Friday, September 27, 2013

Patricia Highsmith’s Snail Obsession and Two Weird Tales of Monstrous Mollusks

Patricia Highsmith is the featured author for today’s Friday’s Forgotten Books event. My initial thrill (she’s one of my favorite writers) faded fast as I realized I’ve avoided writing about her for eons, always having trouble capturing exactly what it is that compels me. It’s partly her way of revealing the twisted psychology of even the most ordinary individuals -- their impulses and urges. It’s also the fact that even today, filmmakers always pull back from the most chilling plot points in her books. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train deviated from the most horrific plot point in the novel, one that changes its entire nature. The various movie versions of the Ripley series avoid his most dislikable character traits, making his murder a crime of passion rather than one of cool plotting. Let’s not even get started on the endings. I’m obsessed enough with Highsmith to feel unworthy of dissecting her biggest works, hence today’s post. I offer a taste of two short stories as a way of dipping my toes in, and also exploring one of the most unusual obsessions of the woman whose work obsesses me so.

Patricia Highsmith, composed with snail shells. (By Jason Mecier.)

Even allowing for the idiosyncratic behavior that often goes hand in hand with being a creative sort, Patricia Highsmith was a weird woman. She was an even harder one to like. She notoriously hated people, and it wasn’t just a case of being anti-social -- her disdain was more akin to a deep loathing. She abhorred her relatives (even despised the very concept of family), and was deeply racist, maintaining a series of pseudonyms to fire off anti-Jewish diatribes to the press. Though she had numerous affairs with both men and women, she never allowed herself to have anything like a relationship. She seemed to thrive on lies and deceit, and had a gamesman's predilection for busting up couples. It’s not much of a surprise that she died alone in a hospital, her accountant the last person to visit her.

Publicity shot of a young Highsmith. The smile was rare.

She did, however, have a thing for other living creatures. In particular, snails. She kept them as pets, and not just a few of them -- she lived with 300. Highsmith liked the fact that snails were sexually ambiguous, that it’s impossible to tell male from female. They were her housemates, but also her traveling companions, as she hid them away in cheese cartons to smuggle abroad, and sometimes secreted them under each breast. She brought them to dinner parties where she easily became bored with both the guests and the dinner (she reportedly also hated food, subsisting on cigarettes as much as possible). They’d arrive in her handbag attached to a head of lettuce, and she startled many by letting them out to leave their slimy trails across the table.

What’s hard to understand about Highsmith is how someone so averse to people wrote about them with such complexity, albeit a dark complexity. Perhaps it was down to the powers of observation. She translated those powers twice when it came to her snails, writing two short stories about them. They’re decidedly in the realm of weird tales, more horror than anything, and yet they still manage to betray her fondness for them. Despite the twisted endings, you can see the love story, though it lies underneath. Just as with her real-life affairs, she never gets too close. 

Eleven, which collects both of Highsmith's snail stories, along with nine other bizarre tales.

Both of her snail tales are collected in Eleven, though they each were published earlier in magazines. “The Snail Watcher” first appeared in Gamma, and she had trouble getting it in print. Her agent told her that it was “too repellent to show editors.” She wrote to a friend that it elicited “ughs” for a full twelve years before she sold it to an editor she knew personally. The story, about a mild-mannered broker who becomes interested in snails after his wife brings some home for dinner, does take a turn for the disgusting.

Graham Greene wrote of “The Snail Watcher” that the protagonist relates to snails as Highsmith herself did with human beings: “He watches them with the same emotionless curiosity as Miss Highsmith watches the talented Mr. Ripley.” Before the story takes its terrifying turn, Mr. Knoppert’s snail-watching activities border on voyeurism. One of his early observations has an odd eroticism to it.

“Mr Knoppert had wandered into the kitchen one evening for a bite of something before dinner, and had happened to notice that a couple of snails in the china bowl on the draining board were behaving very oddly. Standing more or less on their tails, they were weaving before each other for all the world like a pair of snakes hypnotized by a flute player. A moment later, their faces came together in a kiss of voluptuous intensity. Mr Knoppert bent closer and studied them from all angles. Something else was happening: a protuberance like an ear was appearing on the right side of the head of both snails. His instinct told him that he was watching a sexual activity of some kind.”

