Okay to Look

I admit to having learned about Daphne du Maurier from Alfred Hitchcock, and then only after my wife pointed her out to me.  I read our copy of Rebecca with appreciation—a good gothic novel will never steer you wrong.  I saw the movie first, however.  Learning that she’d also written “The Birds” (not the screenplay), I tried to find a book of her stories in various bookshops only to discover that American bookstores tend not to stock her work (beyond, perhaps, Rebecca).  Eventually I started searching online for collections that contained “The Birds.”  I settled on Don’t Look Now, which includes that story as well.  When researching The Wicker Man I learned that Don’t Look Now (the movie) had A billing to the former film’s B place.  I decided I’d read the story first, which I’ve now done.

There are several intriguing tales included in this particular collection.  The one that I found most haunting was the final story, “Monte Verità.”  The narrative of a woman who finds peace in an ancient commune on the titular mountain, it was difficult to read without wanting to find that kind of satisfaction.  Particularly for someone who has had lifelong cenobitic tendencies.  Those of us who struggle against the 925 life, beholden as it is to the great god capitalism, and who require time to think, contemplate, and just to be, this mythic mountain does indeed sound like finding what it is that you’re seeking.  Du Maurier tells the story with such longing that you think she must’ve been there herself.  As a writer I’m sure she had been, in a sense.

Du Maurier was, it should be no surprise, quite a versatile writer.  Some of these stories are gothic and others more naturalistic.  They do tend towards the darkness, but not the kind that leads to despair.  They also reflect a time in publishing when longer short stories were acceptable.  (Most accessible online fiction publishing venues cut their limits far too short these days.)  Some stories really take time to get into.  “Monte Verità” is one such, as is “Don’t Look Now.”  They take time to build up.  “The Birds” isn’t exactly brief either.  The trend these days is for the quick payoff.  We have lost something as a culture with such short attention spans.  This collection of nine pieces provide a good sample of different shades of darkness.  And they encourage further reading.

Dangerous Fiction

At the suggestion of a friend, I recently watched the documentary Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca’s Footsteps.  I confess I haven’t read much of du Maurier’s work, yet.  From a family fairly well off, du Maurier, perhaps unusually for a writer, found early success and was able to make a living from writing.  Like many authors she valued her time alone, but also had basic human needs.  In keeping with her gothic sensibilities, she fell in love multiple times, both with men and women.  And she lived in that kind of fantasy world that fiction writers often inhabit.  For some reason I had it in my head that she had died young, many years ago.  It was somewhat surprising to learn that she lived until I was 26.  I can make the legitimate excuse that I didn’t grow up in a literate family, though.  I learned about du Maurier from my wife.

Copyright released photo, author unknown; via Wikimedia Commons

That doesn’t mean, however, that I didn’t know her works.  I first saw Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds when I was in college.  In those days I hadn’t yet learned to pay attention to who the writer of a film was.  That intimate interplay between written literature and film easily ties me into celluloid knots.  My wife is a Hitchcock fan and together we watched some of his earlier du Maurier adaptations, such as Jamaica Inn.  Then she introduced me to Rebecca, du Maurier’s early and best-known novel.  We watched the Hitchcock rendition.  The documentary makes the point that du Maurier’s life, in some ways, played out that novel.  Writing can be a dangerous business, especially fiction.

My own most recent book, on The Wicker Man, which I hope will see the light of day, brought me back into du Maurier’s orbit.  The Wicker Man was, of course, nearly disowned by the studio that had sponsored it (British Lion).  Half-hearted about the effort, they made it a B movie, showing it after Don’t Look Now, a film I admit that I’ve never seen.  I learned from watching this documentary that this was yet another du Maurier story.  I’ve read one or two of her short pieces—they aren’t commonly found in American bookstores, although I see them whenever I visit England—and clearly I need to read more.  That brings up, however, the age-old dilemma: should I try to read the story before I see the movie?  I think I know what du Maurier’s answer would have been, and I think it wise to follow her advice.

