As a writer, I know I’m on the right path when I feel afraid to sit down to work every day; and as a reader, I’m most drawn to stories that confront the terrors, as well as the beauties, of being human. Horror and its handmaidens—fear, disgust, revulsion, dread, panic—are great teachers; by daring us to look away, they invite us to look closer. If you want to know what sickens a society, investigate its most disturbing art; the answers, usually, are there.
None of the following titles would be classified as horror in your local bookstore, because horror itself is not the point of these narratives; rather, their power to disturb is the result of their unflinching insistence on exposing the horror (which in daily life is treated as mundane, if it is treated any way at all)—of life, sex, and love under patriarchy. Representing work from Japan, Canada, Argentina, France, Austria, England, and the U.S., speaking from the 1930s to today, these 10 women writers are just a handful of storytellers whose work has kept me up at night, wondering about my own relationship to the fantastic horrors they depict.
1. The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns
“She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.” So begins Comyns’s harrowing tale about Alice, the daughter of a highly disturbed vet, who discovers a secret power she will eventually use against those who seek to humiliate her. Alice’s voice, speaking to the reader with an eerie calm, belies a lifetime of suppressed rage; and her ability to recognize the animal nature in everyone around her is a reminder that the bestial need not be a symbol of debasement, but of a source of power and solidarity. The Vet’s Daughter reminds us that the man who thinks he’s superior to all Others—animal and otherwise—is often the most dangerous animal of all.
2. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Spark’s The Driver’s Seat is an awfully funny and disturbing story about a woman intent on destroying herself by convincing a man to murder her: but first, she has some errands to run. Viciously degrading everyone who stands in the path of her desire, whether it’s a hapless clerk in a department store or her fellow passengers on an airplane flying her to her ultimate rendezvous, Lise is repulsively unlikable. Likewise, Spark’s prose provokes extreme discomfort; everything is pushed to a grotesquely sensuous hysteria; colors clash, sounds scream, and emotions run the most exaggerated highs and lows, making Lise’s longing for annihilation seem both terrible and logical at the same time, a cancerous response to the objectification and erotic limitations placed on the female body.
3. The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé (translated by Rhonda Mullins)
A brief, impressionistic novel recalling the narrator’s father’s memories of his work patching up the dead, this slim book is made up of just as much white space as actual text, and it is in these gaps between scenes of extraordinarily vivid evocations of deaths that the experience of The Embalmer begs the question: How, in the face of certain death, do we make sense of life? In what ways does our suffering connect to the experiences of our families, friends, neighbors, and strangers? And what is the nature of work, artistic and otherwise? The deaths described, whether freakish or mundane, do justice to the pathos of all loss, giving the reader a singular experience of her own mortality. Timeless, plotless, disjointed, there is just the slimmest sense of a cohesive narrative connecting the second-hand tales, as fragmented, and fragile, as life itself.
4. My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan Stump)
Two schoolteachers in a small-town French community slowly become, for reasons unknown, intolerable to their neighbors; abandoning her husband, who seems to be rotting from the inside out, strange physical ailments and unexplained transformations force Nadia to seek refuge at her son’s ominous mountaintop estate, while something inside her belly grows and grows. More gothic than Dracula in mood, and ten times as terrifying, this is a novel whose horror—physical and atmospheric, precise yet inexplicable—feels timeless; it could have been written at any moment in the past two hundred years. A nightmare of a book that raises plenty of questions about community, class, and motherhood, but offers no answers.
5. House of Mist by María Luisa Bombal
A dreamy ghost story about a woman who marries a heartless husband, reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, this haunting, disorienting story is like a body wrapped in endless layers of gauze; you know there’s something solid at the core, but you can never quite touch it. As Helga, first an orphan and then a lonely bride, tries to make sense of life on a fog-enshrouded estate in the woods, cruelly but subtlely bullied and taunted by Daniel, fantasy and reality become hopelessly—or, perhaps, hopefully—blurred; by the end of the novel one feels that the fantasies Helga indulges in aren’t about escapism, but truly about escape; for a woman trapped in a world where her body is never absolutely her own, the only way out is through the imagining of a new world, where she is the teller of her own tale. House of Mist is often described as an early example of magical realism, and I agree that term works beautifully here; this is a novel that proves that sometimes the best way to depict the real is by way of magic.
6. Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kono (translated by Lucy North)
Family curses, dangerous obsessions, and sexual violence saturate this collection of startling imaginative stories. In the title piece, a childless woman who despises little girls becomes obsessed with the desire to dress little boys in beautiful, expensive clothes; in “Theater,” a wife estranged from her husband develops a dark attachment to a cruel hunchback and his beautiful, masochistic wife; and in “Snow,” a family tragedy drives an unwanted daughter to fulfill a deadly wish. What is most remarkable about Kono’s work is how she treats taboo subject matter; without sensationalism or surprise, and never with the aim to shock, but rather to gently instruct us in all the ways in which shame can destroy, and desire liberate. Creepy, sympathetic, and strange, these masterful stories unsettle, comfort, and devastate in equal measure.
7. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
Written in 1947, this noir masterpiece is narrated by a chillingly rational psychopath who stalks Los Angeles in search of young, single women. Hughes resists the sensational, keeping the violence mostly off-stage; instead, what makes Hughes’s novel so compelling and so disturbing is its focus on the mundanity of her killer’s life and motives; many readers will recognize the toxic masculinity seething beneath the surface of a charming, intelligent man who, feeling the world has not given him what he is owed, unleashes his rage on the bodies of women. It’s fast-paced, beautifully written, and almost suffocatingly dark in tone, and yet In a Lonely Place manages to resist cynicism, embracing instead a message of empowerment at its climax, refusing to glorify violence at the expense of its female characters—a truly radical stance that ennobles the murder-mystery genre.
8. The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop (translated by Don Bapst)
A genteel, mild-mannered antiques dealer details his romantic and sexual obsessions with the corpses he digs up—and the result is less disgusting and more emotional than one might expect a (fictional) necrophiliac’s diary to be. A stunning example of how the most precise, unflinching descriptions of horrific acts can push a reader beyond terror into the realm of understanding, sympathy, and, even, tenderness, revealing, through its examination of a particular perversion, the perversion of all desires born of loneliness. A troubling, exquisite gem of a book that has been unnerving European audiences since its publication in 1972.
9. Greed by Elfriede Jelinek (translated by Martin Chalmers)
This nearly plotless novel, about a girl who is drowned by a policeman in rural Austria, takes a typical murder mystery/detective story and turns it viciously inside out; there is no mystery, and the protagonist of the story is not the victim or those seeking justice for her, but the polluted lake in which she dies. Jelinek describes the toxic body of water with an intensity of sensual detail that is both ravishing and sickening, as if the lake itself was the body of a beautiful murdered girl. A relentlessly bleak examination of patriarchy, bourgeois values, and violence against women, it is also an elegy for the natural world, polluted by the metaphorical murderer’s indifference to all Others, human and otherwise: This is horror with an uncompromising moral vision.
10. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Smart, socially isolated teenager Silvie and her family join a class of archaeology students in the woods to re-enact the lives of a pre-industrial tribe. As the males of the group split off from the women, engaged in more and more violent and mysterious pursuits at the base of the Ghost Wall, Silvie wonders if her father’s worldview—that psychological and physical violence must necessarily be inscribed not only on female bodies, but all bodies of nature—is her only inheritance. The tense realism of Moss’s prose, juxtaposed with the increasingly mythical movement of the text, begs the reader to question the ways in which we are willing to sacrifice ourselves, and others, in the name of preserving male supremacy. A potent, exquisitely written reminder of how effectively a horror story can expose and reflect contemporary social concerns.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Unsplash/Christian Widell.
As we celebrate Charlotte Brontë’s 201st birthday this month, it’s hard not to feel awe for a woman who not only rose to literary stardom against all odds, but managed to keep her storied place in literary history for two centuries.
Evidence of Brontë’s enduring popularity is everywhere, not least in the large number of adaptations and re-tellings her books have inspired. Spin-offs have produced wonderfully beloved novels in their own right, and their pace of production doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Check out these six books — wildly different in tone and style — that all share the same inspiration: Charlotte Brontë.
1. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Eyre Affair takes place in an alternative 1985, where you can, quite literally, become lost in a novel. The protagonist, Thursday Next, is a seasoned “literary detective” who faces a career-changing challenge the day that Jane Eyre is suddenly and inexplicably kidnapped from her own novel. “The barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think,” warns one Fforde’s characters, “a bit like a frozen lake. Hundreds of people can walk across it, but then one evening a thin spot develops and someone falls through; the hole is frozen over by the following morning.” A fun, clever read for anyone who loves speculative fiction.
