It may well have been a bit…ahead of its time in its portrayal of a Femme Fatale who likes to pass the evening…with unsuspecting gentlemen…in a cemetery.
“Kiss Me Again, Stranger” was written by Daphne du Maurier in 1951 and collected in her book of short stories: “The Apple Tree and Other Stories”. Just Google the title and you’ll see that the story got quite a bit of attention in the 1950s. In fact, it got a lot of attention in the 1960s; and it has kept on getting attention to the present day. In a recent review in The Guardian, writer Patrick McGrath complemented the story, which appears in a new collection of du Maurier’s more macabre stories, Don’t Look Now, published by The New York Review of Books press…and since NYRB press publishes only serious literature, that alone is quite enough of an accolade.
Regarding “Kiss Me Again, Stranger”:
“There is a fine, macabre humor here. The reader is intrigued as to what sort of cemetery-loving femme fatale this is, and of course by the end we know. The answer is a good example of the sort of perversity of which du Maurier was capable in her fiction. The story was written in 1951, and it is hard to think of any female character in British fiction, before this husky siren, who does what she does and with such cool aplomb: an unexpectedly powerful proto-feminist role model.”
– Patrick McGrath, Introduction, Don’t Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier (NYRB Classics)
If you’re ever in a dusty little bookshop, and you happen across one of the cool vintage paperbacks bearing the story’s title, do yourself a favor and take it home with you. Read it in a shadowy corner with just a candle on.
Daphne du Maurier’s “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” is a fascinating character study wrapped up in an errie little tale of revenge, featuring a well-meaning GI, and one very cold and mysterious woman…
“I’m one for routine. I like to get on with my job, and then when a day’s work’s over settle down to a paper and a smoke and a bit of music on the wireless, variety or something of the sort, and then turn in a bit early. I never had much use for girls, not even when I was doing my time in the army. I was out in the Middle East, too, Port Said and that…
“No, I was happy enough living with the Thompsons, carrying on much the same day after day, until that one night, when it happened. Nothing’s been the same since. Nor ever will be.”
When the young man first spots the woman, he takes an instant interest. He finds himself reflecting on how often these sorts of places dress their girls up in “velvet tams and all” turning them into “proper guys”, but that wasn’t the effect in this case at all:
“She had copper hair, page-boy style I think they call it, and blue eyes, the kind that look short-sighted but see further than you think, and go dark by night, nearly black and her mouth was sulky-looking, as if she was fed up, and it would take someone giving her the world to make her smile. She hadn’t freckles, nor a milky skin, but warmer than that, more like a peach, and natural too. She was small and slim, and her velvet coat–blue it was–fitted her close, and the cap on the back of her head showed up her dark hair.”
It’s all a bit maddening, since he’s never been taken with a woman like this before; yet he finds himself waiting for her outside the cinema after the film. He expects her to come out in a pack of girls laughing and giggling and entirely unapproachable, but when he spots her she’s in her street clothes, alone, and walking determinedly away. He follows her to the bus stop and onto the bus and sits down beside her, “nervous as a kitten”, but she doesn’t tell him off. He pays fare enough for both to cover their ride to the end of the line, not knowing where she’ll get off. He doesn’t care, he’ll follow her anywhere.
The woman is an enigma. She says little and allows the young man to think whatever he likes. And he likes to think of her as ‘his girl’. With no one around but a man in an Air Force uniform, he pulls her close to him and rests her head on his shoulder.
“It’s not every night I get a free ride and a free pillow,” she says to him. “Wake me at the bottom of the hill, before we get to the cemetery.” They miss the cemetery, but don’t worry there are other cemeteries.
This is such an unusual story, and the mysterious woman is an unusual character, not one to cower when things get messy. The reader is told she lost her family in a bombing raid in the war…and this has made her…a bit hard-edged.
It would be interesting to know what was going on in du Maurier’s life at this time that might have been the impetus for a story such as this. Then again, maybe it’s better we don’t know.
I won’t tell you what happens in the cemetery. I’ll leave that to you to discover…if you’re curious enough.
Mistress of Menace
Daphne du Maurier has often been dismissed as a writer of popular romances. This is, of course, an incorrect assumption; all the discerning reader need do is read one of her masterful short stories such as “The Blue Lenses”, “Don’t Look Now”, or “The Birds”; or her Gothic masterpiece, Rebecca.
Du Maurier wrote some of the most compelling and eerie novels of the twentieth century. Her work is infused with hidden violence and menace. In novels such as Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and Jamaica Inn, she transformed the small dramas of everyday life—love, grief, jealousy—into the stuff of nightmares.
Less known, though no less powerful, are her short stories. It was in these she gave her imagination free reign, resulting in strong characterization, unsettling situations, and narratives of unflagging suspense. It’s often the stories that show her at du Maurier at her most chilling and psychologically astute.
In one story, a dead child reappears to her parents in the dark alleyways of Venice. In another, a routine eye surgery reveals the beast within to a meek and startled housewife. In yet another, nature revolts against the abuse inflicted by humans by transforming a benign species into an violent, annihilating force. And in still another, a dalliance with a beautiful stranger offers something a little more dangerous than just a broken heart.
Daphne du Maurier was a beautiful, intelligent, and complex woman. Yet she preferred the simple, writerly existence she created for herself in the West Country of England. Writing to a friend once, she said she was only ever really happy “in the middle of Dartmoor, in a hail storm, within an hour of sundown…of a late November afternoon.”
Unknown to many even today, du Maurier lived an intense, unorthodox personal life, and was involved in a deep, loving relationship with actress Gertrude Lawrence.
A prolific writer who published more than three dozen works of fiction, history, and biography, du Maurier despaired if ideas would not come. When her imagination was finally exhausted, she saw little point in going on.
She died in 1989; but she left behind a legacy of beautiful, intense, brooding literature with which we continue to be fascinated. ♢
[Sources: The Guardian; Don’t Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier (New York Review Books Classics, 2008); Kiss Me Again, Stranger and Other Stories (Pocket Books, 1952); ddanitorres.typepad.com]