Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The poet of apprehension: Patricia Highsmith's short stories

I’ve been reading Eleven, a collection of some of Patricia Highsmith’s short stories (two of which I’d read before in other horror anthologies). Highsmith is an author I’ve long admired, but often from a distance. Even for people with a cynical view of human nature, her work can be discomfiting, or downright unpleasant, and this is perhaps truer of her short stories, which by their very nature are more intense than her novels (such as The Talented Mr Ripley and its sequels). Unsettling as the full-length books are, they have breathers that allow the reader to sit back and reflect on the plot convolutions or simply soak in a place description. But the shorter pieces, being more concentrated, offer fewer escape routes.

Other masters of the macabre (an obvious example being Roald Dahl, a contemporary of Highsmith) have a – dare one say it – feel-good style that makes their stories easy to savour, or at least chuckle at, even if you aren’t in a particularly wicked mood. Some of Dahl’s best work is marked by the twist in the tale, which means the reader can first anticipate a delicious ending and later feel the satisfaction of having experienced a neatly rounded-off story. Highsmith usually doesn’t provide such comforts. In contrast, the horror in much of her work comes from the fact that there isn’t a twist in the tale or a definite ending; that things simply continue to be as they are – bleak, unresolved. I’m thinking in particular of “The Cries of Love”, about two elderly women living together in what we assume is an old person’s home (or possibly a house for the mentally ill) – their mutual co-dependence, their inability to sleep in separate rooms, and the little acts of petulance and cruelty they direct at each other (destroying a precious cardigan, chopping off a braid of hair), which are natural offshoots of this lonely, parasitic existence. In such a story, the reader might expect a twist at the end – perhaps an act of supreme, unforeseen viciousness – but the story simply closes on an almost mundane note, with one of the women looking forward to Christmas (so she can damage the gifts that her roommate receives). It’s very depressing, because one sees then that the horror lies not in the specifics of the women’s actions but in the continuing banality of their lives: this endless cycle of vindictiveness, childlike sulking, recrimination and making up is all they have.

This isn’t to say that Highsmith doesn’t trade in more conventional thriller endings, but when she does it’s usually subtle and drawn-out – the effect isn’t so much of something suddenly springing out at the reader as he turns a corner but more that we are dragged along, reluctantly, towards the corner and to what lies beyond it.

There’s a definite mollusc fetish on view in Eleven, with two very creepy stories featuring people who become obsessed, in different ways, with snails: “The Snail-Watcher”, in which a seemingly innocuous hobby leads, in just a few short pages, to horrific consequences (the stunning matter-of-factness of the resolution has to be read to be believed); and “The Quest for Blank Claveringi”, about a professor visiting an island in the hope of sighting giant snails with shell-diameters of 20 feet. (While on shelled creatures, there’s also “The Terrapin”, about a little boy, his bad-tempered mother and the doomed terrapin that has been brought home for dinner.)

Highsmith’s writing can be savage and malicious at times. If you want to test your morbidity-endurance, try out the collection Little Tales of Misogyny, the opening story of which begins with the sentence “A young man asked a father for his daughter's hand, and received it in a box – her left hand.” Don’t feel sorry for the young lady, she’s rotten to the core, as many of the women (and most of the men) in this book are. Highlights include “Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman” (who was constantly pregnant and had never experienced the onset of puberty, “her father having had at her since she was five, and after him, her brothers. Even in late pregnancy she was interfered with and men waited impatiently the half-hour or so it took her to give birth before they fell on her again”); “The Prude” (who wants her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters to “Be Pure in Every Way”); “The Breeder”, about a woman who has 17 children after nine years of marriage; and “The Fully Licensed Whore, or, The Wife”. The stories are subversively funny, as their titles suggest, but their critique of social conventions is so sharp-edged, bitter, even gratuitous at times, that the reader feels uncomfortable about participating in it. Highsmith seems to actively dislike many of her characters and relish their misfortunes, which is not the sort of thing one is accustomed to in satire. My response to this is ambivalent: like I said, I admire her work but I can’t read too much of it at one go.

But having mentioned the seeming heartlessness of some of her work, I’d like to recommend a very affecting, empathetic story that also features in Eleven. “When the Fleet Was in at Mobile” is a little masterpiece about a timid woman named Geraldine escaping her louse of a husband and trying to reclaim her freedom. We learn about her past in bits and pieces, and through allusions, as the story proceeds. There is an unforced gentleness in Highsmith’s writing as she makes us care for this damaged, perhaps mentally unstable woman, and it all leads up to a devastating conclusion.

Graham Greene wrote the Foreword to Eleven, and he astutely captures the moral disorder in Highsmith’s fiction:
She is a writer who has created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half turned over the shoulder, even with a certain reluctance, for these are cruel pleasures we are going to experience…it is not the world as we once believed we knew it, but it is frighteningly more real to us than the house next door. Her characters are irrational, and they leap to life in their very lack of reason; suddenly we realise how unbelievably rational most fictional characters are as they lead their lives from A to Z, like commuters always taking the same train…from Miss Highsmith’s side of the frontier, we realise that our world was not really as rational as all that. Suddenly with a sense of fear we think “Perhaps I really belong here”…she is the poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably.
And a nice piece about Highsmith here, by John Gray:
In making Tom Ripley attractive – sensitive to beauty, considerate to others in his everyday dealings, courageous and resourceful and endowed with an acute awareness of mood and place – Highsmith was not romanticising villainy; she was presenting a fact of life that moralists prefer to forget. The qualities that enable people to live an interesting and fulfilling life – and that make them valuable to others – are not all of one piece, and what are usually seen as the distinctively moral virtues are not always among them. Moral virtue is only a part of what makes life worth living, and not always the most important part.
P.S. At least three wonderful films – Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil and the John Malkovich-starrer Ripley’s Game – are based on Highsmith novels. Maybe David Cronenberg should adapt one of the snail stories!


