The Little Stranger/s on a Train

What led me to pick up two books for RIP VII with ‘stranger’ in the title I don’t know.

They might not seem to have much in common otherwise at first glance.

Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, set in an ageing mansion in England, with strange occurrences and some spine-tingling moments.

The other stranger, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, where two men meet for the first time on a train in the US and murders ensue.

But there’s something, there’s that little something that makes them all too alike. A kind of psychological terror, some crafty manipulation, a sense of dread as I read both books, wanting to finish and yet feeling all kinds of icky.

I have to admit though that for The Little Stranger, it required the reading of other, far more insightful readalong participants’ blog posts (especially this one – however, please do not read if you haven’t read/finished the book) to make me go ohhhhhh…. It was a conclusion I had suspected but was unable to definitely put a finger on. But having someone else spell it out for me, it made me realise that The Little Stranger was a better book than I had thought it was. Sure it took ages to build up, and at the end of it, I closed the book, feeling uneasy, like there was something I had been missing. It was due back at the library so there wasn’t time to have a relook, but reading that blog post made me understand the brilliance behind unreliable narrators (see my thoughts on the first half of the book here)

Anyway, both books start out innocently enough, meeting Dr Faraday and the Ayres family in The Little Stranger, on the train with Guy as he thinks about divorcing his wife Miriam and then he meets Charles Anthony Bruno who weasels his way into Guy’s life.
Then Bruno drops the bomb:

“Hey! Cheeses, what an idea! We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on the train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?”

Guy of course is shocked. The word ‘murder’ “sickened him, terrified him” yet “he could feel there was logic in it somewhere, like a problem or a puzzle to be solved”.

Guy has plenty more than the ravings of a drunk stranger to think about – his wife is pregnant, and it’s not his baby. He wants a divorce but she wants to wait until her baby’s father is divorced himself.

What he doesn’t know is that Charles actually has been thinking of the murder, of Miriam:

“He was on his way to do a murder which not only would fulfill a desire of years, but would benefit a friend. It made Bruno very happy to do things for his friends. And his victim deserved her fate. Think of all the other good guys he would save from ever knowing her!”

“He sat on the edge of his seat and wished Guy were opposite him again. But Guy would try to stop him, he knew; Guy wouldn’t understand how much he wanted to do it or how easy it was.”

So yeah, Charles is some kind of psychopath.

On the other hand, Guy is quite the pushover. He can’t even make pregnant Miriam give him a divorce… So up against this spoiled, manipulative, quite insane stalker (Charles is so bizarrely convinced that nothing will tie the two of them together, despite sending letters, making phone calls – sure this is some decades ago as Highsmith wrote this in 1950 but there are ways of tracing phone calls), Guy is at the losing end. Yet he still tries to beat Charles at his own game. Sigh…

Train wreck.

An awesome, kind of cringe-y read.

Strangers on a train was so up the RIP alley, this one. Not in the bump in the night kind of way, but the regular folk going cray-cray kind of way.


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.”