Leap Night

I was quite young when I saw Night of the Lepus for the first time.  Well, I had to have been at least ten, but when I recently sat down to watch it only one or two scenes looked familiar.  Like most poorly done horror films, Night of the Lepus has gained a cult following.  The story is loosely based on Russell Braddon’s comedic novel Year of the Angry Rabbit.  Without the comedy.  Or at least without intentionally being funny.  In an effort to control rabbit overpopulation in Arizona, a new virus is released into the population.  Instead of killing off the bunnies, it makes them grow as large as wolves and become carnivorous.  They go around attacking people with big, nasty, pointy teeth (to be fair, Monty Python and the Holy Grail wouldn’t be out for three more years).

Night of the Lepus was criticized for not being scary at all—a cardinal sin for a horror film.  I was kind of embarrassed when my wife walked in and found me watching it.  Nostalgia can do funny things to a person.  It is almost painful to watch the public officials make such obvious missteps each time they start to get an idea of what’s happening.  They’re almost as imbecilic as the Trump administration was.  Meanwhile rabbits are hard to make scary.  Perhaps William Claxton should’ve read Watership Down.  Ah, but Richard Adams’ classic was only published in 1972, the year the movie was released.  What was it about the mid-seventies and rabbits?  

Part of the problem is that Night of the Lepus takes itself seriously without the gravitas required to do so.  Who can believe actual rabbits are vicious when, to make them monstrous, the movie simply shows rabbits against miniature scenery?  Their human handlers occasionally smear their mouths with red, but a rabbit doesn’t appear cunning and vicious.  And to get them to attack people they had to use human actors in rabbit suits.  I’m a fan of nature going rampant as a vehicle for horror.  Hitchcock’s The Birds did it effectively.  So, I’m told, did Willard (which is remarkably difficult to access with HBO never having released it onto DVD).  The seventies were when ecology began to be recognized as perhaps the most important of global issues.  Half a century later we’re still struggling to reconcile ourselves with it.  Meanwhile the rabbits have begun to appear in our back yard.  They may nibble our perennials, but I’m not afraid.  At least as long as they don’t watch Night of the Lepus and start to get some ideas.

Bird Land

Since I like to blog about books, my usual reading practice is to stick with a book once I start it.  This can be problematic for short story collections because often there’s one in particular I want to read.  Somewhat embarrassed about it, I have to confess that sometimes it’s because I saw the movie first.  So it was with Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds.”  Du Maurier, the daughter of a father who also wrote horror, caught Alfred Hitchcock’s attention.  Several of his movies were based on her works.  Not all of them can be called horror—a genre that’s difficult to pin down—but they deal with gothic and thriller themes that had an appeal for Hitch.  In fact some analysts date the modern horror film to the period initiated by this iconic director.

I have a collection of du Maurier’s short stories, written in the day when 50 pages counted as a short story rather than “product” that could be “exploited” in various formats.  (Today it’s not easy to find literary magazines that will publish anything over 3,000 words, or roughly 10–12 pages.)  In any case, “The Birds” is an immersive tale.  The movie is quite different, of course, set in America with a cast of characters that can only be described as, well, Hitchcockian.  Du Maurier’s vision is much closer to the claustrophobic pandemic mindset.  A single English family, poor, tenant farmers, far from the centers of commerce, must figure out how to survive the bird attacks on their own.  The suddenly angry birds attack their hovel in time with the tides (they live near the coast) so the family has to gather supplies between attacks and try to last another night of pecking and clawing.

The story is quite effective.  Reading it suggests the importance of self-reliance and willingness to accept a changed reality on its own terms.  No explanation is given for the birds’ change of attitude.  Human intervention in the environment is supposed but how would a simple family living of the fringes of the fabric woven by the wealthy know?  Forced to react, they try to keep the kids calm while knowing, at some level, this can never end well.  The movie maintains the ambiguous ending, which is probably what makes it so scary.  Corvid or covid, there are things out there that drive us into our homes where we must shelter in place.  Although I didn’t read the whole book, this choice of story seems strangely apt for the current circumstances.