  1. Never read Highsmith. But i can certainly relate to the lousy feeling one gets while reaading such plots...
    I remember having read two such books - 'Blasphemy' by Tehmina Durrani and 'Wireman' by Billie Sue Mosiman. Especially 'Wireman'. The gnawing negativity haunts you; makes you wonder whether all the happiness in the world has been dumped into the Dead sea...
    Some descriptions can be a turn off, so gory and disgusting. But i guess that comes as a part of the story. Maybe thats the way the author wants it pictured.
    But I do not understand why any author would dislike the characters of his/her story. I mean the author trying to describe the doom is understandable, but he/she relishing the same is simply saddistic. No?

  2. Always wanted to read Highsmith, but somehow never got around to it. Your review will surely egg me on to try some of her works.

  3. Ashen glow: I might have overstated that bit about her seeming to dislike her characters. It's certainly true of some of her stories, but there's also the quietly sympathetic humanity on view in "When the Fleet Was in at Mobile", "Another Bridge to Cross" and "The Birdhouse" - where you can feel sorry for the characters in a distant sort of way while at the same time shrugging and saying, "Well, you know, the world IS a randomly, meaninglessly cruel place - deal with it or get out."

    Krishnan: try the Ripley books first. Or if you don't want to invest too much time, a short story like "The Terrapin" is a good pointer for whether her other stuff will be to your taste.

  4. The article and comments made me think, and well here are my 2 cents:

    Firstly, the quote from Graham Greene, "Fear after a time is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably." I always thought fear was apprehension, a more stressful apprehension. And what is being called fear above, I thought of that as sadness.

    and the second quote being, "Well, you know, the world IS a randomly, meaninglessly cruel place - deal with it or get out." Is it? I usually think or atleast like to think, in life we provide the destination and life provides the path. If the destination is ambiguous the path is going to be a bit random too. If your destination is top of a mountain then the path will be difficult, no? The worst bit is everyone has to pick a destination at each point in time - it is called thoughts, what you think and what you project your happiness to defines what your destination is. I find randomness hard to deal with. (I think Emily Dickinson's, "Each life converges to some centre" is talking about the same think I mentioned above.)

  5. There's another Highsmith film, based on "Ripley's Game" -- "The American Friend", dir. by Wim Wenders with Bruno Ganz & Dennis Hopper. Worth seeing, the villains are all played by various film directors.

  6. I have been mentioned before this when Patricia Highsmith's name has come up. I am sorry the reader posting here felt I was getting a "sadistic" pleasure from the doom in my characters' lives in WIREMAN. I didn't. The book is based, loosely, on a series of unsolved murders that happened in Houston, Texas when I was living there. They were so horrific they made me wonder how a human being could actually be so mad as to decapitate another person. And another. A series of others. I spoke with detectives, the Houston coroner, and kept a copy of the various newspaper articles on the crimes. And then I wrote WIREMAN. I fear you are right, however, that my vision is dark and there is not always justice.

    I also love Highsmith's work. Having been compared to her before made me read her books and I was surprised at just how similar some of our fiction turned out to be. Not in subject matter so much, though we both deal with crime and with psychologically bent characters, but in how we do not flinch when it comes to laying out the true cruelties people perpetrate against one another. Do I like seeing it, knowing it, writing of it? Only the latter. Because in writing, I understand just a little bit more what makes man either sublimely human or monstrous inhuman. I will never understand all of it. I think only the monster himself, the psychologically ruined, can understand (sometimes, perhaps)what he is doing and why. But if we do not explore these dark sides of humanity, I'm not sure that we will ever know the story of the whole man. Or the whole world. As a novelist I am an explorer, an archeologist, and I've chosen to delve into the brains of some of the most depraved and relentless people on earth. It is not always pleasant. But it is not really so full of doom either. It is simply a part of the world.
    Billie Sue Mosiman
    Author of WIREMAN and various other novels.

  7. I haven't read the Highsmith short story involving the snail, but it sounds like a Ray Bradbury story where a snail enthusiast was trapped on an island with huge snails and viewed their amazing eating apparatus up-close.... If her story was inspired by Bradbury's I hope she paid tribute.

    An aside, I was led to this forum by reading your review on Cloud Atlas which I thought was spot on. Looked for a "recommended books" area but see there is none on site, and started to wander. Wandering is good, but would love to see a list of books you recommend although browsing through your reviews is enjoyable.

  8. Natalie: do you remember the name of that Bradbury story? I did a Google search for "Ray Bradbury snail story" and didn't get any useful information. Perhaps you're misremembering that "The Quest for Blank Claveringi" was written by him? If not, and there is a similar Bradbury story, I'd love to read it.

    Thanks for the suggestion - need to do some more formatting for the blog, but with over 1200 posts over seven years, it isn't easy! Also, I'm not a great one for "recommendations" because I try not to assume that what appeals to me will also appeal to any other reader. But will work out some sort of list of my favourite books soon.