The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith

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9780393020311: The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith

From the late mistress of suspense and noir fiction comes a chilling anthology of short fiction, featuring works from five of her classic short story collections combined into a single anthology. By the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Reader's Guide available.

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Review:

Penzler Pick, September 2001: One of the truly brilliant short-story writers of the 20th century, Patricia Highsmith has at last received the acclaim she never had while alive.

The release of the excellent film The Talented Mr. Ripley appears to have brought Highsmith many readers who may have heard of her but had never read her books. In spite of the fame of Strangers on a Train, published when she was still in her 20s, Highsmith never enjoyed commercial success in the United States (though she was a huge bestseller in Germany and Austria).

Now, six years after her death at the age of 74, Norton is reissuing her novels and has compiled this giant collection of her short fiction, incorporating the complete text of five previously published collections. This volume also includes an introduction by Graham Greene, somewhat truncated from its original (and uncredited) publication in The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories (1970). It is abbreviated because, oddly, none of the stories from that excellent collection are included in the present omnibus, and Greene makes reference to what is perhaps Highsmith's most famous story, "The Snail- Watcher."

Even lacking this masterpiece and the equally unsettling "The Terrapin," there are many distinguished tales of horror and, as Greene accurately defines them, apprehension.

In "The Hand," the first story in the collection originally published as Little Tales of Misogyny, a young man asks the father of his beloved for her hand and is given it--in a box. Equally unappealing events befall the women (and, indeed, the men) skewered in the other stories in this aptly titled volume, most of which are so short that they are mere vignettes, each startling in the terse clarity of the prose and the matter-of-factness of the fates meted out to the protagonists.

"The Dancer" is strangled in quiet rage by her partner, who walks away from her lifeless body as an audience cheers the performance. "The Coquette" is murdered by the two lovers she had set against each other, and they are let off by a judge who had also been tortured by her coquetry. He forgave their infatuation with her, "a state that inspired his pity, since he had become sixty years old," as Highsmith cruelly explains.

"The Black House," the title story of another collection, introduces a pleasant, happy, and charming young man who is, of course, doomed. He tests his courage by entering a dark house, reputedly haunted and the scene of young lovers' trysts as well as the vicious murder of a boy, and finds it empty and unthreatening. When he describes his adventure to his friends at the local pub, he is killed for a transgression that remains unknown to him.

This important book may not be for everyone, but if you don't mind a sense of unrelenting doom and are willing to risk nightmares of dread, you will find the prose dazzling and the fiction memorable. --Otto Penzler

From the Inside Flap:

Compelling, twisted and fiercely intelligent, The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith is a landmark collection, showcasing her mastery of the short story form.

In a cruel twist of irony, Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) is being recognized only after her death for her inestimable genius in her native land. With the savage humor of Waugh and the macabre sensibility of Poe, she brought a distinctly contemporary acuteness to her prolific body of noir fiction. Including over 60 short stories written throughout her career, collected together for the first time, The Selected Stories reveals the stunning versatility and terrifying power of Highsmith's work.

Thirty years before David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Highsmith's novels and stories shattered the cool veneer of idyllic American suburbia. Living in self-imposed exile in Switzerland and France for most of her life, Highsmith, from this far-off vantage point, felt the freedom to express her uniquely haunting literary imagination. Already an accomplished novelist, Highsmith came to use the short story form in the mid-1970s, in particular to showcase her talents for brevity, jolting irony, and a voracious control of her craft. Here, in The Selected Stories, her phrases sting and their impact lingers in our minds. These stories highlight the remarkable range of Highsmith's powers—her unique ability to quickly, almost imperceptibly, draw out the mystery and strangeness of her subject, which appears achingly ordinary to our naked eye.

Whether writing about jaded wives or household pets, Highsmith continually upsets our expectations and presents a world frighteningly familiar to our own, where danger lurks around every turn. Stories from The Animal-Lovers Book of Beastly Murders portray, with incisive humor, the murderously competitive desires of our most trusted companions. In this viciously satirical reprise of Kafka, cats, dogs, and cockroaches are no longer necessary aspects of a happy home but actually have the power to destroy it. In the short sketches that make up the Little Tales of Misogyny, Highsmith rediscovers predictable female characters—"The Dancer," "The Female Novelist," "The Prude"—and, through scathing humor, invests them with uniquely destructive powers. As a writer, Highsmith was all too well aware of the stolid patriarchal conventions that ruled her day—her publisher rejected her second book out of hand because of its homosexual content. She is not a polemicist, but, as stories like "Oona the Jolly Cave Woman" and "The Mobile Bed-Object" reveal, her bizarre, haunting fiction continually betrays the inadequacy of our conventional understanding of female character.

Highsmith eventually moved away from these coolly satiric, darkly comic exercises, and in her later collections, The Black House, Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, and Mermaids on the Golf Course, she uses the warm familiarities of middle-class life—the manicured lawns, the cozy uptown apartments, the local pubs—as the backbone for her chilling portrayals. "The Black House," for instance, explores the small-town male camaraderie and the destructive secret it masks: in this world, the fact that everyone knows your name is more likely a curse than a blessing. In the title story of the final collection presented here, "Mermaids on a Golf-Course," a man's extraordinary brush with death endows his everyday desires with fantastically devastating consequences. In her later work, Highsmith adds a dimension of penetrating psychological insight, evoked most vividly in stories like "A Curious Suicide" and "The Stuff of Madness," where the precarious line between fantasy and reality is blurred and we experience the terrifying possibility of slipping between them.

Great writers view the world askew, and in their art they reflect our world back to us, slightly distorted. The Selected Stories reveals Highsmith's deft and exacting style, her incisive satirical intelligence, and her faultless eye for depicting the inner tremblings of human character. Her world remains all the more frightening because we recognize it as our own.

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