Sunday, December 24, 2006

Patricia Highsmith, Snails, and a Truly Bizarre Coincidence

It is 6 AM. See previous post: "fucking around" on the internet lookin' stuff up turned, as it sometimes does, into an obsessive quest, and the results were strange enough (as sleep deprivation helpfully bent my mind to notice odd coincidences and make much of them) that they now merit an entry all their own, granting me closure and sleep. Thinking (in the previous post) about the science fiction film Phase IV, about human beings confronted with the ant mind, I ended up stumbling upon a 1947 short story - the basis for The Naked Jungle and one of the inspirations for Phase IV, called "Leiningen Versus the Ants." As I explained previously on the Pointless Waste of Time forum, the story has some really amusing politically unacceptable passages, my favourite of which is:
"Critical situations first become crises," he explained to his men, "when oxen or women get excited."
Dealing with a plantation owner in Brazil trying to hold off a horde of advancing army ants, the story can easily be seen as having a colonialist/imperialist subtext; the "tame natives" whom our white hero Leiningen belittles and regards paternalistically are the "good natives," whereas the advancing, mindless and, of course, BLACK ants streaming from the jungle are a symbol of all that would oppose or resist domination by the white man's mind. It got me to thinking about a story I remembered from my childhood, about a white male explorer being eaten alive by giant snails. The story stood as a sort of corrective to things Leiningen; as I recalled, it suggested the inadequacy of the white male mind, and the need to keep arrogance in check. I was a little surprised at how vivid my memories of the tale were; I'd read it in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology that I'd checked out of my elementary school library, at around age 10, and yet could clearly recall the description of the mouth parts of the enormous snail chewing into the man's back. I certainly don't remember any other stories from that time period with such clarity -- I was mostly reading the Hardy Boys back then! But it made an impression: I was so struck by its grimness and depressing ending that I believe I even read it aloud to my father, to see what he would make of it. Why would anyone write something so nasty?, I remember thinking; and, Why do I sort of like it?
A new question came to mind as I sat staring into the screen: what the hell was that story CALLED, anyway?
And: who the hell would write a story about a person being eaten alive by snails?
Well, this is the stuff of much fucking around, so I began to search the internet, typing combinations of keywords into search bars to see if I could track the tale down. "Man eaten alive by giant snails" - zero hits, no surprise there. "Giant snails" - no, wait, there are real giant snails, not quite man eaters but there are still dozens of hits, so I need to narrow it down. How about +hitchcock +snails? Ah, now there's a weird detail: I spot the name of Patricia Highsmith in the search list (Wiki bio here). Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train, adapted by Hitch for one of his films, so it's just a coincidence that her name is turning up, but I love Highsmith's stories; she's uneven, and a couple of her books have bored me, but the sheer perversity of some of her short stories is fascinating - say, in The Animal Lovers' Book of Beastly Murder or in Little Tales of Misogyny (for which I apparently wrote one of the Amazon customer reviews, about six years ago). Also, the fact that, in books like The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), she was covertly exploring her own then-taboo sexuality - she was a lesbian - through the device of a sexually ambivalent male protagonist makes me fond of her indeed. I paused to pay Patty my respects. I clicked the link and read the following paragraph, from a book review of her biography:
She kept 300 snails as pets and carried them around in her handbag. Her most tender memories included going to the zoo to watch the crocodiles. She once set fire to her hair at a supper party and kissing a man, she declared, was like falling into a bucket of oysters. Even her closest friends called her stingy, creepy, cantankerous, neurotic and abnormal.
Who wouldn't love her? I even go so far as to mention her in in said "Pointless Waste of Time" post I end up writing -- Patty needs publicity! She's grievously underappreciated. I notice - as you'll have seen above - that she even has a short story about snails, called "The Snail Watcher," which I make a note to look for. I didn't know she was a snail-lover - this all fascinates me and I'm glad to bump into it - but this is not the story I'm seeking; it had an odder title, I remember, which lurks at the edge of memory. I abandon my Highsmith digression and continue my search for the elusive man-eating snail tale.
It takes me about half an hour to find it. On the Pointless Waste site, I discover there's actually some OTHER schlep looking for information about the same story (it turns up on one of my searches), and I scroll down to the bottom of the thread, clicking all links, trying to see if anyone provides the answer. No one does, though there are various details that tweak my memory further; I write my own post, repeating the plea for information. I search Abebooks, Amazon, Google Groups. I try to think of different phrases to search by (+"alfred hitchcock presents" +"giant snails?" +"short story?") . Various leads, nothing conclusive, until suddenly -
There it is. Someone ELSE has posted the question to a different discussion forum ("does anyone remember a story about a man being eaten alive by giant snails?"), and the literate folk who answer pin down the title, which I recognize beyond a doubt. The story is called "The Quest for the Blank Claveringi." (I can even can explain the odd title from my memory of the tale; the scientist, Clavering, doesn't know what the other half of the scientific name will be yet, so he's leaving it blank). And then an odd detail shoots back through time to my childhood, when I knew nothing about literature but was just a 10 year old kid looking for creepy stories, and fills in a blank in a most shocking way:


