When a strange story broke about the confiscation of a bag of giant African snails at JFK airport this week, I knew Patricia Highsmith was calling. The man who brought them from Ghana declared them to customs, but didn’t realise they were illegal. Why’s that, you say? ‘They eat almost anything, breed like crazy, and carry a terrifying parasite that causes something called “rat lungworm.” The snails can reach up to 8 inches long and 5 inches wide when fully grown.’
Most people do not see snails as cuddly pets, but then most people are not Patricia Highsmith. She famously smuggled them in her bra on trips between France and Britain because she could not bear to leave any behind. Vic Van Allen, the protagonist of her serial killer novel Deep Water (1957) adored his snails Hortense and Edgar and watched with sentimental rapture as they made love. That snail sex scene is probably the most tender passage to be found in the whole of Highsmith’s published work.
With the release of Under a Dark Angel’s Eye we have easy access to a broad swathe of Highsmith’s short fiction and this seems the perfect moment to give a closer look at ‘The Snail Watcher’ which was written in 1948 and appeared in print in 1964. The main character by chance gives a closer look at some snails intended for the dinner table and finds himself enraptured. They become his hobby, ‘and snails were never again served in the Knoppert household.’
The strangeness of their sexual habits draws the broker’s fascination (and seemingly Highsmith’s too). Searching in vain for information in his encyclopaedias, Knoppert voyages to the public library to find an offhand remark by Darwin in untranslated French about their sensualité. While one might see the violence inherent in the process, Knoppert and his creator focus on the ritual of the ‘courtship’ between the gastropods. They are both male and female, so the process involves rearing up and tentatively interacting until they decide who’s going to take which role. This can take hours.
Knoppert becomes so entranced by the reproductive process—though losing interest somewhat in the sex part, he begins to focus on the egg hatching—that he gives over his entire study to his obsession as the snails multiply. His wife finds this distressing, unsurprisingly. But Highsmith believes in obsession. Knoppert finds it stimulating. ‘His colleagues in the brokerage office noticed a new zest for life.’ He becomes more daring and successful, and ‘saw his bank account multiplying as easily and rapidly as his snails.’
So successful that, focused on his work and bank balance, Knoppert neglects his hobby. For a couple of weeks. Even his wife notices and suggests he check on them. You can probably guess what happens: it’s good to remember that in the short stories Highsmith went as often to horror as she did to crime. The last few pages of the story show her relish for supreme discomfort.
Along with an abiding appreciation of the beauty of the snails. After all, they’re just doing what nature bids them do.
K. A. Laity/ Graham Wynd is an award-winning author, scholar, critic, editor, and arcane artist. Her books include Chastity Flame, Lush Situation, Love is a Grift, Satan’s Sorority, How to Be Dull, White Rabbit, Dream Book, A Cut-Throat Business, Owl Stretching, and Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering Uterus, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Her work has been translated into Italian, Polish, Slovene, German and Portuguese. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Her podcast Is It Funny? can be found here.