You know her. She created the creepy character of Tom Ripley, and wrote Strangers on a Train, her first novel that became a Hitchcock classic. But have you read Patricia Highsmith?
A reader could spend many hours with Tom Ripley, whose illustrious career spans five novels (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and Ripley Under Water), but I think new Highsmith readers should focus on some of her other novels and short stories. (I plan on reading all of the “Ripliad” this summer.)
I love the way Highsmith contrasts beautiful language with brutal violence. In one paragraph, she can describe a beautiful spring day in New York, and then reveal that a dead body is rotting in the bushes next to the sidewalk. Her books and stories aren’t for the faint of heart. One of her collections, The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, is full of stories about animals who kill their owners. Some stories made me cry, while others made me worry that my cats are out to get me. However vindicated the reader may feel (the owners usually deserve it), there’s no getting around the bloody messiness that permeates Highsmith’s writing.
Her characters usually appear normal to the outside world; they aren’t. Highsmith’s characters are psychotic murderers, torturers, and fiends. They are deliciously evil. You want to hate them, you want to run away, but you can’t. They have entranced you.
For comparison, read the Stephen King story “The Man Who Loved Flowers,” in his excellent collection Night Shift. It’s about a nice young gentleman walking through New York City on a spring day. But it’s Stephen King, so he’s not really a nice young gentleman. The first time I read Highsmith, I thought of this story: normal on the outside, insane on the inside.
As with most authors who write horror/psychological thriller novels, I prefer their short works to their long novels. For the brave or bored, try The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith. It’s 724 pages long and contains 64 stories, but you can definitely bounce around; no need to go in order, necessarily. Quite a few of these are one or two pages long. These vignettes are creepier than the long ones, I think. Highsmith doesn’t explain why her characters are stabbing their mothers, or drowning kittens, but those few paragraphs can be extremely unsettling. I like to be unsettled.
Strangers on a Train is also a great read. Two strangers on their way to murder people decide to trade murders; that way no one will suspect them. But what happens when one person goes a little too far? I read this on a plane, which was probably a terrible idea. Do you know how many strangers you encounter in an airport? Way too many. How many of them are on their way to do something nefarious? Way too many.
If you want to read something a little less creepy, I highly recommend The Price of Salt. Highsmith published it under the name “Claire Morgan,” because she didn’t want to be associated with the text at first. It’s a story about a woman, Therese, who is in a relationship with a man, and thinks she’s happy. Then she meets Carol and everything changes. This is a novel about finding out who you really are, and (spoiler!) it’s one of the only Highsmith novels with a happy ending.
Many of Highsmith’s stories revolve around city and suburban life in the 1950s and 1960s. A lot of the themes are reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, actually, but with more blood and guts. If you crave a story with the syntax and dialects of another era, along with macabre plots, Highsmith is for you.
Who do you love?