Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

Writers I love To Read

author of RebeccaWe’ve spent a few weeks talking about gothic suspense authors which brings me this week to Daphne du Maurier.

Where to begin?  I guess Rebecca comes to mind first. Why?  For it’s famous first line:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

A hook if there ever was one, which catapults you into the next equally compelling paragraphs—three and a half pages of description. But what description.

“There was a padlock and chains upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper and got no answer.”


“No smoke came from the chimney and the little windows gaped forlorn.”


“Nature had come into her own again and little by little, in her stealthy insidious way, had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers.  The woods, always a menace in the past, had triumphed in the end.”

Nature as a malevolent interloper, you gotta love it.  This is description that manages to set the scene, the tone, the mood, the character and hint at what the story will be.  Brilliant, I think.An early cover

And that’s just the beginning.  And it’s only one book.  What about My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn, The House on the Strand to name a few.

Du Maurier also wrote plays, and nonfiction.  I love to read books are about her life in Cornwall, one of my favorite places on earth. (Check out www.dumaurier.org for interesting reading about her life, her father, the actor and the cigarettes named after him, and her home in Cornwall.)

Many of her stories were adapted for film.  And of the twentieth century gothic suspense authors, du Maurier, I think, was the luckiest with her adaptations. Due in large part to one man, Alfred Hitchcock.

Jamaican Inn, (1939)directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton.

Rebecca (1949) also directed by Hitchcock  and starring Lawrence Olivier,  Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson, later a PBS version (1997) starring Charles Dance and Dianna Rigg.

Hitchcock's Rebecca

My Cousin Rachel (1952) directed by Henry Koster with Olivia di Havilland and Richard Burton

The Birds (1963) Hitchcock directing with Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedron and Suzanne Pleshette.

Don’t Look Now, (1973) directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.

There were others. These directors and cast were wonderful for the most part and it’s great to have books adapted, but as much is lost as is gained by the immediacy of film.  You get the one first line in most productions of Rebecca, but after that the plot speeds along at the pace of . . . well filmmaking. I think sometimes a film overpowers the story as in the case of The Birds. The short story is gripping, but short and smaller, by its nature. But the novels, as wonderful as the films are, will always be first for me.

How do you feel about adaptations, and do you think they introduce viewers to authors or does their interest stop when they leave the theatre? Would you rather read, watch or do both?

Victoria Holt

Authors I Like to Read

Victoria Holt

It’s rainy, gray, a chill is in the air, and I’ve spent an hour or so this afternoon curled up with a good classic gothic romance, Mistress of Mellyn, by Victoria Holt.

There are certain authors whom I can never get enough of. Some of them are considered old fashioned, or un-feminist or a lot of other things.  But what’s important to me is their ability to transport me to another world and not let go until long after the book is done.

Victoria Holt (born Eleanor Burford, and married George Hibbert) wrote 200 novels under eight different pseudonyms over a range of subjects.

Her first published novel Beyond the Blue Mountains was written in 1947 as Jean Plaidy.

Mistress of Mellyn was her first gothic romance written as Victoria Holt, but that was not until 1960 and many books later. 

Martha Leigh, the heroine of the story is traveling to become a governess in a manse perched on the rugged cliffs of Cornwall and has this reflection:

“There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other to find a post in keeping with her gentility.” As the train carried me through wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taking this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.”

How can you not love Martha for that insight.

Holt has often said she focused on “women of integrity and strong character” who were “struggling for liberation, fighting for their own survival.”

And Martha doesn’t let her or us down.

 Cornwall happens to be one of my all time favorite places.  Its at the end of the world and no place is more beautiful on a cloudless day.  And no place quite so forlorn on a stormy night.  The perfect setting for compelling, other worldly, spine tingling, heart squeezing stories.

“Before us stretched a scene of breathtaking beauty.  The cliff rose steep and straight from the sea on that indented coast;  grasses and flowers grew there and I saw sea pinks and red and white valerian mingling with the heather—rich, deep purple heather.”

And later.

“The sea mist would come drifting in, wrapping itself about the gray stone of the house so that from the arbor in the south gardens it would sometimes be completely hidden.  The gulls seemed to screech on a melancholy note on such days as though they were warning us that life was a sorrowful affair.”

“Never regret,” Holt once said. “If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.” Good advice for heroines and for us.

What’s your favorite gothic novel? Let’s talk about it.

Shakespeare in Hollywood

Shakespeare in Hollywood

A few weeks ago we were talking about Mary Stewart.  So I reread one of my favorite’s This Rough Magic which takes place on the isle of Corfu, the alleged locale for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. When I finished the book I hauled out my Shakespeare and sat down to reread The Tempest.

It’s been a while and I confess at first I had trouble remembering who was who.  I figured it would be easier in production with actors dressed as their character.

