The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories

I’ve never given Patricia Highsmith much thought. Other than reading The Talented Mr Ripley many many moons ago after the movie came out (and not remembering very much of it), Highsmith has always stayed on the fringes of my read-ar. Out of sight.

Which is a pity.

Then I read Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Funny that it took a book about illness and snails to get me to try Highsmith again (not that the first time was bad or anything, it was just soooo long ago).

Anyway, this collection of short stories opens with The Snail-Watcher, a bizarre but fascinating story about a man’s new hobby.

“When Mr Peter Knoppert began to make a hobby of snail-watching, he had no idea that his handful of specimens would become hundreds in no time.”

It was all that I hoped for and more. An intriguing tale of suburban-animal troubles – innocuous at first but eventually disastrous.

Highsmith’s stories are most claustrophobic, many of them set in houses, neighborhoods just like yours. These are ordinary people, or at least they seem at first to be ordinary people, leading regular lives. But then there’s that little something that gives the reader a little chill, not quite a shiver down the spine but just that slight chill, enough to make you uncomfortable, enough to make you think about what you just read – furrowed brow in place.

Interestingly, snails feature in another of these short stories, The Quest for ‘Blank Calveringi’, where Professor Avery Clavering ventures onto the small Matusas Islands in search of a new species, specifically, a giant snail. And finds far more than he expected.

But it’s not just about wildlife. Highsmith’s stories demonstrate that humans are far worse creatures, who are jealous, obsessive, violent, and often just rather sad and lonely.

Graham Greene describes Highsmith’s aptitude most brilliantly in his introduction:

“Miss Highsmith is the poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time, as we all learned in the blitz, is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably. We have to learn to live with it.”

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