Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Black House by Patricia Highsmith

(pb; 1981: story anthology)

From the back cover:

"Eleven sinister stories reveal Patricia Highsmith's characters breaking the social laws (often unconsciously) and paying the price.

"They are victims trying to behave like protagonists -- and the results are often fatal."


One of the things that makes Highsmith's work so compelling is her ability to underline even the most mundane situations with mounting unease, with her crisp, chilly and clever writing -- writing that is on display in most, if not all, of the stories in this collection. What's missing, in most of Black's stories, is the zinger finishes she often attaches to her better works.

None of these stories are bad. Most of them are good, if not excellent. However, the bulk of their endings are too low-key, flat and (often) predictable, when compared to the effective, increasing-tension set-ups that precede them: in short, if you are a reader who puts as much stock in tale finishes as their set-ups, purchase Black used and at low cost or check it out from the library. If you are a reader who forgives meh endings as long as everything else in the story works, this collection may appeal to you.

While I was disappointed by this anthology, I don't feel like I wasted my time reading it, as I am a fan of Highsmith's work.  Her output is interesting, even when it's deeply flawed, largely the case with Black.

Stand-out stories:

1.)  "I Despise Your Life": A party-it-up, twenty-year old musician (Ralph Duncan) desperately tries to bridge the gap between himself and his disapproving father (Steve), only to make matters worse. Great story, with a great end-line.

2.)  "The Dream of the Emma C": The at-sea rescue of a beautiful woman (Natalie Anderson) sets an all-male boat crew on violent edge. Good, intense read.

3.)  "Old Folks at Home": Relations quickly sour between a demanding elderly couple (Mamie and Albert Forster) and their well-meaning, if unrealistic, caretakers (Herbert and Lois McIntyre, whose house the Forsters live in). Darkly, hellishly funny story, with an honest-about-human-nature finish.

4.)  "The Black House": In Canfield, New York, a young man's innocent curiosity about a local landmark endangers him. This is my favorite story in the bunch, one that brings together nostalgia, effective symbolism, youth (and the generational gaps it inspires) and the dangerous emptiness of clique talk. I especially love that the bar -- where much of said talk takes place -- is called the White Horse Tavern, in contrast with the titular abode. Excellent, masterful work.

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