2. Reader, I Married Him, edited by Tracy Chevalier
Jane Eyre’s famous line, “Reader, I married him,” is the springboard for this recent short story collection, which features Brontë-inspired short stories from 21 of today’s great female writers, including Helen Dunmore, Sarah Hall, Emma Donoghue, and Evie Wyld. The central quote is an important one; “Reader, I married him” was a revolutionary declaration in 1847. Jane was not being chosen — rather, she was doing the choosing. Brontë fans will particularly enjoy the stories told from the perspective of Rochester and Grace Poole.
3. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
This is terrific read for anyone who loves mystery, romance, and Jane Eyre. Rebecca, while not a governess, is similarly undignified as a “paid companion.” Both Rebecca and Jane are barely adults when they meet their mysterious future husbands, both men with dark secrets in their past (the secret in each case is an estranged wife). Both Jane and Rebecca go to live in a gothic manor that is, conveniently, brimming with secrets. However, the comparison between the two novels is not perfect, and Rebecca has many delightful surprises of its own, the most interesting being the oft-debated subtext surrounding Mrs. Danvers. If you love the book, definitely watch Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation.
4. The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, by Deborah Lutz
It’s hard to believe there’s anything left to reveal about the Brontës’ lives, but Lutz proves us wrong! This detailed biography tells the story of the Brontë sisters through the lens of the physical objects they used every day, from their portable writing desks to their walking sticks. Each possession paints an intimate picture of the Brontës and gives us a unique window into their lives. One of the most powerful chapters centers around an amethyst bracelet Charlotte wore after the death of her sisters. The bracelet is made from the hair of Anne and Emily, a symbol of Charlotte’s grief and enduring affection.
5. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
In this spell-binding novel, Rhys gives us the prequel to Jane Eyre, starting from when Bertha (then named Antionette Cosway) was an heiress living in Jamaica. Rhys uses the backstory of Jane Eyre’s infamous madwoman to explore the legacy of colonialism, and what happens to a woman who no longer has control over her life. Suffering from a deep identity crisis and spiritual suffocation at the hands of her husband, we learn how and why Bertha spirals into insanity. “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all,” she says.
6. Jane Steele, by Lyndsay Faye
Reader, I murdered him? In this Brontë-inspired novel, Jane Steele is a orphan who appears similar to Jane Eyre except for one small thing: she’s a serial killer. The novel explores what happens when a defenseless underdog in Victorian England takes an inner rebelliousness to the ultimate extreme. In an interview with Read It Forward, Faye explains her unorthodox choice: “Is Jane Steele right to consider herself evil? If you kill for self-defense, is that unforgivable? What about killing for love? What about killing to protect a helpless child from a predator? When is doing the wrong thing actually the right thing?”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I read a bunch of Virago Modern Classics this year, for a thing. All of them were interesting in various ways, and many were great, but the one that took the top of my head off was Vera, by Elizabeth von Arnim, from 1921.
Elizabeth von Arnim had one of those lives: H. G. Wells was her lover; Katherine Mansfield was her cousin; E. M. Forster was her children’s tutor; Bertrand Russell was her brother-in-law. She was successful and prolific, and when she died in 1941 her obituary in the Times said that everything she wrote “was interpenetrated by her pervasive sense of fun.” I am here to tell you that this is false, and that Vera, although very funny in places, is mostly interpenetrated by the author’s terrible knowledge of mental torture and cruelty.
The story will sound familiar to anyone conversant with the Virago genre: a naive girl is swept off her feet by a charming widower, only to discover that marriage to him is not what she expected. (The book is named for the late wife who shadows their household — a thread that prefigures the better-known Rebecca.) What’s less familiar is the virtuosic precision of von Arnim’s tone, at once satirical and tragic even as the book builds into a psychological horror story.
I should be clear about that last part: this book terrified me. And yet it packs its sinister payload into an impeccably ordinary literary-realist novel, with character development and social observation and sharp dialogue. As I read it, on an airplane flight, I was at first charmed and entertained and then increasingly aghast, and when I finished the world around me seemed like an insubstantial lie.
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As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.
