Nothing That Meets the Eye: the uncollected stories by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith was a compulsive writer. A decade after her death, new treasures from her vast store are being revealed, says her biographer, Andrew Wilson
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The Independent Culture

Their choice of items was bizarre: in addition to the bills that lay scattered on the dining table, they singled out a tiny promotional box of Lindt chocolates, a fruit cake and a leather-bound set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Unbeknown to them, a nearby cupboard contained an astonishing literary treasure trove: an enormous stash of Highsmith's personal papers, manuscripts, diaries, journals and letters.

When the material was finally curated, at the Swiss Literary Archive, Berne, it was discovered that the collection was so huge that the box files, when spread out, stretched to 150ft in length. Ten years after Highsmith's death, her literary estate has combed through this mass of material and selected 28 "uncollected" short stories, many of them never published before.

Although Highsmith, whom Graham Greene called "the poet of Apprehension", is mostly known for novels such as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley, she wrote many first-rate short stories. Among her finest are "The Heroine", about a disturbed governess, which was collected in the prestigious O Henry Memorial Prize Stories of 1946, and "The Snail-Watcher" and "The Quest for Blank Claveringi", which detail the death of two snail obsessives, tales which leave a slimy trail of unease over the imagination long after they have been read.

Similarly, the stories in Nothing That Meets The Eye have that uncanny ability to disturb one's perspective. I read them over the course of two days and even though, as her biographer, I thought I was attuned to her peculiarly terrifying universe I surfaced reeling, my psychological outlook slightly skewed. Exploring such themes as the fragility of identity, the shadows of guilt, the destructive power of ambition and the banal, quotidian terrors of everyday life, these tales should not be glanced at by those with even the slightest history of poor mental health.

Many of the protagonists of these stories are unhinged, of course, but, in the best of the tales it takes a while to realise it. Highsmith, with her transparent, monotone style, cleverly seduces the reader into identifying with the warped individuals here, just as she does with Ripley, and in the process normalises abnormality.

In the title story, a 45-year-old woman, Helene, arrives at an Austrian ski resort to find men throwing themselves at her. As "there was nothing unusual about Helene that met the eye" she finds it difficult to understand why so many handsome and eligible men are attracted to her. "It's as if I have on some bewitching perfume," she thinks to herself, before finally realising the truth. She has come to the resort to kill herself; now that people sense that she doesn't need them any more they are desperate for her.

In "The Pianos of the Steinachs" the central character of the story, Agnes, becomes obsessed with a visiting pianist, convinces herself she is in love with him and then throws herself off the house and breaks her back. The last line reads: "And she knew it was what she had wanted all these years."

Lucien Montlehuc, the central character of "The Great Cardhouse", is a cultured art historian who only collects forgeries, and stakes his reputation on a Giotto he buys at an auction. When the painting is revealed to be not a fake but the real thing his identity is in danger of collapsing. "Lucien felt as if a house of cards were tumbling down inside of him, all that was himself, in fact..." Highsmith writes. "For the first time in his life, he felt near tears... For a few moments, Lucien's spirit bore the full weight of reality, and almost broke beneath it."

Highsmith's life was a troubled one and, in her diaries, she described at great length her suicidal thoughts, murderous desires and bouts of near-madness. She underwent six months of analysis in New York in order to try to rid herself of her lesbianism and get herself "into a condition to be married"; not surprisingly, the "treatment" did not work.

She was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, under what she described as a sickly star. When her mother, Mary, was four months pregnant, she drank turpentine to induce an abortion. "It's funny you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat," her mother would tell Highsmith, a keen painter, later in life. Mary and her husband, Jay B, separated before their daughter's birth and the little girl did not see her father until she was 12. In his place, she had to make do with her stepfather, Stanley, whom she fantasised about murdering. It seems she was sexually abused, possibly by a travelling salesman, between the ages of four and five and by the time she was six she was convinced that she was somehow sexually different from the other girls she knew. She grew up feeling attracted to her own sex, but learnt to stifle her emotions and repress her desires. "All this probably caused my propensity to write bloodthirsty stories of murder and violence," she said.

Highsmith was a compulsive writer. She had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms. She wrote her first published short story, the appropriately named "Crime Begins", at the age of 16, about a girl who steals a book from her school library. When she was a young freelance writer in New York, scratching a living by providing storylines for comic books, she trained herself to think of a plot of a story each time she took a shower. "Highsmith was an obsessive writer," one of her editors told me. "These stories just boiled up from her."

