Halloween for the non-horror reader: ‘Rebecca’

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Make a hot chocolate and grab your warmest blanket because Rebecca is going to leave you with chills this Halloween. As someone who likes ghost stories, but wimps out on horror (The Woman In Black was a bit too chilling), I would say this is a definite non-nightmare-inducing must-read, perfect for spooky season. Written in 1938 by Daphne du Maurier, the plot of Rebecca is cloaked in mystery. What makes this novel so gripping and a top Halloween read is du Maurier’s gradual uncovering of the darkness at the heart of the plot, which produces a thrilling tale of murder and suspense, of twists and turns – a gothic masterpiece. 

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This famous opening line introduces us to a symbolically unnamed woman who is still burdened by a life she has tried to move on from, and one that comes back to her in the dark of night.  We follow her into this past as she narrates the start of her journey, working as a lady’s travelling companion in Monte Carlo. There she meets the alluring Maxim de Winter and their whirlwind romance and sudden marriage allows the narrator to escape into what she thinks will be a dreamy life in Cornwall. How wrong she is. 

Rebecca’s ghostly presence pervades Manderley, where her name is stitched into napkins, praised by the housekeepers, and the book itself, her name being stamped into the title

Readers of Jane Eyre will find similarities between the two stories, but where Jane remains the heroine of her story, Rebecca’s narrator is constantly overshadowed by the seeming shining perfection of Rebecca, the wife of Mr de Winter who tragically drowned in an accident.  However, the real tragedy of this novel is not what happened to Rebecca when she died, but the feeling of inferiority that the new wife of Mr de Winter suffers as she is told she will never be able to match up, that Maxim de Winter will never love her as he loved Rebecca. And indeed Rebecca’s ghostly presence pervades Manderley, where her name is stitched into napkins, praised by the housekeepers, and the book itself, her name being stamped into the title so that not only the protagonist, but the reader too, feels her haunting. 

Despite this, I still found the most sinister character was not Rebecca, but the main housekeeper at Manderley, Mrs Danvers. Still mourning Rebecca, she is hostile towards the new Mrs de Winter and encourages her worst fears about Maxim still being in love with Rebecca. Their conversations form a striking depiction of how grief can be monstrous, how it can lead to cruelty and manipulation and oppression. Indeed in Mrs Danvers beady eyes, where Rebecca is still thought of as the true mistress of Manderley, there can be no place for another there, and she does her best to ensure this.

The book‘s sense of evil will keep you in prolonged nail-biting suspense.

If, like me, the only thing better than a great novel is finding out it has been adapted into film, and you wish to add something new to the stock list of Halloween films, you might also like to try Netflix’s new release of Rebecca which stars in the lead role, with Armie Hammer as Mr de Winter and Kristin Scott Thomas, who makes a terrifying Mrs Danvers. Although it takes a different tone to the iconic Hitchcock adaptation, I think it still manages to capture the atmosphere of the classic novel, and uses beautiful cinematography and multiple locations to form a grand and intimidating Manderley, complete with twisting corridors and rooms that were left pristine for Rebecca. There were a few thrilling moments, especially following Mrs de Winter’s exploration of these corridors where every turning of a door handle or drawer opening found you nervously anticipating what lay on the other side, but pales next to the book‘s sense of evil that will keep you in prolonged nail-biting suspense.

Rebecca will haunt you for days, as Rebecca haunts the memories of those within Manderley, as it is such a remarkably dark and exciting tale, and certainly one to add to your reading list this Halloween.

Image: Alex Geerts via Unsplash

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