Infectious Dread: from My Cousin Rachel to The Screwfly Solution – Daphne du Maurier & Alice Sheldon

The book I was reading gave me a panic attack this week.

The book was My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. It’s the story of a young man’s relationship with his beloved cousin’s widow, and how he is almost eaten alive by jealousy and suspicion before taking a leap of faith that precipitates all manner of catastrophe. The book is a phenomenal tease – it never lies to you, just lets you suspect first one way, and then another, and then back and forth and back and forth, following the hysterical observations of a young man you are always one step ahead of, about a woman you are always three steps behind. It’s wonderful, rich and atmospheric, but vertiginous and cruel, and its passions leave you staggering between sympathy and despair. It may well be the scariest novel I have read in years.

The dread comes from the fear that the person you love is not who they appear to be, which is frankly a fate that every single human on earth has been victim to at some point in their life, and that there is something essential about the world you are living in and counting on which you simply do not perceive or understand correctly. You just can’t be sure… And more than that, du Maurier makes great play from that disorientating nausea we experience when we recognise that we have just made a mistake, that we have stepped into a trap. Du Maurier works hard to establish Philip, the book’s sort-of hero, as a naïve and arrogant chauvinist, a spoilt boy who nevertheless never loses your compassion and empathy because you recognise that he’s a product of his times and upbringing and in his heart he means well. Like a puppy he bounces from foolish idea to ridiculous plan, driven by his desire to uphold his responsibilities and serve well the people he loves and trusts. So by the time he starts making his third round of plans, you’ve already been tricked into empathising and sympathising with this manchild… and you know that even while he is certain of his plans, you are going to be beside yourself with doubt.

It isn’t intended to be a horror story, and maybe it was just my state of mind when I read it, but that furious jealousy and exhausted anxious dread were palpable on every page, right from the very first sad, nostalgic pages, when Philip recounts an early memory of his cousin and a dangling murderer at his gallows. Daphne du Maurier was pigeon-holed as a writer of picaresque romances, and while she could certainly put together a dramatic, swooning page turner, she was fundamentally a skilled writer incredibly adept at evoking deep and complicated emotions and motivations, without descending to overwritten and vulgar purple prose. Perfectly proper. But deranged.

I think it’s a Margaret Atwood line – men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them. The worst fate that faces Philip is that his heart is broken and he might lose his inheritance… Rachel faces penury, ruin and doom. After all, she has nothing of her own save her debts and intelligence, and like Hedda Gabler, another ambiguous heroine who is suspected and dreaded because she has greater ambitions than kneeling for the rest of her life, she needs must rely on the kindness of strangers. One reading of the book is that Rachel’s life is a humiliation of pandering to her lessers, allowing them to posit her as a damsel in distress when she is every bit their superior. But the story isn’t and really she was a monster or and how they done her wrong… and it’s all the better for that because those stories would make Rachel just a character. Instead the story is and we never knew for sure… and because of this Rachel is the story – an unknowable enigma rising above all the characters. Because of this she lives beyond the book.

Daphne du Maurier also lives beyond the book, and was an incredible woman herself. She was born in 1907, the middle daughter of a respected actor manager, himself the son of a famous novelist, and she was raised to want for nothing, while not actually owning anything for herself. But rather than rely on others, she created a life for herself as a phenomenally successful novelist, never out of print, a respected and ambitious talent on her own terms. Hitchcock made three of her stories into films, two of them – Rebecca and The Birds – masterpieces that define his career. I just finished reading her biography, by Margaret Forster, and in the letters unearthed by Forster, du Maurier is also revealed as a person with a fantastical internal life, that even those closest to her never suspected. She had at least three extremely close and powerful romantic relationships with women, and although she deliberately never identified as gay, she maintained a complicated interior dynamic. She wrote of herself:

…and then the boy realised that he had to grow up, and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive one at that, and the boy was locked in a box forever. Daphne du Maurier wrote her books, and had young men, and later a husband, and children, and a lover, and life was sometimes lovely and sometimes rather sad, but when she found her home and lived in it alone, she opened up the box sometimes and let the phantom, who was neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no one to see…

How terrible to feel that you have to hide that special part of you, or perhaps how everyday. Perhaps this private source of energy found its way into her stories, perhaps it made her a thrilling friend and lover to those women in her life, perhaps it shone out of her in spite of her efforts, and was part of what warmed those closest to her throughout her life. But when her closest female partner, Ellen Doubleday, died, no one around her understood exactly who she was mourning. And that is a lonely, terrible fate. Ellen was apparently the model for Rachel, but it doesn’t require particularly close reading to see Daphne herself in the powerful but thwarted, ambiguous cousin. You look at your lover and you doubt what they are thinking, what they are feeling. Who is this person, really, who you have planned to spend the rest of your life with?

