if you’re looking for something a bit different or if you like Oscar Wilde’s writing (although the wit and humour which shines through in his other works isn’t really present here). I would be interested in comparing this book with Wilde’s other, more popular, book of short stories, The Happy Prince & Other Tales, but I’ll have to wait until I’m in the mood for some more fairy tales!
Have you read either of Oscar Wilde’s two books of fairy tales?
Time for one more review before the RIP challenge ends!
Having read so many of Wilkie Collins’ books and loving them all, I’m starting to worry now whenever I pick up one that I haven’t read yet, in case that’s going to be the one that disappoints me. Luckily it wasn’t this one! This collection published by Wordsworth Editions includes the novella The Haunted Hotel and eight other short stories, all with a ghostly, spooky or supernatural theme.
Part ghost story and part gothic mystery, The Haunted Hotel begins in London but soon moves to Venice, an atmospheric setting complete with dark canals and ancient palaces. At the heart of the story is the mysterious Countess Narona, who marries Lord Montbarry after he breaks off his engagement to Agnes Lockwood. When Montbarry dies in Venice soon after insuring his life for ten thousand pounds, rumours abound that the Countess may have had something to do with his death.
While I enjoyed The Haunted Hotel, I wouldn’t class it among Collins’ best work and the shortness of the story means the characters aren’t as well developed. I did love the second half of the story in which the palace where Montbarry died is converted into a hotel. There’s a very creepy sequence of events where each member of the Montbarry family who stays in the hotel feels a ghostly influence that manifests itself in a different way to each person.
You can buy The Haunted Hotel on its own, but I recommend looking for this edition because the additional short stories are well worth reading too. In every story, Collins gradually builds the suspense and draws the reader into the story. One of my favourites was Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman, a short ghost story in which the ghostly happenings are accompanied by mysterious clouds of white fog. I loved the way even though the story was quite predictable, it was still a pageturner. The same can be said about Nine O’Clock, in which a man condemned to death during the French Revolution tells his friend about a family curse. We know almost from the beginning what will happen, but the story still manages to be suspenseful.
Another favourite was A Terribly Strange Bed, an Edgar Allan Poe-like tale which creates a feeling of claustrophobia and terror as the narrator finds himself trapped in a room with a very unusual bed. Another story on a similar theme is The Dead Hand, in which a man attempts to find a room at an inn for the night, but finds that everywhere is full. When he’s eventually offered a bed in a double room, he makes a surprising discovery about the stranger who’s occupying the other bed.
I also enjoyed the final story in the book, The Devil’s Spectacles, which is about a man who is given a pair of spectacles that allow him to see the true thoughts and feelings of anyone he looks at.
I don’t generally like reading short story collections straight through from beginning to end, but I didn’t have a problem with this book. There are only eight stories (plus The Haunted Hotel) and most of them are less than twenty pages long. This was a perfect book to read in the week before Halloween.
As I’m hoping to read Dracula soon, I thought it might be a good idea to also read one of Bram Stoker’s influences – John Polidori’s The Vampyre. This short story is considered to be one of the first vampire stories in literature and the first to portray a vampire in the way we would recognise today. I have actually been interested in reading this story since I read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and was intrigued by the references to the vampire Lord Ruthven. (If you’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo you might remember the scene where the Countess G- is remarking on the Count’s pale skin and nicknames him ‘Lord Ruthven’.)
The origins of The Vampyre are fascinating. John William Polidori was Byron’s personal physician and in 1816, went with him to Switzerland. At the Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva, Byron and Polidori were joined by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his future wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, and decided to amuse themselves by writing horror stories. Mary began work on what would become Frankenstein, and Byron wrote the beginning of a vampire story (which survives today as Fragment of a Novel) based on the various vampire myths and legends. Although Byron abandoned his vampire story, Polidori took inspiration from it and The Vampyre was the result. Unfortunately for Polidori, The Vampyre was wrongly attributed to Byron, despite Byron’s attempts to set the record straight.
As a story, it really isn’t very satisfying. Our narrator is a young Englishman called Aubrey, who travels to Rome with his acquaintance, the nobleman Lord Ruthven. The more time he spends with Ruthven, the more Aubrey begins to distrust him and to realise that Ruthven is not what he seems… The plot is so thin that there’s not much more I can tell you without spoiling it – although really, there’s nothing to spoil as the story is very predictable (for the modern reader anyway – I’m sure it would have been more compelling at the time when it was first published).
The Vampyre is interesting historically because of its portrayal of Lord Ruthven as a mysterious, pale-faced aristocratic figure who preys on innocent young ladies, which is the way many future vampires would be described (the vampires of folklore had generally been described as hideous-looking monsters). If you’re interested in how vampire stories began and how they evolved over the years, this is worth reading. If you’re just looking for a good short story to read, you might be disappointed with this one.
Byron’s Fragment of a Novel is also available online and is so short it only takes a few minutes to read. It’s a shame he decided not to continue with this, as I think it had the potential to be much better than The Vampyre. I’ve read a few of Byron’s poems but this is my first experience of his prose and even based on such a short sample of his work I find his writing superior to Polidori’s.
Mollie Panter-Downes was the London correspondent for the New Yorker and this collection from Persephone Books brings together a number of her contributions to the magazine which were written during World War II. The book opens with her Letter from London dated 3 September 1939 and ends with another dated 11 June 1944. Between the two letters are twenty-one short stories, each of which offers an insight into the hopes and fears of British people trying to deal with the changes the war has brought to their lives.
These stories are not particularly dramatic or sensational in any way. They are realistic stories that focus not so much on the war itself, but on the effects of the war on the women (and a few of the men) who were left behind at home. We read about women attending sewing parties, worrying about loved ones who are away fighting, preparing for their husbands to go to war, coping with being pregnant during the war and experiencing almost any other wartime situation you can think of.
After finishing the book, there are a few stories that stand out in my memory more than the others. In Clover, for example, is a story about a rich woman called Mrs Fletcher who takes in a family of evacuees from a poor part of London. This was an interesting study into how the war pushed together people of different social backgrounds who wouldn’t usually have mixed with each other. This Flower, Safety follows Miss Mildred Ewing as she moves from one hotel to another in an attempt to escape from danger, beginning to despair of ever finding somewhere safe to live. Then there’s the story of Miss Burton, who is so hungry she can think about nothing else. The title story is also one of the best; it’s about a woman who has been having an affair with a married man. On the evening before he leaves to go to Libya, she wonders how she’ll be able to find out whether he’s dead or alive:
“Don’t think I’m being stupid and morbid,” she said, “but supposing anything happens. I’ve been worrying about that. You might be wounded or ill and I wouldn’t know.” She tried to laugh. “The War Office doesn’t have a service for sending telegrams to mistresses, does it?”
The stories are published in chronological order, as they appeared in New Yorker between 1939 and 1944, showing how life in Britain changed as the war progressed. Despite the subject matter, these stories are not all bleak and depressing – there’s also a lot of humour in Panter-Downes’ writing, in the form of gentle wit and irony.
As with most of the short story collections that I’ve read, there were some that didn’t interest me very much, but others that I loved and wished were longer. However, I think reading them all at once was a mistake as it was a bit too much for me. I think I would have enjoyed this collection even more if I had dipped in and out and taken the time to appreciate each story individually.