All Things Being Equinox

The weather around here has been appropriately gloomy for the autumnal equinox.  Although Hurricane Florence gave us a day of rain, the heavy clouds have been part of a pattern that has held largely since May.  Given the gray skies, we opted to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds last night.  My wife isn’t a horror fan, but she does like Hitch.  We’ve watched The Birds together many times, but this is the first time since I wrote Holy Horror.  I was somewhat surprised to recall how much Scripture plays into the script.  This is mostly due to a drunken doomsday sayer in the diner.  After the attack on the school kids of Bodega Bay, he declares that it’s the end of the world and begins citing the Bible.  He’s there for comic relief, but the way the movie ends he could be right.

When I was writing Holy Horror I had a few moments of panic myself.  Had I found all the horror films with the Bible in them?  Could anyone do so (without an academic job and perhaps a grant to take time off to watch movies)?  I eventually realized that I was merely providing a sample in that analysis.  Several weeks after I submitted the manuscript I watched The Blair Witch Project.  There was the Bible.  The same thing happened last night under a glowering late September sky.  The Birds has the Bible.  Two weeks ago I saw The Nun; well, that one’s almost cheating.  But you get the picture—the Good Book appears rather frequently in horror.  That’s what inspired me to write the book in the first place.

Now that nights are longer, and cooler, the grass has somewhat poignantly relinquished its aggressive summer growth.  Most of the ailanthus trees have been cut down (I must be part lumberjack).  My outside hours are limited not only by work but by the fading light.  In the words of the sage, “winter’s tuning up.”  We moved to a house we saw in the spring as days were lengthening.  Now we’ve come to the dividing line that will slowly leech the light from our evening skies.  I suspect that as I go back and watch some of my old favorites again I’ll discover something I already knew.  The Bible and horror belong together because both are means of coping with the darkness.  Call it puerile if you will, but there is something profound about this connection.  It just has to be dark for you to see it.

For the Love of Aqhat

It seems that a new season of The Simpsons is upon us. With the release of season twelve on DVD last week, recession-ridden families everywhere are piling up on their couches to be entertained. Initially I had a hard time accepting The Simpsons; I had seen too many failed adult cartoons to give me much encouragement that this would be something worth wasting my time on. Surprisingly, it became clear after just a couple of seasons that The Simpsons was witty, smart, and surprisingly ethical. This final point was so pronounced that Mark Pinsky wrote a book focusing on it entitled The Gospel According to The Simpsons (Westminster John Knox, 2001). As to be expected in a book with a foreword by Tony Campolo, it was a little devious, but still retained a kind of sugar coating. Nevertheless, I found the book worth reading.

Bart after the birds?

Bart after the birds?

The Simpsons frequently pokes fun at all of us who take ourselves too seriously. Most of the time it is evident that the writers have done their homework as well, pulling in sometimes obscure references to classical or biblical literature. Recently while watching the episode entitled “Bart the Mother” I was struck by an ancient theme which was surely accidental. In the episode, Bart, trying to prove himself to the neighborhood bully, shoots a mother bird with a b-b gun. Guilt immediately sets in and Bart is haunted by his cold-blooded act. In a dream he sees a bird tribunal doling out the punishment for his crime — having his face pecked off. I’m sure this owes more to Hitchcock than to Ugarit, but I can’t help shaking the idea that the scene is somehow informed by the Epic of Aqhat. In one of Ugarit’s classic stories, Aqhat is given a divine bow that is coveted by the goddess Anat. When he won’t relinquish it, Anat has Aqhat pecked to death by raptors, “twice upon the noggin, thrice upon the ear!” Ugarit remains shrouded in cultural obscurity, so no easy cultural reference can point to it. Everyone has seen Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The story of Aqhat, although sadly broken, is a classic of ancient literature. So much more to pity is that it remains nearly as unknown today as it was while buried under the ground for three and a half thousand years. A colleague of mine approached Penguin a few years back trying to pitch the idea that they sell a translation of the Ugaritic texts in their classics series. They flatly turned him down on the basis of “no public interest.” If the publishers won’t put these world heritage classics out there, how will there ever be interest generated? Perhaps those of us bitten by the Ugaritic bug simply circulate in circles too small to have any impact on what the world thinks. Beyond a few souvenir-hawking vendors in Syria and a few crusty scholars sheltered away in dusty academic libraries, nobody knows the story. It seems that Aqhat’s fate is equally grim — pecked to death by birds and completely forgotten because the story just doesn’t possess sales potential.