I have wanted to read The Doll: Short Stories ever since its publication in 2011. Most of the stories within this book were, says Polly Samson’s introduction, ‘written early in Daphne du Maurier’s career, yet they display her mastery of atmosphere, tension and intrigue and reveal a cynicism far beyond her years’.
The Doll is made up of thirteen stories in all. The title story was written when du Maurier was twenty: ‘It was the first thing she wrote in Fowey,’ Samson tells us, ‘having fled the distractions of a family life steeped in tittle-tattle and the Theatre. It’s a story of obsession, and the submerged anxieties of the young writer’s mind run through the pages like wine through water’. She believes that ‘all the themes in her later great novels can be seen here in embryonic form’. Samson’s introduction is nicely rounded, and it does not give too much away in terms of plots and characters.
The Doll is an incredibly dark collection of stories; possibly the darkest in du Maurier’s entire oeuvre. From the very first tale, du Maurier sets each scene marvellously; they are vivid, sometimes horribly so. Describing the ‘barren, rugged’ island of St Hilda’s, for example, she writes: ‘The island rises out of the sea a queer, misshapen crag, splendid in its desolation, with a grey face lifted to the four winds. It might have been thrown up from the depths of the Atlantic in a moment of great unrest, and set there, a small defiant piece of land, to withstand forever the anger of the sea’. She builds each story beautifully, to the extent that the reader is soon quite absorbed in each subsequent tale.
Many themes worm their way into du Maurier’s stories here, most of them manifested around love and all it brings with it – adultery, sexuality, crimes of passion, jealousy, sadism and obsession, for example. The stories tend to become quite gruesome in places. Du Maurier demonstrates the way in which outsiders can hld such power and influence, particularly in secluded communities. With regard to characters, those found within the pages of The Doll are often unusual and unpredictable, and they leap into life almost immediately. Of the main protagonist in ‘The Doll’, for example, the male narrator says the following: ‘Rebecca, when I think of you with your pale earnest face, your great wide fanatical eyes like a saint, the narrow mouth that hid your teeth, sharp and white as ivory, and your halo of savage hair, electric, dark, uncontrolled – there has never been anyone more beautiful’. Du Maurier’s narrative voices are so well controlled, whether she is writing from the first or third person, and as a male or female.
Each of the stories in The Doll are quite different, and all are unsettling in their own ways. The title story, for example, occurs when a notebook – its pages ‘so damaged by exposure [to the sea] as to render them completely illegible’ – is washed ashore and found by a doctor. Of the dark prose contained within the notebook, he says the following: ‘Whether the wild improbabilities of the story are true, or whether the whole is but the hysterical product of a diseased mind, we shall never know’. Throughout, atmosphere is built to the point at which it stifles. Of the doll, Julio, in ‘The Doll’, for instance, Du Maurier says: ‘His face was the most evil thing I have ever seen. It was ashen pale in colour, and the mouth was a crimson gash, sensual and depraved. The nose was thin, with curved nostrils, and the eyes were cruel, gleaming and narrow, and curiously still’.
The Doll: Short Stories is well paced and incredibly creepy at times. Interestingly, the stories feel very modern on the whole; one would not think that the majority had been penned during the 1920s and early 1930s. Masks and veils are used throughout, and we are lulled into a false sense of security. Elements are then revealed which are not at all expected, rendering this collection an incredibly memorable one.