The sexy snail scene is particularly interesting given Highsmith’s penchant for writing sexually ambivalent characters. The mating ritual is further described, and is probably the most blatant account of sex in any of her work. After viewing the mating snails, Knoppert’s initial frisson begins to border on sexual obsession in a way, reaching a frenzy that is ultimately his downfall.

Original art for Highsmith's story in the Saturday Evening Post.

Highsmith’s second snail story is even more of a horror story, which is saying a lot given “The Snail Watcher" and its unpleasant conclusion. “The Quest for Blank Claveringi” was first published in the Saturday Evening Post as “The Snails,” and while written with an obvious literary talent, it’s essentially a giant monster story. The monsters in question are fifteen-foot snails, discovered by a professor who hopes to have his name attached to them (Something-or-other Claveringi, which leads to the Blank Claveringi of the title). Like Mr. Knoppert, his desire is also obsessive.

As the professor ends up in a terrifying cat-and-mouse game between man and snail, the author’s well-known talent for suspense emerges. What’s notable is that Highsmith inverts the trope we’re so used to in her work. She so often writes about the doers rather than the done-to, and the fear of a victim here is as fascinating as it is palpable. The snails themselves are calculating predators who don’t give up as they exhaust the professor until he can barely fight back. They’re gastropod versions of Tom Ripley, smarter and stronger than the doomed Claveringi.

Fearsome as the gastropod giants are, snail-obsessed Highsmith can’t help but allude to a beauty that only a few people would ever notice in such a creature. “He had a view of its left side,” she writes, “the side without the spiral. It resembled a peach-colored sail filled with wind, and the sunlight made nacreous, silvery patches gleam and twinkle as the great thing stirred.”

The two snail stories in Eleven are by themselves some solid and darned unusual horror stories. Read with some knowledge of Highsmith and her problem with people, it’s easy to agree with Graham Greene that she wrote about snails in the same detached way that she viewed human beings. I think it goes beyond detachment, though. As she did in her personal relationships, she makes some choices. She sees some good, some beauty, which she reports as fact. Ultimately, though, she dwells on the worst.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Missing Film Version of The Monkey’s Paw (1933)

W. W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw” is undeniably a horror classic. It’s a staple of anthologies, and almost anyone with even the vaguest interest in horror has encountered some version of it. The Monkees borrowed it for an episode, Alfred Hitchcock filmed it fairly faithfully, The Simpsons spoofed it, and Stephen King built on its theme in gruesome ways for Pet Sematary.

Oddly enough, Jacobs was known mostly as a writer of humorous stories. Many of them even appeared in The Idler, the British magazine co-edited by Jerome K. Jerome (and discussed a little more in this recent forgotten book post). “The Monkey’s Paw” first appeared in a collection called The Lady of the Barge, and the cover alone is evidence that the stories are more sweet than scary. It’s this one horror tale that has proven to be Jacobs’ legacy, though. 

"The Monkey's Paw" first appeared in a 1902 collection.

Some have noted that there’s never been a really successful film version of the story, but it’s quite possible that the lost 1933 version may have been one of the best. The first talkie version of “The Monkey’s Paw” (it was also filmed in 1915 and  1923), the movie was made at a time when horror films were starting to really gain steam. Filmed during David O. Selznick’s short production stint with RKO, it was directed by Wesley Ruggles, himself on an upswing from directing Cimmaron, the first western to win Best Picture.

The story as written is only a few pages long, so it’s no wonder that so many filmed versions are short features. The 1933 film expanded on the story, adding extra characters (and some sex appeal along the way), and giving some background on the origins of the enchanted paw with a prequel set in India. 

Lobby cards for The 1933 Monkey's Paw, the first sound version.

