Friday, October 30, 2015

Adventure classics – When animals turn the tables on us

“Engine Horse” from The Animal Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder
by Patricia Highsmith
What’s a human being to think when a friendly, taken for granted animal turns deadly? And I’m not talking about Cujo. Before Stephen King ever penned his 1981 story about a big dog turned rabid killer, Patricia Highsmith was turning her misanthropic eyes on a whole bevy of animals who took far more rational revenge on the often-vicious humans around them. Readers of Highsmith’s 1975 story collection, The Animal Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder  will never view pets, farm animals, zoos or circuses the same way again.

In common with Highsmith’s more widely-known thrillers such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, the murderers are more winning than their victims. Among the most sympathetic is the murderess du jour: Fanny, the big, slow-witted plow horse who lives only to eat, sleep and work. That is, until the day a little grey kitten enters her stable and claims her gigantic heart.

“(That day) Fanny had not done anything that she could remember except walk with the woman Bess to the water tank and back again. Fanny had a long period of munching in daylight, before she lay down with a grunt to sleep. Her vast haunch and rib cage, well covered with fat and muscle, hit the bed of hay like a carefully lowered barrel. . . The little grey kitten, which Fanny could now see more clearly, came and curled herself up in the reddish feathers behind (her) left hoof. . . The mare was somewhat pleased. Such a dainty little creature! That size, that weight that was nothing at all!”

But in the farmhouse all is not well. Farm owner Bess Gibson’s only relative, her grandson Harry and his wife have come to visit – and to talk Bess into giving him money for a business venture he has in mind.

“Gramma, it’s as simple as this,” Harry says. “I need sixty thousand dollars to buy my half. . . but if I can’t put up my part in a few days, Gramma – or can’t give a promise of the money, my chances are gone. I’ll pay you back, Gramma, naturally. But this is the chance of a lifetime!”

Bess is unimpressed, both with smooth-talking Harry and his “pretty and silly” wife, Marylou. And as Harry’s chances of wheedling money out of Bess dwindle, he begins to plan other ways to get the money he wants. “I’m thinking,” he tells Marylou, “if Gramma had something like a hip injury, you know – those things old people always get. . . she’d have to stay in a town, wouldn’t she – if her couldn’t get around?”

And Harry has thought of just the way to provide that “accident” that will force his grandmother to sell the farm – “going on a picnic, the way she says she does, you know? With the horse and wagon. . . then the wagon turns over somewhere. . . ?.

It all seems simple, that is until Harry, awkwardly attempting to harness the “engine horse” for the wagon tramples on and kills the kitten.

Picking the dead kitten up by its tail, he throws it far away into the field. And Fanny, the engine horse, sees. She at first follows Harry docilely, but her awareness of the connection between him and the kitten’s death comes, “slowly and ponderously, even more slowly than she plodded across the meadow.” And Harry, unknowingly, leads the big horse toward his own doom.

For most of her life, Fort Worth, Texas, native Highsmith remained relatively unknown in the United States, even after Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of her first novel, Strangers on a Train. When her American agent told her, as biographer Joan Schenkar reports in The Talented Miss Highsmith, that the reason her books weren’t selling in the United States was because there was “no one likeable” in them, Highsmith replied, “Perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone. My last books may be about animals.” At least one of those, The Animal Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, was.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a November of fantasy with E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros.)

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