Wednesday 21 May 2014

Patricia Highsmith's Short Stories: Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, Signed Inscribed Association First Edition (Bloomsbury, 1987)

Signed books have become an increasingly important aspect of my book collecting over the past couple of years, especially books – first editions usually, but other editions too – signed by my favourite authors; I've been blogging about some of my more recent acquisitions in that regard over the past month or so (periodically). But even more fascinating to me than flat signed – i.e. signature-only – books are inscribed ones, particularly those inscribed by authors to friends or even fellow authors – association copies, in the lingo of book collectors. For me it's not so much who they're inscribed to, although that in and of itself can be interesting – witness the Jack Gerson thriller I blogged about last month, inscribed to Doctor Who actress Mary Tamm – nor the matter of provenance, although in purely collecting terms an association copy does bestow a certain authenticity on a signature and inscription (see here, here and here); it's more the implication that the book was probably one of the author's own copies – that it sat on their shelves for however short or long a period of time, was handled by them, and ultimately given away by them.

I own a good number of such books myself, maybe half a dozen or so of which are by some of my favourite authors: Elmore Leonard, Donald E. Westlake, P. M. Hubbard (with accompanying letter), Gavin Lyall, Anthony Price. And then there's Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith is perhaps the author I admire above all others, but she's not the easiest writer to acquire in inscribed first (or any) edition. Flat signed books, no problem – signed copies of the various limited editions of her novels and short story collections published by Mysterious Press or Penzler Books in the States can be had for as little as twenty quid on AbeBooks, while for just north of £100 it's usually possible to obtain the 1991 signed Bloomsbury/London Limited Editions Ripley Under Water (I myself own one). But inscribed copies? I can see barely ten in total for sale online at present, ranging from over £150 to nearly £6,000.

Two years ago, however, I managed to procure, for a ridiculously low price, an inscribed copy of the 1977 Heinemann edition of the (very) short story collection Little Tales of Misogyny – an association copy, inscribed to two of Highsmith's friends and with a little drawing to boot. It was an extremely fortunate find, and I didn't think I'd easily be able to get my hands on anything like it again – which just goes to show how wrong a body can be, because I've since come into possession of a further two inscribed copies of Highsmith books, both of them again short story collections. I'll deal with what I think is the more extraordinary of the two in a subsequent post, but this one isn't half bad by itself:

A first edition of Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, published in hardback by Bloomsbury in 1987, jacket design by husband and wife team Frances Newell and John Sorrell – latterly of design charity The Sorrell Foundation – with a cover illustration by Kurt Hoyte, who would go on to illustrate the covers of the 1989–90 Corgi reprints of six Jim Thompson novels. I acquired this copy for a very reasonable price from the secondhand department of Kirkdale Bookshop, a splendid bookshop in Sydenham in south London, not far from where I grew up in Beckenham, although I didn't on this occasion purchase the book in the shop itself; I spotted it online. The inscription, in the spidery hand characteristic of Highsmith in her later years, is on the half title page, like so:

It reads:

For Paul Joyce –

(glad you like this one) –

Best wishes from Patricia Highsmith

8 June 1989

It's my belief that the Paul Joyce of the inscription is this Paul Joyce – photographer, filmmaker and artist. In 1989 Joyce directed a ninety minute documentary titled Motion and Emotion: The Films of Wim Wenders, for which he interviewed Highsmith about The American Friend, Wenders's 1977 adaptation of Ripley's Game (1974). The date of the inscription tallies with the production of Motion and Emotion, which in turn is two years on from the publication of Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, so if I'm on the right track, that means this was either Highsmith's own copy of the book which she gave to Joyce when they met, or Joyce got her to inscribe his copy.

My suspicion – indeed my personal preference – is for the first scenario, because that would mean the book was in Highsmith's personal library for a couple of years before she handed it on, but either way, and bearing in mind I haven't seen Joyce's documentary, I wonder what the general drift of the conversation was that it should produce a wry comment like "glad you like this one". Did Joyce confess to not liking others of her books?

In any case, I can see just one other signed copy of the Bloomsbury edition of Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes for sale online at present – flat signed, and listed at £150. (There's also a flat signed copy of the 1989 Atlantic Monthly Press edition, listed at £60, which, incidentally, is still more than I paid.) So even if I've got my wires crossed as regards Paul Joyce, it's still quite a remarkable copy of the last collection of short stories to be published in Highsmith's lifetime (there have been a few posthumous collections).

And there are some diverting stories within its pages. Those only familiar with Highsmith's rep as a suspense or crime writer might be surprised by the breadth of the material herein, which ranges from a vignette of a cemetery where towering cancerous growths become a tourist attraction ("The Mysterious Cemetery") to a blow-by-blow account of a whale's war with mankind ("Moby Dick II; or the Missile Whale") to a Pope's attempts to introduce a woman's right to choose into the doctrine of the Catholic Church ("Sixtus VI, Pope of the Red Slipper").

Along the way there's the story of a New York tower block overrun by monster cockroaches ("Trouble at the Jade Towers"), a spot of mild speculative fiction embodied by a woman who lives for over 200 years, draining the resources – financial and emotional – of everyone around her ("No End in Sight"), and a truly apocalyptic climax centring on an American President and First Lady, clearly modelled on Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who distract attention from an Iran-Contra-like scandal by starting World War III ("President Buck Jones Rallies and Waves the Flag").

All this is delivered in typically dispassionate fashion by Highsmith, as she casts an acerbic eye over the world around her. Some of the stories are more memorable than others, and Highsmith's unrelenting misanthropy can become wearying; it's notable how practically the only protagonists who emerge with their dignity intact are those of the non-human variety. But there's no denying the sheer scope of the collection, Highsmith tackling themes as daunting as religion, politics, money, abortion and animal rights and setting her stories on stages as diverse as the USA, post-colonial Africa, South America and the high seas. Perhaps that's why Paul Joyce responded to this book more than others of Highsmith's.

I've added Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes to the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery, but the second signed and inscribed Highsmith short story collection I'll be taking a look at is already represented in said gallery...


  1. Nick, the Jade Towers story caught my attention, but when I looked it up, it seemed to be about cockroaches, not rats. Do the rats come in at the end?

    Reason I'm curious is that about a decade before that Highsmith anthology came out (1976), Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame did a series for ITV called "Beasts". He wrote all the episodes (there weren't many), and one was called "During Barty's Party". I've seen it, and it's about a horde of super-rats terrorizing a suburban couple at their home, while they desperately try to get a fatuous radio host (named Barty) to send help.

    Highsmith's story seems to also be satirical, with or without the rats.

  2. You're right – dunno where I got rats from, it is indeed cockroaches. And I only read the story the other week. Anyway, now fixed – thank you Chris.

    Satire is something that runs through most of the stories in this collection, I'd say, although it's quite broad satire. They're different from some of her earlier short stories in that respect, as well as not being stories of suspense. Then again, the stories in the second collection of Highsmith shorts I'll be looking at next aren't especially suspenseful either – and are all the better for it.

  3. Patricia Highsmith has a unique view of reality and it shows in these stories. Her novels, especially the ones about Tom Ripley, present an amoral universe.

  4. Quite right, George. Have you seen my series of posts on the Ripliad by the way?