The cast included C. Aubrey Smith as Sgt. Major Morris, the man who brings the paw to the White family. Smith was a British ex-pat who made a career out of playing distinguished gentleman roles in Hollywood -- a quick look at his parts on IMDB reveals a slew of character names preceded by “Colonel” and “Sir.” He was a ringleader of sorts to a group of British film actors working in America that were sometimes referred to as the Hollywood Raj.

Ivan F. Smith and Louise Clark played the Whites, and their son Herbert was played by Bramwell Fletcher. Classic horror buffs know Fletcher from his small but memorable role in 1932’s The Mummy as the Egyptologist who completely goes to pieces. (Check out the clip; it’s one hell of a crack-up.) 

The movie’s eye candy came in the form of sultry Nina Quartero (and what a form it was). Quartero was often cast with her looks in mind, playing torchy Latin dancers and bar girls, plus a slew of “other woman” roles. She was often the foil to the nicer, blonder lead actresses. While her role in The Monkey’s Paw was likely a small one, the film posters make the most of her assets. No doubt her raven hair and naked shoulders were deemed more of a box-office draw than Louise Carter’s matronly bun and apron. 

Nina Quartero in a publicity still (top), and in an added prequel scene in The Monkey's Paw.

What makes the lost film seem most exciting, though, is an actual review from a viewer. It’s not a critic’s take, or one of the many hoax reviews of lost films that unfortunately turn up all over the place (a subject for another post), but an IMDB post from an elderly user who saw the movie in 1933, at the age of nine, and was plenty spooked.

“It was so scary that the memory has stuck with me for some 71 years,” he says. “It seems that it was always raining, with lightning and thunder, and people coming in wet and cold, and that most of the action took place at night -- a real film noir!”

Most compelling, perhaps, is the description of the monkey’s paw itself, which no doubt made a big impression on a child:

“White nervously held the paw in his hand and spoke the wish for money. At that instant, naturally, there was a blinding flash of lightning close by with an immediate crash of thunder! The dead hand of the monkey contracted into a fist momentarily, then returned to its curved-fingers relaxed position. I saw this clearly on the screen, but I'm not sure the characters in the movie saw it.”

While you can’t watch the 1933 Monkey’s Paw (not even a trailer exists), you can watch some of the other versions, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s TV adaptation, as well as some more modern retellings.

Or, you can go back to the source with the links below.

Free at Project Gutenberg (Lady of the Barge collection)
Free at Amazon (collection)

Written for the weekly Tuesday’s Overlooked Films shindig, and part of Book Dirt’s series on lost film adaptations of books.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review: My First Book by Jerome K. Jerome and Others

In a forgotten collection, Arthur Conan Doyle, R. L. Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and other late 19th century authors talk about being published for the first time.

One of the book-nerdiest things I do is that I occasionally click the “random” button at the Project Gutenberg site and choose one of the 25 books displayed there to read. (Click here to try it. Refresh the screen to get more random selections.) I’ve found several forgotten public domain books that way -- things I wouldn’t ordinarily have thought of (or known of) to try and seek.
Recently I came across My First Book, a collection of essays by notable writers on the subject of, naturally, their first books. 

First edition of My First Book, 1894.

Today’s review for Friday’s Forgotten Books decidedly counts as forgotten, considering that at present the book has zero reviews on either Amazon or Goodreads. That’s surprising, considering that writers on writing is a perennially popular subject among those who read, and especially those who also write. I highly recommend the collection to both readers and writers as an insight into the craft, and particularly the business of writing, that’s still refreshingly relevant.

My First Book was published in 1894, with an introduction (and also a first-book essay) by Jerome K. Jerome. Most know Jerome as the author of the wildly hilarious Three Men In a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), but he was also the co-editor, with Robert Barr, of a popular magazine called The Idler. “My First Book” was originally a running series in the monthly magazine, and Jerome ultimately collected the 22 contributing writers in one volume.

The Idler, where the "My First Book" essays first appeared.