Daphne was married most of her life to Tommy Browning, a World War One hero who went on to develop the paratroop regiment in World War Two. Dirk Bogarde played him in A Bridge Too Far, which was a phrase he himself coined. Boy Browning was a powerful, respected soldier and establishment figure, a public servant his whole life. Their marriage was unconventional, but clearly loving on a level from which they both drew strength and satisfaction. You don’t get to fall in love with someone with Daphne du Maurier’s imagination and will and then complain when that imagination and will takes you to places you hadn’t imagined, which require strength you hadn’t anticipated.

It’s interesting. In real terms Daphne du Maurier seems to have had very little in common with the American writer Alice Bradley Sheldon. Bradley was born in Chicago in 1915, seven or eight years after du Maurier, and wrote science fiction stories under a series of pseudonyms, most notably James Tiptree Jnr. I have a special affection for her because I grew up in the small Essex village that gave its name to the locally-produced jams that went on to inspire Alice’s nom de plume.  My sweet spot, so to speak. Her work never achieved the renown of du Maurier’s (if romance is a vulgar, almost illegitimate, genre, then sci-fi is an absolute bastard), but that might in part be due to how Bradley Sheldon worked. For the majority of her career everyone believed that James Tiptree Jnr was real, that he was a flesh and blood man knocking out well-observed and insightful stories about technology and identity. No one suspected that the actual author was this strange woman from Chicago, who had been raised in a penthouse by socialites and as a baby had been spirited away to explore Africa on a safari or two. Writers and fans carried out long friendships with her by letter, never suspecting that their friend was really a woman.

She wrote:

A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damn occupation. 

Like Daphne, Alice grew up rich, but needed something other than the freedom her parents’ money seemed to rent her, and she fell into writing as just one of the careers she experimented with after her time in World War Two. In the war she became particularly skilled at identifying factories and machinery from the new technology of high altitude photography, and this work literally gave her a brand new perspective, one you could argue had never existed before in the world.

(Incidentally, there is a book to be written about the breed of women who were inspired by the war to become something new and strange and wonderful – there was the self-taught explorer Freya Stark, who developed spy networks in the Middle East, and Lee Miller, who parlayed a career as a fashion photographer and surrealist into work as a war correspondent and photojournalist, following the Allies East towards death camps and battlefields… together with Alice they were part of a secret army of imagination and will, turned to skill and power. They weren’t just liberating themselves.)

It was in the war that Alice fell in love with her own war hero – Air Force intelligence officer Huntington Sheldon, who after the war found himself as the Director of the Office of Current Intelligence at the CIA and Alice’s husband. Alice’s own wonderful biographer, Julie Phillips, tells the terrific story of how Alice met her husband and made him fall in love with her by beating him at blindfold chess.

Alice’s marriage lasted for the rest of their lives, but like Daphne she had a complicated relationship with her sexuality. I don’t believe that she ever identified as gay, but she had flings with women early in life, and seemed driven by a dissatisfaction that left her rootless, disconnected from what should have been the fruits of that uncompromising and questing intelligence. It isn’t hard to see another comparison with Daphne du Maurier, especially when Alice wrote:

As soon as an impulse carries the individual beyond the home, physically or mentally, it must be regarded as a masculine impulse, although it operate in a feminine body. The feminine sexual impulse towards passivity, if it go roaming abroad in an effort to be satisfied, is operating in a masculine manner.

To believe that the part of you that gives you inspiration and agency is alien to your essential being. And so, we’re still talking about dread.

Alice didn’t write her long short story The Screwfly Solution under the name James Tiptree Jnr. Instead she created Raccoona Sheldon, a female persona, to tell the story of a plague that sweeps across the globe, bringing with it the end of the world. Friends and peers of Alice Sheldon wrote that one of the reasons they never suspected that Tiptree was a woman was because of the deep technological and scientific perspective they found in her writing, which speaks to all kinds of self-perpetuated perversion, but that scientific acumen is on full display in this story, in which the plague’s outbreak is described by an entomologist who is reminded of the work he did to eradicate the screwfly pest. In what was a triumphant moment of his career, he hijacked the screwfly’s lordotic reflex, which is the heightened emotional state in animals where violent energy becomes sexualised and creatures who have been fighting instead start to mate. This scientist and his team perverted this and the pest made itself extinct, exterminating itself instead of breeding. And of course now a similar plague has infected humanity, and through a series of letters and articles, the story tells of how pockets of violent misogyny break out and spread, infecting religious communities and isolated societies first, before reaching cities and creating a worldwide apocalypse. It’s a horribly evoked end of the world, but of course it isn’t the end of the world – it’s the end of women, which is an event that will end the world in a matter of years. And the absolute horrific and dreadful core of the story is that as the plague spreads, no one seems to notice. It’s a disease where the symptoms are already part of our everyday lives. The terror of a vicious point of view being carried by people you trust, the inarguably awful ramifications of that point of view being rationalised apparently innocently, disguised as being necessary in times of emergency, is as timely now as it ever was, and the story clings to you like the stench of your own shit. It’s fantastic.