ubikuitous said...

Alan, sometimes I think you have too much time on your hands, but I know that isn't the case.. ;)
Anyway, very weird coincidence. Enjoyed the story.

Anonymous said...

Hey! I'm the poor schlep from the PWoT thread!

I'm getting the book for Christmas - only 1 cent on Amazon!

Allan MacInnis said...

Heh! Glad it all worked out, then! Got my own copy coming, too; "Blank Claveringi" is in THE SNAIL WATCHER, as well as Ms. Highsmith's other snail story - I'm assuming she only wrote two!).

I also highly recommend Highsmith's ANIMAL LOVER'S BOOK OF BEASTLY MURDER and LITTLE TALES OF MISOGYNY... and THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is a fine read, too; much, much better than RIPLEY'S GAME or GAME FOR THE LIVING, the other two novels by her that I managed to complete... A toast to Ms. Highsmith!

Anonymous said...

I have been trying to find the name of this story for weeks. I read it 20 years ago but continue to dwell on it from time to time. It is one of the clearest literary descriptions in my mind. Thanks for being as disturbed as I am.
Little Pickle.

Allan MacInnis said...

I really, really like that this is sort of a shared communal experience -- a little weird club of people who read a story once about people being eaten by snails, and who are now trying to find what it is online. We could give ourselves a name (the Claveringians?), make a t-shirt - an image of someone being eaten by a giant snail, maybe - and start a Facebook group. Like.

Unknown said...

The Highsmith short story about relentless giant snails is one of those that just won't let you go. A shame Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling didn't dramatize it. Of course the giant snails would have looked cheesy with the special effects of the day but they'd be easy to do now. And deliciously creepy.

I read this story along with the others in the Hitchcock collection as part of a survey of horror stories being conducted by a Hollywood studio. It was the standout in the collection and I recommended it highly, so who knows, we might see Patricia Highsmith's man-eating snails on the big screen someday.

Your story about seeking the title and author and being smacked in the face by P. Highsmith is a classic of synchronicity or coincidence or something.

Allan MacInnis said...

Thanks. In BEAUTIFUL SHADOW, the Highsmith bio, there's also a very interesting note about what I assume is an unfinished Highsmith story - about a group of astronauts that return to earth to find it overrun with giant snails, or such. Check the bio out for a proper explanation... My recall is a bit foggy.

Anonymous said...

Funny, but I just had the same experience as the blogger here. I read the tale back in 1986 as a grade school student and that story scared the hell out of me. I'd like to find a version of it today just to compare...the helplessness of the main character trying to escape the island. I also vividly remember the devouring of his back...this is over 20 years ago, yet I still remember it! Thankfully the internet is here for these searches. In the same manner, I located a Hitchcock tale of a prisoner who attempted to bury himself alive in order to be rescued later...that took far longer than this search. Thanks for the information; you're definitely not alone!

Bill Chance said...

I too read the short story when I was ten years old and it has haunted me to this day. I read it in the Saturday Evening Post, with the title "The Snails" and a different (even more horrific) ending.

Thanks for helping me track the thing down.