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 Claverengi” 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 Claverengi, which leads to the Blank Claverengi 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.






28 comments:

  1. I think you've admirably captured what compels you about Highsmith, Kelly. Nice to see someone who knows what they're talking about writing about her. I never feel I do her justice, but then I don't feel I do any author justice; doesn't stop me blathering on about them, and nor should it you. I urge you to pen more Highsmith posts. I for one would genuinely love to read them.

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    1. I think you've done her plenty of justice. I do regret not tackling one of her more important books now that I see so few people did. I expected a slew of Ripleys.

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  2. Funny, I read this same book for today and found it, especially these two snail stories, repelling. I disliked it so much it was all I could do to finish it, frankly. Interesting how we all have such different reactions to Highsmith.
    - Richard Robinson

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    1. Interesting indeed. To be honest, I think her stories are her weakest work. It's only now that I've read her best and have such a sense of her own life that they mean much of anything to me. I do think the snail pieces work well as horror, and the giant snail one in particular has some great suspense and action.

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  3. What a fascinating look at this author. I've never read anything by her but maybe I need to seek out some of her work. I think I might be even more interested in reading a book about the author herself. Truth is stranger than the fiction a writer can devise.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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    1. There are some great books about her, but I think you'd like Strangers on a Train. You're bound to be familiar with the movie, and the novel differs from it drastically in one major way, plot-wise.

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  4. And now ofcourse I have to red both fo these stories! Beguiling post, Kelly.

    I have never tried any of her short work haing devoured nearly all of her novels. I'm up for A DOG's RANSOM, I think. Sergio just called it underappreciated, that coupled with the fact that it's been sitting on my shelf for over five years now still unread is reason enough to crack it open at last.

    Thanks for this very fascinating look at a different side of Highsmith. I share your enthusiasm and awe for her writing.

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    1. A Dog's Ransom is one of my favorites as well. I wouldn't recommend the short stories to anyone who hasn't read her, but since you're familiar with her, I think you'd see them in a different way. They'd certainly be a bizarre introduction to the newcomer, and several are more horror than mystery.

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  5. I love that artwork from the SATURDAY EVENING POST. Like you, I figured we'd see a bunch of reviews today on THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY.

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    1. Maybe I should have tackled it. I considered doing THE BOY WHO FOLLOWED RIPLEY, as a lot of people don't care for it, and I think it's pretty neat, even if it's very different from the other Ripley books.

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  6. Great article Kelly (and love the shells portrait) - her misanthropy, if that is what it was, is certainly a barrier to accessing her work, and yet her vivid style and remarkable psychological insight remain, to me, a continuing source of fascination

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    1. Me too. My sister used to have conversations about Tom Ripley almost as if her were a real person. I've been shocked to see how many people don't like her at all. I know we all have different tastes, but she resonates with me so much -- I guess I'm more of an outsider than I even realized.

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  7. PS with regards to the adaptations of her work, I actually prefer the very different ending that Robert Bloch concocted for "Annabel", his version of THIS SWEET SICKNESS for the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR - I'm reviewing that one shortly but it is definitely worth a look, if not for fidelity than at least for a decidedly creative approach to concluding a novel with a particularly long and drawn out finale.

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    1. Oh, I don't know about that one. Thanks!

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    2. Hope to have a brief review of the TV version up in a few days Kelly ...

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    3. Posted!
      https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/the-alfred-hitchcock-hour-annabel-1962/

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  8. Not getting any warnings now. Maybe the snail monsters were faking me out, earlier.

    I haven't read her, yet, but now I will. Glad I don't have to invite her to dinner. Guess we know how/why they used to use the term "queer geniuses."

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    1. Thanks for letting me know about the issue earlier.

      If you try Highsmith, go with one of the novels. I think I recall that you don't typically like crime or thrillers, but hers are very, very different.

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  9. I've never read her. Sounds really good though. I've seen all those Alfred Hitchcock movies. Love his stuff! I will have to try reading her. She sure sounds like she was a miserable soul!

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    1. While she was hating everyone, she must have watched them closely, because her characters are so well drawn, psychologically.

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  10. Great post! Highsmith is an amazing writer. Psychologically quite possibly one of the most hardcore of crime writers.

    I am so impressed and appreciative that you flagged “The Quest for Blank Claverengi”! It is one of my favourite undiscovered little gems that I was never able to talk to anybody about. What I love about it is that it is essentially a chase story, except the whole thing is done in painfully slow motion. I would love to see it filmed.

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    1. It might look absurd on film, but it sure works on paper. It's amazing how tense the action gets despite the bad guy being a slow-moving giant snail.

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  11. The snail stories are the first things I read by Highsmith, and have wondered for years why "The Snail Watcher" first appeared in GAMMA w/o being really fantasy or sf...but, then, Shirley Jackson's "One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts" was similarly snapped up by F&SF when far more foolish and richer magazines said No.

    I will disagree to this extent with your broader conclusion: to suggest that "The Terrapin" isn't integral, in some ways a distillation, of at least some of her work is to woefully underrate this Highsmith short story.

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    1. I'm unsure which conclusion you mean, as I only really addressed the snail stories. I haven't read "The Terrapin" in many years, so I'd probably have to re-read it to have anything intelligent to say about it.

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  12. Robert Arthur had "Blank C." in one of his ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S volumes for young readers, and "The Snail Watcher" was in the Scholastic antho NINE STRANGE STORIES...and perhaps elsewhere in my early reading.

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    1. I turned that up when I was looking for the story's publication history. What a lucky thing to encounter it as a young person.

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  13. Excellent research, writing and picture selections! Very helpful insight to the author and stories.

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