“The Escort” by Daphne du Maurier

[spoiler warning]

DAPHNE DU MAURIER

After looking around, it seems that I just know less about Daphne du Maurier than pretty much everyone else; for some reason I’ve never come across her name before despite being apparently well-known.  I actually picked up this volume after seeing the title on the spine, Don’t Look Now, and recognizing the name of the wonderful Nicolas Roeg film—and then finding, to my surprise, that the collection also contained “The Birds,” inspiration for Hitchcock’s film.  (Incidentally, the edition I’m reading is a New York Review Books publication, and I just love their sense of style—minimalist, but colorful enough to avoid the vacancy of the Apple look.  The cover is a nice texture, not obnoxiously slick but not so matte as to feel particularly textured, like linoleum, and the spine doesn’t crack (at least not in the process of a normal slightly reckless reading).  The one complaint I have is that the corners have a tendency to bend/fray, giving the book a well-read look after a single reading, like a lot of Norton publications.)

For someone whose writing is so consistent and carefully stylized, she seems to have occupied an unstable position.  She wrote in a grand gothic style, but largely in a time between major gothic revivals, leaving her out to dry.  She is too literary to be quite considered pulp, but her subject matter is not the stuff of fine literature—at least in the eyes of much of the press of the day.  All this wouldn’t really be a problem now, but it seems that in her lifetime she was hounded by the ambiguity of her position, in a time when horror and ‘literature’ were really being set apart from each other.  As just an example of this, I found the book in the ‘Literature’ section of my local bookstore, despite the fact that inside the cover an employee has clearly written ‘HORROR’ below the price (also written there is ‘as is’, very confusing to me since the thing was in near mint condition when I got my hands on it—and actually this is something I’ve never understood about used books: isn’t everything sold ‘as is’?  How could you sell it as it is not?  I genuinely don’t understand why this term is used when what is more precisely meant is something like ‘water damage, writing, and/or torn and bent pages’ or more simply the catch-all ‘used.’).

I don’t actually have a lot to say about du Maurier, which may be why I’ve been diverging into tangents on the physical book.  Her writing is good, in a simple way.  There is nothing stand out about it, nothing showy, no technical flourishes and no technical failings.  It takes a great deal of skill to make writing that fades so completely into the background even when someone who tries to pay attention to technique, like myself, is reading it.  I admire that skill, but it makes for poor reviewing because there’s nothing to say about it, except that perhaps a little more technique, even at the sacrifice of quality, might have brought her more critical attention.

In terms of plot, du Maurier is all over the map.  Some of the stories are near perfection—”The Birds” and “Monte Veritá” in particular stand out to me.  Others are just short vignettes, not horror at all, or simplistic Twilight Zone episodes.  Her skill is in execution; even the best stories are lacking in originality, and it’s not surprising that she was plagued with accusations of plagiarism.  I cannot comment on their veracity, but I can say that it is very easy for multiple unoriginal people to strike upon the same unoriginal plot.  In such a case, what matters is how you execute it, and this seems to be du Maurier’s strong point—I urge you to read “The Birds,” which, despite being that same tired siege narrative we’ve seen from Night of the Living Dead to Rio Bravo, caught my attention early and held it tight.  For this review, however, let’s look at one of the in between stories, neither the best nor the worst in the collection.

THE ESCORT

The two world wars play a large role in many of du Maurier’s stories, and this one starts off with our protagonist, one William Blunt, first mate in a tramp steamer named the Ravenswing during the first days of the second war.  The ship is in constant danger of attack by U-boats, setting all the crew on edge.  The captain suddenly arrives on the bridge, complaining of a pain in his side that Blunt suspects is appendicitis.

Blunt gives the captain some brandy—”It may be the worst thing you can do for appendicitis, but when you’re hundreds of miles from a surgeon and in the middle of the North Sea in wartime you’re apt to take chances”—and takes command of the ship while the captain rests in his quarters.  The second mate, Carter, suggests that Blunt get sleep since he is nearly rocking to sleep on his feet, but Blunt elects for some tea instead.

“I swallowed my cup of tea and made short work of a sandwich, and I was feeling in my pocket for my pipe and a box of matches when the thing happened for which, I suppose, I had consciously been training myself since the captain went sick some forty-eight hours before.

“‘Object to port.  Three-quarters of a mile to a mile distant.  Looks like a periscope.'”

