Over the past year or two I’ve become a swooning admirer of Patricia Highsmith’s. I had read a couple of the Ripley novels before that, but when Bloomsbury began to reissue her other books in handsome new jackets, I discovered her extraordinary suspense novels. The best of these were her titles from the 1950s and 60s, like Deep Water, This Sweet Sickness and The Cry of the Owl. Three more will be published in October of this year, which seems a long way away; so to tide me over until then I read her collection of stories The Black House.
It’s fairly clear that in 1981, when this collection was first published, Highsmith had her best work behind her, and although it’s a stronger range of stories than 1987’s bizarrely bad Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, it’s a real mixed bag.
Several of the stories, such as “Something the Cat Dragged In” and “Not One of Us,” turn on stretches of implausibility which may have passed unnoticed over the length of a novel, but which jar in a twenty-page story. They feel draft-like, and insufficiently worked out. Others have the air of being workings for her novels, and end abruptly, as though Highsmith ran out of patience, or interest. As ever, her prose is rarely more than functional, and when there’s no distracting style, the weaknesses show all the more clearly.
The best are those which combine Highsmith’s high-grade interest in human venality and perversity, with a snappier storyline. “When in Rome” has a rich society wife bribing her stalker to kidnap her husband. “Under a Dark Angel’s Eye” shows a man who’s had thousands of dollars stolen from him by his lawyer, finding that the world (or Highsmith’s world) has a way of exacting revenge. “Blow It” approaches a potentially farcical situation – one man, two girlfriends – and makes something satisfying and complete from it.
Perhaps the strangest and most interesting story in the collection is “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” where a woman becomes spooked by her own easy ability to repair a basket, fearing that some atavistic impulse or collective consciousness is at work in her, and that “she was part of the stream of evolution of the human race”:
She felt that she was living with a great many people from the past, that they were in her brain or mind, and that people from human antecedents were bound up with her, influencing her, controlling her every bit as much as, up to now, she had been controlling herself.
It shows Highsmith stretching herself beyond her normal boundaries and abilities: though it’s those ‘normal’ abilities that make her such an interesting writer, and that have me counting down the days until October.