Catching up on my neglected Highsmith novels: so focused on the Ripliad lately, it’s good to remember to step aside for her other work. In her introduction Denise Mina talks about this novel being her gateway to the creepy world of Pat, completely by accident. What an introduction! This book is pure dread. It’s crime by content, but as in many of her books, the crime is hardly the main plot element. Edith’s crumbling dissolution as life keeps disappointing her is utterly terrifying as well as perfectly drawn.
It would never get published today because ‘head hopping’ is considered an insurmountable crime. Highsmith hops adroitly from Edith’s increasingly buzzing head to that of her wretched offspring, the supremely creepy Cliffie — incel supreme! — without losing the reader at all or making it too jarring. The jumping off points are well chosen. Highsmith is so good at building unsettling creepiness — Cry of the Owl and This Sweet Sickness also do that superbly. But I think the choice of this invisible middle-aged woman adds a poignant sorrow that breaks you in a way those two novels don’t.
There’s a moment when Edith stands in the little stream in her aunt’s back garden, looking up at the house where she had often been happy. She recalls a line from a Goethe lieder (this is Highsmith, you know), ‘Kennst du das Land?’ and it captures perfectly the distance between the sometime happy child and the woman completely lost in fantasy. Edith remembers the line about the roof and the pillars, but the line that really resonates is, ‘What have they done to you, poor child?’
Highsmith shows you the obvious things, like Cliffie as a child trying to kill the family cat, or her husband’s very dull, very middle-class affair — but in throwaway lines, she also lets you know the cold family life Edith had even as a child. It’s striking that as she veers into insanity the woman not only moves from left-wing political activism to bizarre right-wing diatribes (that often match the author’s opinions) but she also becomes more creative, both in writing her alternative diary-life and her self-taught sculpture. So Pat.
Check out the FFBs at
Patti’s blog . Or maybe Todd’s.
I blame Carol at the Cultural Gutter for kicking me off onto this tangent. To my film shame, I had not ever sat down to watch the entirety of Fritz Lang’s classic crime film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. As an academic, I am of course always in search of ways to supplement my paltry pay so I joked about turning to hypnosis or tarot or even advertising, as well as crime.
‘Why not combine them all, Mabuse style?’
She was right as usual. Put all my esoteric and criminal arts to use as a mastermind behind capers of a nefarious nature: genius! Only in fiction, surely! First I needed to sit down and enjoy Lang’s masterpiece of expressionist cinema, collaborating with his talented wife Thea von Harbou, who adapted one of Norbert Jacques‘ unfinished novels on the shadowy figure (yes, I’ve got to read the novels, too).
There’s just so much good here, even if you’re not contemplating a life of crime. Secret hideouts, nefarious plans, dapper grifters, glass alligators — and a medical school (in 1933) more diverse than many top ones are now. Cool special effects, too. So here’s a bunch of images to give you a reason to watch the film, too. Helps if you have the Criterion Channel or Kanopy. Click the images to embiggen. I’m going to work on my hypnotic stare now.
Number 13 Press
There’s a reason people refer to Godwin as The Dark Lord. He loves to explore the depth of depravity in the modern world. This novella from our shared publisher Number 13 Press might be a little lighter on gore than some of his more brutal books but it makes up for it with paranoia and sexuality. There’s the blackest of black humour here too, especially in the names like protagonist Samuel Verso (the medieval terminology for the sides of a sheet of parchment are recto and verso).
Verso is a publisher and the nexus of a web of problems. His best selling author has disappeared, his partner demands they move into ebooks, his wife is so far beyond anorexia that she lusts for having her limbs removed — and he suspects that he’s being followed, but by whom?
Everybody has a fetish: for his wife Phyllis it was ‘something inside her that was trying to emerge into day…she could only find when the cutting began’; for his partner Belinda it was the desire to see desire in every person she met; for Samuel it is books. Part of the reason he resists the move to ebooks is not only his growing paranoia about code taking over the world but a genuine desire for the book itself. His lover Maxine feeds this fetish: ‘She read from the novel and Samuel recalled publishing it. He could smell the print rising from her hand as he fondled her breasts.’ As she tells him later, ‘I read to you to turn you into a man.’
But even Maxine cannot save Samuel from his growing fears that somehow Fontana Rate, ‘the ever elusive bestseller who despised commercial fiction’ and the men who are following him — maybe? Is it all a delusion? As he asks at one point, ‘Is this some elaborate plan to make me realise my resistance to e-books is old fashioned?’ Or are the serial killers, government agents and tutu-ed libertines real? There are a lot of twists and turns along the way and you’ll find yourself reading faster and faster to figure out what happens. But you’ll probably guess wrong.
Check out all the 13ers at Number 13 Press — it’s Friday the 13th after all!