Though some names will be more familiar than others, all of the writers were hugely popular in their day, and the list of names reads like a Who’s Who of Victorian fiction. The complete list includes, in addition to Jerome: Walter Besant, James Payn, W. Clark Russell, Grant Allen, Hall Caine, George R. Sims, Rudyard Kipling, A. Conan Doyle, M. E. Braddon, F. W. Robinson, H. Rider Haggard, R. M. Ballantyne, Israel Zangwill, Morley Roberts, David Christie Murray, Marie Corelli, John Strange Winter, Bret Harte, Q. (pen name of Arthur Quiller-Couch), Robert Buchanan, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Each writer has his or her own approach to talking about their early work, but many talk freely about the struggles in becoming a published author. It’s nice to feel some camaraderie with someone as eminent as Conan Doyle as he talks about his string of rejections:

“Fifty little cylinders of manuscript did I send out during eight years, which described irregular orbits among publishers and usually came back like paper boomerangs to the place that they had started from.”

Conan Doyle’s essay here is the source of the oft-repeated story of his first full book manuscript, which to his horror, never arrived at the publishers, and was never seen again.

“Of course it was the best thing I ever wrote. Who ever lost a manuscript that wasn’t? But I must in all honesty confess that my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again --in print.”

Robert Louis Stevenson was likewise horrified when the manuscript for Treasure Island arrived just fine, but the map he (and his father) had worked on so assiduously was lost and never recovered. He did it over again, but admitted that “it was never Treasure Island to me.”

“It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the measurements. It is quite another to have to examine the whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it, and with  a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit the data.”

Walter Besant almost sounds like a modern-day freelancer, telling of “years of rejection,” and spending all of his extra money on books, paper, and postage, while doing all of his writing during dinner breaks at an office job. He also talks of writing like mad and sending his work off to “every kind of periodical that I could find in the Post Office Directory.” (Now we know what young freelancers did before the Writer’s Market.) Besant and others like him had a difficulty we don’t have today, with the easy availability of photocopying. After his hand-written manuscripts had been rejected a few times, they looked worn, and not wanting them to look like they’d been shopped around, he rewrote them again by hand before sending them out anew.

Jerome K. Jerome, editor of My First Book, author in his own right.

Jerome himself gave me a laugh, discussing his lifelong problem with a critic having labeled him as a "humourist" early on:

“ ... I'd pen a pathetic story, the reviewer calls it ‘depressing humour,’ and if I tell a tragic story, he says it is ‘false humour,’ and, quoting the dying speech of the broken-hearted heroine, indignantly demands to know ‘where he is supposed to laugh.’ I am firmly persuaded that if I committed a murder half the book reviewers would allude to it as a melancholy example of the extreme lengths to which the ‘new humour’ had descended."

Marie Corelli: The Victorian Stephenie Meyer?

While I was unfamiliar with writer Marie Corelli, the reading public of the time knew her well. I found her essay amusing, because she comes off like a Victorian-era Stephenie Meyer. She primarily wrote about supernatural subjects while reconciling them with Christianity, and the people ate it up. Corelli was a huge bestseller (outselling the works of Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Kipling combined), but the critics loathed her. “A woman of deplorable talent,” wrote one. Another said she had “the mentality of a nursemaid.” Corelli’s essay is a tad haughty, but you can’t blame her for being defensive, even as she laughed her way to the bank.

“I count no ‘friend on the Press,’ and I owe no ‘distinguished critic’ any gratitude. I have come, by happy chance, straight into close and sympathetic union with my public, and attained to independence and good fortune while I am still young and able to enjoy both.”

There are many, many more passages worth quoting from My First Book, but you should find them on your own. Even if you pick and choose essays to read or to skip according to your own taste, you’ll find plenty of historical anecdotes you never knew, and loads of writing wisdom from some truly experienced folks.

Download My First Book for free at Project Gutenberg.

Download My First Book for free at Amazon.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Earliest Iron Man? (1914)

While researching my lost film book (an expansion of my Rue Morgue feature), I have to spend a lot of time scanning through old silent film magazines. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of research, as there’s something fascinating on nearly every page.