With her prolificacy, it's understandable that her output was varied, and this collection does contain a few duds, tales that are contrived and gimmicky: "Variations on a Game", "It's A Deal" and "The Hollow Oracle". The most effective stories are the ones that express Highsmith's own dreams, frustrations and anxieties.

"A Mighty Nice Man" is a sinister little tale, written when Highsmith was an undergraduate at Barnard College, New York, and seems inspired by her own experience of sexual abuse. Charlotte, a child of the South like Highsmith, is intrigued by the offer of some sweets and a ride in a strange man's car. As he speeds off in the vehicle, with her sitting by him, Charlotte's mother spots them. However, instead of becoming angry at the thought of what this strange man might do to her daughter, the woman is impressed by his flash car and smart clothes. She flirts with the stranger and tells him he can take her daughter out riding almost any time. But as Charlotte walks back to her house with her mother she brushes her hand on a patch of coarse grass. As she takes hold of it the blades cut into her. The last image is a violent one, suggestive of the damage a man like that could do to a small child: "As she looked at her thumb, two thin red lines came out of the flesh."

The story that opens the collection, "The Mightiest Mornings", written between 1945 and 1946, imagines a similar scene, an encounter between a small girl and a grown man, from the opposite perspective. Aaron, a depressive taxi driver from New York, leaves the city and takes a train north to New Hampshire. Here, he rents a room in a boarding house with spectacular views of the mountains and sublime scenery. He enjoys the fresh air, chatting to the locals, the sensation of simply being alive. Then, in all innocence he strikes up a friendship with a little girl, Freya, and revels in her company until the townspeople suspect him of something untoward. Finally, Aaron is forced to leave, slinking out of this paradisal town feeling stained by guilt for a crime he has not committed.

Another Aaron in a later story, "Music to Die By", fantasises in his diary of killing his colleagues at a suburban post office. Months after leaving his job, a bomb goes off in the post office, killing some and injuring others. He confesses to the crime and, although he is innocent, he is imprisoned. At the end of the twisted tale, Highsmith suggests that although Aaron had led a rather mundane existence at least "he felt he had achieved something few men can or do achieve, the annihilation of people they despise."

Highsmith, as I know from the research I did for my biography, despised a great many people. She was, as one of her closest friends told me, "an equal opportunity offender", loathing just about everybody: Jews, blacks, women, lesbians, environmental polluters, politicians, the Catholic Church and America, a litany of hate that found expression in many of her later stories, including collections such as Little Tales of Misogyny (1975) and Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987). Yet her misanthropy was always laced with a good deal of black humour. In 1972 she was delighted to find a typographic error in a French newspaper that read, instead of Travels with My Aunt, the book by Graham Greene, Travels with My Cunt. She cut out the snippet and insisted on showing it to friends.

Highsmith's dark humour oozes through this new collection like a particularly delicious poison. This finds perfect expression in the 1939 story "Quiet Night", about two elderly women, Hattie and Alice, who share a room in a New York hotel. Trapped in an odd, non-sexual, sado-masochistic relationship, the two women are both dependent on, and yet enjoy torturing, each other. One night, Hattie takes a pair of scissors and slices into Alice's new sweater, a gift from her niece, knowing how much this act of violence will upset her. Alice, in a spirit of revenge, thinks about cutting off her room-mate's long braid of hair but, at the end of the story, decides against it. In a later version of the story, written in 1966, Highsmith changes the ending so that Alice does indeed cut off Hattie's hair; a marker, perhaps, of how much more misanthropic Highsmith had grown over the years.

Surprisingly, a couple of stories have something approaching happy endings. At the close of "The Great Cardhouse" is a suggestion that Lucien and a female pianist may have a future together, while "Doorbell For Louisa" ends with the promise of a dinner date between a secretary and her boss. But such tales are a rarity in this volume of broken dreams, dashed hopes, murderous impulses and individuals bent on suicide.

Highsmith, despite her lifelong dreams of romance and an impressive list of sexual conquests, never found lasting happiness. Love, she believed, did not exist except in the confines of the imagination. "It's all in the eyes of a beholder," she told a friend. "Nothing to do with reality. When you're in love it's a state of madness."

Andrew Wilson, the author of 'Beautiful Shadow: a Life of Patricia Highsmith' (Bloomsbury), will be appearing at Wolds Words literary festival, in Louth, Lincolnshire, on 15 October. Call 01507 600350 for details

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