Thursday 29 May 2014

Patricia Highsmith's The Black House: Signed Inscribed Association First Edition (Heinemann, 1981) with Handwritten Letter

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 30//5/14.

This second of two signed and inscribed Patricia Highsmith short story collections which I've recently acquired is, I think, more remarkable than both the first edition of Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987) I blogged about last week and the inscribed first of the short story collection Little Tales of Misogyny (1977) I got my hands on two years ago, for a number of reasons. Highsmith's inscription is more fullsome than in both of those books; there's a link between that inscription and one of the stories in the collection itself; and the book is accompanied by something even rarer than an inscribed Highsmith tome: a handwritten letter by the author.

The book is this:

The Black House, Highsmith's fifth collection of short stories, published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1981. I bought this copy of the Heinemann first from Ashville, NY book dealer Warren Berry – thank you to Barbara Berry for answering my questions. Highsmith's inscription is on the front flyleaf:

It reads:

For Katherine Alexander

with gratitude for her reading of my works. I wish I could see Wellfleet again!

Hello also to Donald Olson – and friendliest greetings from

Patricia Highsmith

19 May 1982

Aurigeno 7771


Katherine Alexander was described to me by Barbara Berry as a local librarian, which leads me to believe she was librarian at the Lakewood Memorial Library, a few miles from Ashville; she's mentioned a few times in this history of the library. Donald Olson I'm less sure about; Barbara described him as a local author, and I wonder whether he was the Donald Olson who frequently contributed short stories to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine – to which Highsmith was also a contributor – and who penned a number of paperback potboilers – The Sky Children (Avon, 1975), Beware, Sweet Maggie (Pyramid, 1977) – and hardback suspense novels – If I Don't Tell (Putnam, 1976), Sleep Before Evening (St. Martin's, 1979). Alternatively he could be Donald S. Olson, author of The Secrets of Mabel Eastlake (Knights Press, 1986), Paradise Gardens (Knights Press, 1988), The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley (Bantam Press, 1993) and, I think, Queer Corners (Bridge City, 1999), although going by the dates of those titles, I think that's less likely.

In any case, plainly this was Highsmith's own copy of The Black House, which Highsmith sent to Katherine Alexander in May 1982 from her then-home in Auregino, Ticino, Switzerland. The accompanying letter – written on a torn-off half sheet of Manegg typewriter paper (a watermark to that effect is just about visible on the original) – sheds light on why Highsmith sent the book:

It reads:

I can't find here a copy of "A Dog's Ransom" but that should be available in Penguin —

The Black House may never be printed in USA. It is very well liked in England, France, [now?] Germany.

Best to you —

Pat H.

19 May '82

The date matches that in the inscription (although curiously it's written in a different pen); evidently Katherine Alexander had asked Highsmith for a copy of Highsmith's 1972 novel A Dog's Ransom, but instead Highsmith sent her this copy of The Black House, a book the author seemed to be proud of – at least her comment about it being "very well liked" in a handful of countries suggests as much to me – but which she feared might not be published in America. In fact it was, belatedly: Penzler Books issued it in the States in 1988 as a hardback and a limited-to-250-copies slipcased signed edition.

Taken purely on its own merits the letter is, I'd suggest, a pretty remarkable document; though it's relatively brief, it's still longer than the one other handwritten Highsmith letter I can see for sale online at present, which has a price tag of nearly £500 (rather more than I paid for my one); and on a more personal level, given that Highsmith is my favourite author, and that I've only managed to get my hands on books containing handwritten letters or notes by their authors (or other interested parties) three or four times before (see here, here and here, although there is also this), my delight at coming into possession of the letter is, I hope, understandable. Add in the inscribed book, however, and the two items become something quite extraordinary. At least one letter from Katherine Alexander to Highsmith is held by the Swiss Literary Archives (to whom Highsmith left her papers, a good many of which can be viewed online), but more intriguingly there's a mention in the inscription of a place which is significant as regards the contents of the book: Wellfleet, a coastal town on Cape Cod.

I'm unsure as to Katherine Alexander's connection to Wellfleet – although one can only assume that for Highsmith to have made note of the town in an inscription to her that she was familiar with the place – but thanks to Andrew Wilson's 2003 Patricia Highsmith biography Beautiful Shadow I do know that Highsmith stayed on Cape Cod. In 1948 she rented a house in Provincetown – the self-styled "Greenwich Village by the sea", at the tip of Cape Cod, not far from Wellfleet – with her fiancé, the writer Marc Brandel; shortly after her arrival Highsmith met Ann Clark, a painter and designer, and the two swiftly became lovers, themselves returning to Provincetown for a holiday in 1950.

All of this is pertinent because both Provincetown and to a greater degree Wellfleet feature in one of the stories in The Black House, "The Dream of the Emma C". Coming at the midpoint of the collection, it's the tale of the crew of the eponymous trawler, who fish a young woman out of the sea and are beguiled by her, variously competing for her affections, writing poetry in her honour and even coming to blows over her as they abandon logic and surrender to a strange dreamlike state. There are parallels here in the way Highsmith's out-of-the-blue encounter with Ann Clark saw her swiftly falling for the other woman, but there's a more concrete connection in that the captain of the Emma C reports the crew's find to Provincetown, and that the vessel's home port is Wellfleet, where the tale comes to a close.

