In The House on the Strand, Dick Kilmarth experiments with a hallucinogenic drug that transports him back to fourteenth century Cornwall, just before the onset of the Black Death. His initial encounter is so overwhelming that he knows he must repeat it, even though he suffers horrible aftereffects. The more he finds modern life unsatisfying, the more he is compelled to return to a time when people and events seemed bigger than life. Du Maurier cleverly manipulates the parallels between Dick’s real and imaginary worlds so as to enlist sympathy for Dick’s rejection of the real world. Dick, who is married to a shrewish woman named Vita, who has two loutish sons from a previous marriage, is thoroughly disenchanted with the emptiness and boredom of modern life in general.
In contrast, the life of the fourteenth century is given all the sweep and pageantry of a medieval melodrama. Du Maurier, with her flair for historical romance and her devotion to Cornwall, is able to bring that distant drama to life and give it such immediacy that it makes Dick’s preference for those times quite understandable. Near the end of the story Dick chooses to return to the fourteenth century even though he knows that he will be returning to a time when England was about to be ravaged by plague. During his rational periods he is aware that his life in the fourteenth century is all a fantasy and that he is killing himself pursuing it, but he would rather live vicariously in the glorious past, even if it is a dream, than die of boredom in what is called reality. In the end, the choice is no longer his to make.
As in Rebecca, the psychological realism of the novel gives credence to its extraordinary events. The novel develops some of du Maurier’s favorite themes: the tension between the sexes, the power of the past over the present, and the deceptiveness of appearances. Added to this is du Maurier’s boldness in writing such a controversial novel. In daring to write of mind-altering drugs, she could have expected to alienate her followers, offend the moralists, and be laughed at by the youth of the 1960’s, who might have accused her of invading their turf. All these things happened, but the book sold well anyway.