Last year, for DDM reading week with Heavenali, I only had time for one short story. I chose The Birds, the first story in one of my beautiful Virago Designer Classic editions. This year I was more organised and finally finished the rest of the collection.
The other stories include:
- Monte Verità (pp. 44-113) “They told me afterwards they had found nothing. No trace of anyone, living or dead.“
- The Apple Tree (pp. 114-157) “It was three months after she died that he first noticed the apple tree.”
- The Little Photographer (pp. 158-201) “The Marquise lay on her chaise-longue on the balcony of the hotel.“
- Kiss Me Again, Stranger (pp. 202-226) “I looked around for a bit, after leaving the army and before settling down, and then I found myself a job up Hampstead way, in a garage it was, at the bottom of Haverstock Hill near Chalk Farm, and it suited me fine.“
- The Old Man (pp. 227-237) “Did I hear you asking about the Old Man? I thought so. You’re a newcomer to the district, here on holiday.”
The collection was originally published in 1952 as The Apple Tree, but after the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie, the collection was republished as The Birds.
All six stories were completely different from each other, except for the part where someone died or disappeared, usually from mysterious circumstances. And we travelled quite widely, from a mysterious European mountain top retreat, to the lonely clifftop walks of a French resort area – a possessed tree to a late night bus ride through the northern suburbs of London. I thoroughly enjoyed them all.
Monte Verità is the longest story in the collection and follows two childhood friends, who grow up to become mountain climbing buddies in the period just before WWI. One of them marries and takes his new bride to climb Monte Verità. Unfortunately for him, on top of Monte Verità is an enclosed community that calls new disciples to it in mysterious ways. The new bride is one such disciple. Nothing sways her from her new path to truth and peace.
The groom is left distraught and ends up living in the little village at the bottom of the mountain. The villagers are also unhappy with the number of it’s community who have disappeared into the enclave and plan an attack on the stone fortress. DDM gives us a glimspe of life inside the enclave before ending the story in a deliciously mysterious way. A foreboding atmosphere hangs over every page, yet somehow it is also charming and tender and rather nostalgic in tone.
The Apple Tree is a classic haunted tree story. A widower is suddenly struck by how one of the apple trees in the yard reminds him of his recently departed wife, “Its few branches…spread themselves in martyred resignation, as though chilled by the fresh morning air…the topmost branch…could have been a drooping head poked forward in an attitude of weariness.“
It was obviously not a happy or satisfying marriage. The reader initailly feels sorry for our protagonist but as the story unfolds, we begin to wonder in what ways he also made his wife unhappy. The apple tree begins to impact on his newfound peace and quiet. Is the apple tree out to get him or is his guilty conscience anthropomorphizing the tree? Foreboding oozes from every page.
The Little Photographer is one of the few stories in this collection told from the point of view of a woman. The Marquise is a beautiful, well-to-do woman with too much time on her hands, holidaying in the south of France. Her children are not enough of a distraction (thanks to the governess) and being beautiful all the time is tiring, until she hits on the idea of taking up a lover.
The young photographer from the nearby village doesn’t stand a chance! But who is manipulating who? As always DDM doesn’t let any of her characters get off scott-free. After a slow, languorous start, the sudden shocking end upsets everyone concerned.
Kiss Me Again, Stranger is a post-WWII story. A returned soldier, turned mechanic is happily single until a chance meeting at the cinema gives him a glimspe of another possibility.
But who is this strange young woman that leads him on and who has an odd fascination with cemeteries? When innocence and naivety meets traumatised victim, who will DDM favour?
The Old Man is one of those stories that proves that DDM doesn’t mind leading her readers up the proverbial garden path. In this story, she deliberately misleads and obscures the truth, making us believe one thing, when really it’s something else entirely. Neatly done.
As always, thanks to Ali for encouraging me to read more DDM. I love her storytelling style – the creepy edges, the sinister undertones, the unsettling denouement. She is unafraid of confusion and chaos. DDM does not write horror as such and these short stories are not quite gothic either, unless you take a very broad definition of both. Mystery, fear and dread though pervade each story in just the right amounts.
My DDM Reads So Far:
- Cover design ‘Boomerang’ by Neisha Crosland.
- Initially published as a collection called The Apple Tree in 1952.
- The Birds was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor and Jessica Tandy in 1963.
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.