I was out of Shakespeare shape. And I was struck by how styles change.  It has been several centuries.  I suppose it’s amazing that his work is still produced.

I mean what if William Shakespeare was a Hollywood screenwriter?

And then I got a little silly and imagined this scene.

Will goes to see his producer (agent, whatever.)

Will, baby. Come in.  Have a seat. Love the storm, gets em right  in the *****(Hand gesture).  Really gripping stuff.

But wha’s with the old dude and his daughter? You’re killing me here.  Backstory, backstory, yadda yadda, it’s a snooze. Gotta keep the action coming.

But not to worry. I got Chris Marlowe to do the rewrite.  He’s good with this kind of stuff.

And you got way too many characters coming on at the same time.  Hell, I don’t know who’s the Duke and who’s the King, is there a king?  And what’s a boatswain?

I say we focus on whats-her-name and the son. Turn up the steam, ya know?

 Brilliant that paranormal thing you have going with that Caliban dude. Maybe we can turn him into a sequel at the end of Act V.  Which reminds me, I been meaning to talk to you about that.  We only have three acts here in Hollywood.  But I think if you cut some of the backstory and all that business with the clowns, you can make it fit.

And the Ariel creature.  He waggles his hand.  Not sure about her. Him? I’ll see what Chris thinks about it. Maybe he can spice it up a bit. Send it over to the fx guys.

Stunned Will walks out to the street.  The heat is pouring up from the pavement. But he finds the one spot of shade under a eucalyptus tree.  Pulls out his iphone.  Makes note to self:

3:22 PM.

‘Tis ten to one this play can never please

All that are here.  Some come to take their ease,

And sleep an act or two

That done he gets up and sees a Starbucks across the street. He waits for a truck to pass then goes inside.

Phyllis Whitney

Writers I Love to Read

Well loved American suspense wirterPhyllis Whitney

A few weeks ago we were discussing Mary Stewart and someone mentioned Phyllis Whitney.  Whitney and Stewart were contemporaries, Phyllis 1903-2008 and Mary 1916. American and English.

Whitney was often called the Queen of the American gothic, though she insisted that she wrote romantic suspense.

I always like Phyllis Whitney, at first because she had once wanted to be a dancer and when I first started to write seriously, I felt a camaraderie with her, because I had been a dancer, too.

I hadn’t read her for awhile so I went back last week and read two of her books that I found on my bookshelf, Hunter’s Green (1968) and The Singing Stones (1990.) Her stories certainly have dark gothic overtones. A true women in jeopardy kind of story.

She was a master of creating that claustrophobic feeling of the heroine surrounded by people with dark motivations and machinations.  Everyone is suspect.  And she kept me guessing even though I had read them years before.

And though 22 years separated these two books, their themes were similar.  A young immature woman marries who she thinks is her soul mate  only to lose his love, or flee and has come back to try to understand herself.  And him. To see if she has grown at all and if there might still be a future for them.  Yet they are surrounded by people who are determined to stop them no matter what the risk or the price.

I confess this time around I did become a little annoyed at the timidity and naiveté of her heroines.  But this is classic romantic suspense.  And if I prefer the handier more outspoken heroines of Mary Stewart, I can certainly appreciate the feeling of hopelessness and the final development of the heroine.

Phyllis WhitneyFrom The Singing Stones

“When I went into my bathroom to stare at myself in the mirror, I saw crusted blood along the scratch on my cheek, but that was superficial.  My hair was a mess, and my coat was smeared with red dust.  All of which could be easily repaired.  I wasn’t so sure about the look in my eyes—a look of uncried tears.  Not because I’d nearly lost my life, but because I’d been looking at a batch of old pictures that belonged to two people who had lived in another time.  These were tears I didn’t dare to shed.”

Or Hunter’s Green

“As I ran along the pavement’s edge I brushed past wet shrubbery that slapped at me, weighted by the rain, and I almost fell as I stumbled over something which lay across the roadway at my feet.  Something which lay facedown and unmoving, clad in a green trench coat, with a plastic hood covering the head, a coat of hunter’s green streaked by scarlet threads that ran in the rivulets of rain.”

Much darker than Stewart’s stories, the menace is constant and unknown.

Whitney also wrote craft books.

From the Guide to Fiction Writing: Some of her advice to writers:

“Never mind the rejections, the discouragement, the voices of ridicule (there can be those too).  Work and wait and learn, and that train will come by. If you give up, you’ll never have a chance to climb aboard.”

And one of my favorites.

“Good stories are not written, they are rewritten”

So what do you think?  Can her stories appeal to today’s readers.  Or do we have to step back  to a less aggressive time  to experience the true intensity and fear and hopelessness of those young women?