“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.
“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.
“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”
I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.
Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.
“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”
I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.
“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”
“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.
I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.
From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.
I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.
If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:
Dinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.
At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”
And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.
If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.
Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”
The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.
As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.
The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.
While the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome…
Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.
My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.
When I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.
I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.
When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.
But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.
I will put my arm around her and start like this:
CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…
Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.
[Image credit: Frank]
It’s all about the water, isn’t it. You travel on it, you cross bridges over it, reflections in it confuse you, and when you’re lost (which most people in that labyrinthine city usually are), you end right up against another bloody canal when instead you should be strolling into your hotel lobby at two in the morning after one too many Bellinis at Harry’s Bar. It’s the prototype for Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. At one point in it Marco Polo says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” There’s no place on earth quite like it. And in Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, Venice deep in its winter is a sullen, mirthless place of steep shadows and greasy waterways where you go to die as though it were the very ends of the earth and you had run out of time.
The English have often been drawn to Venice for their literary settings, and apart from expatriate American Henry James, who chose the city as setting for The Wings of the Dove (another death, of course, in Venice), perhaps it’s thanks to film director Nicolas Roeg that Daphne du Maurier is also known for making use of the city. His adaptation of her short story “Don’t Look Now” was a critical and popular success when released in 1973, and was chosen by the British Film Institute as eighth in their top 100 British films. Both the source material (recently reissued in a collection of du Maurier’s stories by NYRB Books, selected and introduced by Patrick McGrath) and the film are superior entertainments that extend far beyond the expected frissons of genre.
The term “psychological thriller” is particularly apt in both cases. This is a tale about faith, doubt, and death. Not to mention what can only be called after-death, since we experience it twice in the course of the film. And though movie-making has generally become all about blowing things up, Don’t Look Now, almost forty years later, still retains its quiet ability to unnerve an audience, hauntingly and without ever completely giving up its secrets. What Roeg has added to the narrative, apart from a much fuller depiction of the main characters’ relationship, is a story about the thin membrane of reality. The capabilities of film draw us visually into this tale of a city, a murderer and the death of a child.
Daphne du Maurier was for many years considered a minor English novelist and short-story writer: a best-seller, certainly, but something of a “women’s writer.” Best remembered for her novels Rebecca and Jamaica Inn (both filmed by Alfred Hitchcock) she’s also known for writing the story Hitchcock’s The Birds was based upon (she hated the film as much as she loved Roeg’s version of “Don’t Look Now”). Both that story and “Don’t Look Now” reveal a subtle and psychologically astute mind at work. Where Roeg gives it to us in full, du Maurier merely suggests; she makes us do the work. In both cases, film and story, the reader is left with mysteries that are inescapably human and somehow always just out of reach. For me, as a sometime screenwriter, the finest movies are like the best works of fiction when they leave the reader to fill in the gaps. The audience should always take away something from the experience that remains unanswered. So that time and again we’re drawn back to think about it, or see it once again, and then see it in a whole new light. Antonioni’s films are like that, as are those of Krzystof Kieslowski. Art should always pose questions, not give us answers.
Like all the best cinematic adaptations (in this case, by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant), Don’t Look Now is exact not necessarily to the facts of the story but is completely faithful to the poetry of the piece, the intent of the original.
It begins with a death. It begins with water. It blossoms into grief that yearns for relief, and comes with a premonition that’s firmly planted in the viewer’s mind—in a film that works upon its audience like something read, lifted from the celluloid by the eyes and stashed in the memory, so full is it of significance, be it moments or glances—as though it were a key image in a poem that would return in a later stanza, twisted and cast in a different light but instantly recognized. At which point, as you rise from your seat and walk out into the night, you realize you have to see the film all over again to grasp its meaning. You sense that every line of dialogue, every shot that may seem throwaway or simply scenic, contributes to the growing sense of unease in this movie that, like illness setting in, comes over us as an undefined uncertain feeling before blossoming into a chill, then fever, then pain.
And then the release, which leaves one of the characters dead and the other somehow vindicated: this death had to happen, just as Venice had to happen. A death for a death; the stillness of a memory redeemed.