I want to point out that this is the first time we learn definitively that he has already been in command for forty-eight hours; the way the narrative moves along, it could have just as easily been immediately after the captain took sick.  This is what I mean when I talk about du Maurier’s quiet skill; by doing this is creates a disorientation in the reader akin to that of someone staying awake overlong and under stress, but in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself.

Blunt sees the periscope himself, and when he alters the ship’s course, the submarine alters to follow.  The submarine draws nearer and surfaces.  The crew gathers on deck to watch.  “I wondered how many of them could swim.”  A wall of fog suddenly moves in, dropping visibility to “no more than a cable’s length on either side.”  They wait, and night falls quickly.  When the fog lifts, they see a ship approaching from behind, an archaic “great three-masted vessel, with a cloud of canvas aloft. … What the hell was she doing in these waters in wartime?”

Despite the apparent lack of wind the ship comes up quickly.  The lights are off to hide from the submarine, and with the fog they can see very little of the other ship.  “We strained our eyes in the darkness, seeing nothing, and I was about to turn back to the bridge again when a thin call came to us across the water.

“‘Are you in distress?’ came the hail.”  It’s in English, but that doesn’t verify the nationality; however one of the Ravenswing‘s crew members blurts out that there’s a submarine around, revealing their allegiance.  They hear the sound of a boat being sent across, and when it is near an officer stands up and says, “Captain’s compliments, gentlemen, and do you desire an escort?”

Some confusion follows in the interchange, of the sort you’ve probably already guessed at.

“‘Our orders are to escort any merchant ships we find to a port of safety.’

“‘And who issued those orders?’ I said.

“‘His Majesty King George, of course,’ replied the voice.

“It was then, I think, that I felt for the first time a curious chill of fear.”

They worry that it could be a trap, but Blunt decides to board the ship and see what’s going on for himself.  He notices that the weather feels different on the boat, which feels incredibly cold.  They arrive at the ship: “in the queer half-light that came from the flickering lanterns I saw that this was no Finnish barque with a load of timber, no grain-ship in ballast, but a raider bristling with guns.”

He goes after to see the captain.  “He was very thin, very pale, and his hair was ashen grey.  I saw by the patch he wore that he had lost the sight of one eye, but the other eye looked through me in the cold abstracted way of someone who would get his business done and has little time to spare.”  Blunt tells him about the submarine and the captain offers his assistance.  Blunt is worried that the submarine will destroy the vessel, but the captain replies “I’ve never run from a Frenchman yet.”

When he gets back to the Ravenswing, Blunt tells them that the crew was English and that he has accepted the escort home.  They move forward now, the escort keeping ahead even when the vessel is traveling at full steam.  They don’t see the submarine anywhere.  The captain calls Blunt to his quarters, and he seems to be doing better.  Blunt reports that they are near the shore, and when the captain compliments him, he credits the escort, and recounts what has happened.  Yet when Blunt returns to the bridge, the escort is gone, and they are nearly to the shores of England.

The second mate speaks up, “I’ve been thinking.  That captain fellow you spoke to in the night, on board that sailing craft.  You say he wore a black patch over one eye.  Did he by any chance have an empty sleeve pinned to his breast as well?”

“I did not answer.  We looked at one another in silence.  Then a shrill whistle warned me that the pilot’s boat was alongside.  Somewhere, faint and far, the echo sounded like a boatswain’s pipe.”

It’s all very simple, very straightforward, no frills, etc, but executed in such a way that it just clicks.  It has that quality that’s always pleasant in a ghost story of extreme readability.  It is just the write length and the write amount written, feeling neither the bloating of Blackwood nor the emaciation of Robert E. Howard.  Of course, there’s a negative to all this, which is that nothing about it particularly stands out.  I can’t help but think that a year from now I won’t remember anything from this collection, with the exception of the two previously mentioned excellent stories (“The Birds” and “Monte Veritá”).  It’s enjoyable reading though, creepy and well-crafted, and I recommend it to anyone interested in horror—not just this collection, but any of her other collections, and presumably her novels (of which the most famous is probably Rebecca), given the consistent quality of her writing here.

Tomorrow we round off the week by examining the closest thing I’ve got on this list to a pop idol: Neil Gaiman.  I probably mispronounced that.

All quotations from Don’t Look Now, copyright NYREV, inc, 2008.  Stories copyright Daphne du Maurier.

Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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