by Timothy A. Pearce and Alice W. Doolittle
Patricia Highsmith was an accomplished author of thrillers and horror stories from the 1950s to the 1990s. Film buffs might be familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), which was based on Highsmith’s first novel. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), starring Matt Damon, was also based on a Highsmith novel, as was Carol (2015), starring Cate Blanchett.
Highsmith was known to be enchanted with snails. Two short horror stories featuring snails, “The Snail-Watcher” and “The Quest for ‘Blank Claveringi’” are included in her collection The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories (1970, Doubleday, 177pp).
In “The Snail-Watcher,” readers meet Peter Knoppert who finds great delight keeping snails in terraria in his study, and enjoys watching them eat, mate, and reproduce. Scientifically accurate details in the story reflect Highsmith’s own careful observations of snails she kept. The snail population in Knoppert’s study grows rapidly through his diligent care and feeding (the story didn’t mention what the exorbitant weekly lettuce bill must have been) and he adds still more terraria to accommodate the mollusks. One day, after being otherwise occupied for a couple of weeks, Knoppert enters the study to find that the snails have escaped their terraria and are crawling on every surface in the room, including the ceiling. He slips on the slimy mucus and you can guess the gory ending.
In “The Quest for ‘Blank Claveringi,’” scientist Avery Clavering travels to a South Sea island where giant carnivorous snails are rumored to exist. Professor Clavering aims to collect one of this new species and name it after himself. Highsmith did not touch on the fact that among scientists, it is considered tacky to name species after yourself, so it is rarely done in the real world. Still, given Professor Clavering’s arrogant nature, it is believable that he could be egotistical enough to name a species after himself. He doesn’t yet know the genus of the snail, hence the “blank” in the title’s scientific name. He naively dismisses fears of locals from neighboring islands as superstitions, and considers stories of enormous snails to be exaggerations. When he encounters a snail the size of a Volkswagen, however, his plans to take one back alive quickly change. He can easily out-walk the giant beast, but when pursuer becomes the pursued, the slow-motion horror begins.
It was refreshing to read Highsmith’s accurate anatomical descriptions of the snails: the thousands of teeth in the snail’s radula, the fact that land snails are hermaphrodites, and the descriptions of the snails’ lung being visible within the translucent shell. Even the mention that land snails don’t normally tolerate salt water is accurate, heightening the horror when Professor Clavering learned that the snails on this island did not hesitate to pursue him into the ocean.
So, next time you are in the mood for a thrilling snail horror story, consider one of Patricia Highsmith’s short stories.
Two scary snail jokes for you:
1. Two snails named Gaston and Shelly are telling scary stories. Gaston says, “Psycho Snail isn’t really a snail at all, he is really a hermit slug. He murders snails then wears their shells so he can blend in with other snails and kill again.” Shelly says, “I don’t believe in Psycho Snail.” Gaston says, “You better believe, because *I* am Psycho Snail!” Shelly screams, “Ahhhhh!” Gaston, seeing no reaction, says, “You were supposed to jump and run away in terror.” Shelly says, “I did and I am.”
2. The snail prophet warned that if the snails didn’t behave, the snail God would punish them with a rain of young chickens. Although the snails started behaving only slightly better, the rain of chickens didn’t materialize. One snail said to another, “Phew, looks like we dodged a slug this time!” (I bet you thought I was going to say dodged a pullet!)
Timothy A. Pearce is Curator of Collections and Head of the Section of Mollusks and Alice W. Doolittle is a volunteer in the Section of Mollusks at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees and volunteers are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation InformationBlog author: Pearce, Timothy A.; Doolittle, Alice W.
Publication date: October 14, 2021