The film opens as John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) sit by the fire on a chilly autumn day in a cottage in northeast England while their young son and daughter play outside in the brittle sunshine of a dying afternoon. John’s an architect, about to leave for Venice to oversee the restoration of the Church of St. Nicholas. As he examines photographic slides of the building, Laura asks a question their little girl had posed to her earlier: “If the world is round, why is a frozen pond flat?” The only answer he comes up with is key to our understanding of the film: “Nothing is as it seems.”
(Including, I might add, the infamous love scene that comes some thirty minutes into the movie. Censored in some countries, it earned the film an X rating when it opened in Britain and for years had been censored and re-edited on video releases in the US. What looks on the screen like the real thing was, according to Sutherland, all acting. Roeg would say put your hand here, turn your head, and so on. It looks like genuine passion, but of course nothing is as it seems.)
John is the rational man, the author of a book glimpsed early on, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (Joseph Lanza’s long out-of-print book on Nicolas Roeg, entitled Fragile Geometry, is well worth reading; if you can find and afford a copy, that is) who clings to his need for hard reality, the patient precision of rebuilding a church. Laura is the emotional one who hasn’t been able to let go of her lost daughter who drowns while her parents mull over why a frozen pond is flat. Laura comes to Venice in a fragile state, hoping that she’ll be able to find her footing and discover clarity.
In this watery city reality is fluid, as if the minds of the characters had molded Venice to fit their anguish, confusion and inability to accept the truth of things. On top of all this there’s a serial killer loose in Venice. Two people have been found with their throats cut. There will be another before the credits run nearly two hours later.
Two sisters, twins from Scotland, stand at the center of this story. In du Maurier’s we meet them in the first sentence: “’Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’” As du Maurier suggests, they may even be men in drag. One is blind; though sightless, she possesses vision. She has a connection with the spirit world, and when she reveals to Laura minutes later at the restaurant that she “saw” the dead child happily sitting with her parents, dressed just as Laura remembered her, Laura suddenly sheds her grief. Life can now start anew. But John thinks that his wife, aided and abetted by a phony medium, is losing it.
When Laura returns for a quick visit to their son, hurt in a sports accident (appendicitis in the du Maurier story) at his school in England, John is certain that he’s seen his wife in Venice with the twin sisters, on a vaporetto, chugging up the Grand Canal. What he’s seeing, we’ll learn, is some later moment when he’ll no longer be there. He’s looking into a future that lies beyond his time. In this world, past and future are contained in the present, as though it were a universe concocted by the grand magicians of matters temporal, Marcel Proust and, in his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
We’re in the opening minutes of the film, in that cottage in Suffolk on a cold Sunday afternoon. Just before their daughter in her red plastic raincoat drowns in the pond, John spills a glass of water over one of his slides, a shot of the interior of the church, where sitting in a pew appears to be a child in a red coat with a hood. The water distorts the celluloid, and the red of the coat blossoms over the transparency like blood spilling from a murdered man’s throat. As Mark Sanderson points out in his book-length study of the film, that scene—in fact the entire seven-minute opening sequence—tells us everything we are about to see in Don’t Look Now. Everything is figuratively or literally second-sight in this movie: both what the blind medium sees, and what we watch. We’ve seen it all before, right at the beginning, and now, because it needs to draw us deeper into the story, we get to see it again.
Of course in prose this wouldn’t work. We can parse too much at our leisure, examine the words, understand their meanings, see the subtleties. A movie possesses a literalness that a truly good piece of fiction doesn’t, or shouldn’t. Because we can’t, in the first instance, flip back to an earlier scene (though DVDs make this much simpler), and because it’s presumed (and hoped) that we’re seeing this movie for the first time at the cinema, we experience it as one continuous unspooling of narration. It’s on subsequent viewings that the rewards of Don’t Look Now truly emerge. We see how much we have to work to look at all the elements in a scene, how much Roeg is compelling us to linger over the objects in a hotel room, the expressions on Julie Christie’s face, the mosaic tiles in the Church of St. Nicholas. And yet it remains a mystery to us. It eludes us in the end. We feel we have witnessed a kind of ancient sacrificial rite playing itself out in an unreal city, and that something necessary has happened. We see it on Laura’s face as, the two sisters beside her, she stands on the vaporetto as it makes its way up the Grand Canal to a funeral. Winter’s about to break, and spring’s only weeks away. The gods have been served.
Like all the best works of fiction, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now makes us want to experience it all over again. And still we won’t be able to find the words to say exactly what it all means.