It's a fine story, but it's just one among many fine stories in what is by any measure a brilliant collection, certainly stronger than the later Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes. The range of notes Highsmith hits from story to story, from the amoral ("Not One of Us") to the macabre ("Something the Cat Dragged in"), the creepy ("The Terrors of Basket-Weaving") to the criminal ("When in Rome"), is impressive enough, but the inclusion of tales which embrace themes and styles further afield from her traditional territory, like retribution and forgiveness ("Under a Dark Angel's Eye", elements of which to do with how the elderly can sometimes be a burden on the young would be reprised in "No End in Sight" in Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes), family dysfunction ("I Despise Your Life") and even farce ("Blow It"), is what makes this such a terrific book.

Best of all is "The Kite", in which a young boy channels his confusion over his sister's death and his parents' consequent arguing into building a huge kite. It's a kind of precursor to Up, or maybe more accurately Highsmith's spin on a Roald Dahl fable – Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, say, or James and the Giant Peach, although its devastating ending marks it out as very much not a story for children. That ending is echoed in a similarly shattering climax in the subsequent story, "The Black House", which rounds out the collection, and which is representative of the array of moods and shades and murky motivations at play across the book as a whole and in each individual tale.

Reading The Black House – the Heinemann edition of which, incidentally, can also be found in the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery (the inscribed copy seen here is actually the second copy of the Heinemann first I've bought) – left me in the mood for even more Highsmith, so over the next few weeks I plan on reading and then reviewing the only two Highsmith novels from the 1960s I haven't as yet got round to. Ahead of those, though, I'll be taking a look at the link between Highsmith and another favourite author of mine: Donald E. Westlake.


  1. You continually unearth the greatest stuff with what seems the greatest of ease. Well done.

    And I am justing starting to realize how little I have read of Highsmith's short stories. Have sort of ignored that part of her work. (All that stuff about animals always struck me as silly - even though I never read any of it and couldn't possibly have a sound opinion on it.) Any chance we could get a list of what you think are the best stories are? Maybe an EE top ten list?

  2. Nice idea Brian, but sadly I'm not remotely qualified to do such a thing – I've only read three of the seven collections of short stories published in her lifetime. That said, I do intend to rectify that situation going forward.

  3. Great find. Let me suggest another, more recent Highsmith biography by Joan Schenkar, The Talented Miss Highsmith. Loads of details but not strictly chronological. I think I read in there that Wellfleet was where Highsmith went to get out of New York City, rented a house in the country and worked on a novel but had the distraction of MANY lovers, even in that seclusion. She really had quite a life and kept moving around, meeting and breaking up with lovers, and ended up rather isolated in Switzerland. I love her novels and have read them all. I'd be curious to know which ones from the sixties you haven't gotten to. In film school I was lucky enough to get permission to use one of her short stories, The Barbarians (from Eleven) for my graduate film. Highsmith is an author who sticks in your head. Great work!

  4. Ah, thank you for that, Jorge – I don't have a copy of Schenkar's biography, although I would like to read it sometime. So Highsmith had a house in Wellfleet. Would you (or anyone else reading this for that matter) be able to check if there's any mention of Katherine Alexander in Schenkar's book? Unlikely I expect, but you never know.

    As for those two '60s Highsmith novels, stay tuned...

  5. Here's a follow up on what I was saying about Wellfleet, and an apology because apparently I was confused. The house she rented was actually in Lenox, which is western Massachussetts, nowhere near Wellfleet. I think I got confused when you mentioned a librarian, because in Schenkar's biography (which I consulted today), there is a librarian who remembers Highsmith from her time in Lenox. There is, unfortunately, no mention of your librarian, Katherine Alexander, in the index. Wellfleet is very close to Provincetown, as you said, and she must have visited there on her several trips to Provincetown. Also, no mention in the book of Donald Olson.

  6. OK, thanks Jorge; bit of a long shot with Katherine Alexander and Donald Olson – they're not in Andrew Wilson's biography either that I can see. And thank you for the update on Wellfleet.

  7. My mom, Kate Kingsley Skattebol (1924-2015) considered Highsmith her best friend. FOUND IN THE STREET is dedicated to her. She is copiously quoted in both biographies, and deposited Highsmith's ashes in the Swiss columbarium where she reposes.

  8. Here is the dedication copy:

  9. Thank you for sharing that, Winifred. Delighted to receive comments from the daughter of such a close friend of Highsmith's. I see your mum assigned a lot of her Highsmith-related papers to the Swiss Literary Archive; did she keep any herself, or any other inscribed books? I'd love to see them if so.

    1. Sigh, just noticed I should have addressed that reply to Winifer, not 'Winifred'. Apologies.

  10. The Archives has all the papers now. My mother worked on a project with Diogenes Publishers in Zurich to edit and annotate Highsmith's journals and diaries. She was also involved in the Yaddo Trust (Highsmith bequeathed a lot of money to this writers' colony).

  11. The Highsmith journals and diaries are due out from Diogenes in 2021, with an Afterword by Joan Schenkar.