Yesterday I was pleased to come across an ad for The Iron Man, a 1914 film by the French Gaumont company. 

The Iron Man, a silent serial listed in Motion Picture World, Volume 21, July-Sept. 1914.

While the storyline bears little resemblance to the Iron Man we know, obviously, the film does involve the disappearance of a wealthy young man, though he’s known as Phillip Travers rather than Tony Stark.

It’s also fun to note that the serial had three parts. Were the film-goers of 1914 dying for the release of Iron Man 4?

A fun bit of ephemera from Motion Picture World.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: The Missing Silent Version of a Twain Classic

Like Frankenstein and Misery, the 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was inspired by a dream of the author’s. Mark Twain was on the lecture circuit with Louisiana writer George Washington Cable, who gave him a copy of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. The two authors, both of whom were known for writing in dialects, made a joke of the archaic language and began speaking in it, calling each other “Sir Mark” and “Sir George.” Around this time, Twain’s notebooks make reference to a dream about being a knight, and all the inconveniences it caused. 

Posters for the lost 1921 film version of A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

The first film adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was released by Fox in 1921, and it made use of the dream device. While the original novel’s action begins with Hank Morgan waking up in Medieval Camelot after he’s hit on the head with a crowbar, the silent film version takes a more meta approach. The titular Yankee, renamed Martin Cavendish for the film, has been reading Twain’s novel when he ends up struck by the spear of a suit of armor. He ends up dreaming of the book’s setting, just as Twain dreamed of Le Morte d-Arthur. The film’s credits list an actor as playing the part of Mark Twain, but as only three reels of the film survive (2, 4, and 7 are at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), it’s uncertain what purpose he served.

A postcard for the film gives a glimpse of the motorcycle-riding knights. (Click to view larger.)

Still pictures, reviews, and the viewable parts of the film give us some idea of what the movie is like. Perhaps the most intriguing --and amusing-- aspect of the silent film version of the story is that it’s updated to the 1920s. The main character of the original book impresses the people of the Middle Ages with things like gunpowder and a lightning rod, while Martin Cavendish introduces them to the Jazz Age. Movie stills in a French photo-novelization of the film depict armored knights with hip-flasks of bootleg booze riding around on motorcycles. The Photoplay review suggests that the film was full of contemporary slang, not to mention references to Tin Lizzies and the Volstead Act.

Harry Myers with Chaplin in City Lights.

Harry Myers starred in the lead role, and was no doubt suited to the comedic aspects of the film. Ten years later, he’d be Chaplin’s co-star in City Lights, as the drunken millionaire who spends a night on the town with the Tramp. The romantic lead was Pauline Starke, who worked her way up from being an extra in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Starke starred in a another partially-lost film based on a famous book, 1924’s Dante’s Inferno, in which she and other actresses appeared fully nude. (Before the Hays Code of 1930, film producers pushed all limits. Unfortunately for anyone with prurient or even academic interests, a low percentage of the racier films have survived.)

Pauline Starke in a promo pose, and on the cover of a movie mag in 1927.

Wikipedia suggests that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the first time travel film, but I’d have to disagree. Because the story takes place in a dream, no one has actually traveled in time. Even if you allow that the events in the film are time travel, then you’d have to agree that the supernaturally-inspired trips to the past in A Christmas Carol are as well, and that story had at least six film adaptations prior to 1921.

Unless you can get the MoMA to arrange a screening for you of the existing three reels, the silent version of Connecticut Yankee will probably elude you. We’ll have to make do with film posters and reports from those who either saw the film in the ‘20s or have seen the extant reels. Ironically, though Mark Twain died eleven years before the film was made, we have existing footage of Twain himself, shot by Thomas Edison at the author’s home in Connecticut. The fact that a movie is gone despite being made years later (and widely distributed and shown across the world) shows the astounding randomness of film survival. If I could time travel, perhaps I’d spend my time in the past ensuring that old films were archived safely. 


Written as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film event at Todd Mason’s blog,  and my own series on lost film versions of books.