Daphne du Maurier and Alice Sheldon both tell page-turning and dramatic original stories that have survived in the culture for decades. And both are describing kinds of dread that still work their violence on their readers today. In Rachel there is the horrible tragedy of Philip losing his mind and reason as he compromises between what he believes and what he desires, but also the unspoken plight of Rachel herself, doomed to live as the image of the person those around her inflict upon her, powerless herself but unable to give up on her ambition. And in Screwfly there is the inevitability of the doom that is cast down – the fact that the poison was never going to lead to anything else.

The cliché is that science fiction writers tell stories about the future but are really describing their present. There is a corollary when writers describe their fears. My Cousin Rachel is set in the past, and I’m sure there are critics that typify the novel as some silly drama, biscuit tin picturesque, with a little romance and a little crime thrown in for the reds and blacks. But du Maurier is writing about the suspicions that wouldn’t let her go, that kept her awake and on edge, and she does it so well that if you’re not careful they won’t let you go either.

It’s exactly the same with Sheldon. Right now, we’re safe. But. But. The dread lives in our awareness of all those cracks and madnesses.

The world we live in isn’t the world we believe it to be. We can’t ever be sure what that person is thinking or feeling or planning, no matter how much we love them. Something I don’t know or recognise will eat my peace of mind.

Dread described more than fifty years ago creeps into our heads and takes purchase.

There’s little in common between Daphne du Maurier and Alice Sheldon, and even less between what they wrote about. A few odd biographical coincidences, perhaps, an uncommon facility for telling strange stories in a way that captures your attention. Small things, but infused with such talent and fuelled by such dread as to make a spider web in your imagination… a sticky thread in your mind from one fear to another, binding it and making it stronger.

It’s the same fear, it’s just so vast that it looks different from different perspectives, like the elephant in the story.

Once you tune into the dread, it infects your reason – hijacking your imagination and turning everything into a threat.

Earlier this year I read How To Survive A Plague by David France. It’s a documentary account of the activist movement that came to life in the face of the HIV AIDS epidemic. It is a tragic story of savage waste and bureaucratic and politic apathy, mainly focused on New York in the eighties and nineties, and the people described by France are real and moving, uplifting and resonant. In spite of all the horror, it’s an inspiring story of human endurance and refusal to surrender, to transform and overcome, but as I was reading it I could feel that old familiar dread leach the shades from this book as well – the dread of a body’s treachery of itself, of being allowed to die by those who should protect you, of being swallowed up by an epic disaster… In Screwfly the disease is a weapon inflicted upon humanity in order to destroy it – exactly the cruel judgement tossed at AIDS by homophobes who wanted to see the plague as God’s way of exterminating gays. And painfully, as France describes a decade of wilful ignorance and apathy by bureaucracy and government, and it is hard to see the plague as anything other than an opportunity seized upon by the cruel and cold. Alice wrote her story in 1977, and it came true within three years. It’s infectious.

I’m trying to write a horror novel at the moment. It’s called Boneditch (you can find more about it here: www.boneditch.wordpress.com), and it’s the story of a viral catastrophe, spread by a long dead woman who may well be a Victorian witch, a kind of Typhoid Mary Poppins. To try and give the novel some sense of scale, but to keep it fast moving, the novel is told through a series of vaguely connected short stories, and as a consequence some stories are small and intimate and sort of realistic, while others are grandiose and bizarre. Some stories are funny, others are grim… some gory, others sweet.

This means that I’m at risk of becoming infected, myself. I read something like My Cousin Rachel and the Boneditch stories I want to tell become claustrophobic and introspective, but then I think about The Screwfly Solution and I came out wanting to tell quite different stories – cosmic mythologies of gargantuan existential terrors. The more I read, the more the horrors all seem to be similar, in spite of their various surgical masks and executioner’s hoods: they’ll get you in the end, because you’re different.

I’m not sure what I’m going to get, what rough beast is finally going to slouch out of Bedlam, but the more I read the closer the beast seems to get. The dread creeps on.

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