Patricia Highsmith’s Uncommon Empathy for Animals
“The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder” is a perfect book of short stories for vegans who enjoy a dark thrill
Patricia Highsmith, the novelist best known for creating the diabolically charming character Tom Ripley, was a notorious misanthrope. An editor once characterized her as “a horrible human being” and a fellow writer described her as “an excellent hater.” But, at the very least, she loved animals. When she came across spiders inside the house, she would carefully carry them to the garden outside. She had a particular affection for snails, and kept some 300 of them as pets when she lived in a cottage in Suffolk, as well as for cats, with whom she was often photographed. Her feline relationships, a biographer wrote, were “often counted as her longest and most successful emotional connection.”
Once, when her agent complained that there was nobody likable in her books, Highsmith responded, “Perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone. My last books may be about animals.”
This affinity for non-human life is the foundation of Highsmith’s collection of short stories, The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. The tales blend elements of fable, morality tale, and revenge fantasy, but for the most part they all center the lives and experiences of animals, and relegate those of human neighbors, owners, masters, trainers, and torturers to the margins.
Highsmith seems to challenge the reader: “If maltreatment of an elephant is obviously wrong, what about a cat? Does a rat deserve your empathy? What if a pair of boys stab it in the eye and slice off two of its paws in their attempt to kill it? Are you still with me?”
The collection opens with the sad tale of Chorus Girl, a performance elephant whose kind and gentle trainer has retired and been replaced by one who is callous and neglectful. Highsmith’s misanthropy is evident in her cutting descriptions of the casual cruelty and indifference of the zoo-goers. The story is melodramatic, bordering on maudlin, but sincerely so.
“I wrote… Chorus Girls’s Absolutely Final Performance, which is my elephant story [and] I had to read the thing five times, fifth time being proof-reading, and everytime tears were coming down my cheeks,” Highsmith wrote to a friend in 1973. “I hope it does not affect every reader like this.”
Next comes a story about a working camel, and then a dog, and then a cat. These are followed by a story about a truffle-hunting pig, and a rat. With this progression, from charismatic megafauna to household pets to vermin, Highsmith seems to challenge the reader: “If maltreatment of an elephant is obviously wrong, what about a cat? Does a rat deserve your empathy? What if a pair of boys stab it in the eye and slice off two of its paws in their attempt to kill it? Are you still with me?”
The pinnacle of the collection is “The Day of Reckoning,” a complex, difficult story that Highsmith was inspired to write after someone in her acquaintance recounted to her the horrors of battery chicken farming. She passes on the information in exquisite, painful detail.
The story opens with the death of a kitten, smashed so flat by the wheel of a truck that at first it’s not clear if it is “real or made of paper.” Kittens in Highsmith’s writing seem to symbolize the height of innocence, and in this story one innocent’s death foreshadows another. The farmer — blinded by greed — has turned his back on the miseries of his chickens, which have been driven mad; he cannot see his wife’s unhappiness with the new system, nor with him; and he does not notice his own increasing stress and strain. Finally, he doesn’t see his daughter when she runs after her new kitten, right in front of some heavy farm machinery.
In this instance, the chickens’ revenge is helped along by the distraught farmer’s wife, who frees the chickens, lures her husband into the barn, and locks him in to be pecked to death, until nothing remains but “a fallen column of blood and bone to which a few tatters of pajama cloth still clung.”
The “reckoning” in the title refers both to the final judgment and execution by wife and chickens, but also the farmer’s daily tallying up of profit and loss, suggesting a broader critique of capitalism, at least as far as it ruins animal and human lives alike.
The grisly murder, however justified, of people by animals was simply too much for some readers.
“I used to be the only person I knew who loathed Patricia Highsmith’s work for its inhumanity to man, but our numbers are growing and will be increased by…[these] short stories about animals killing or mutilating people, with a strong flavour of being motivated less by pity for animals than by distaste for men,” wrote the critic Marghanita Laski when the collection was published in 1975.
Likewise, a Kirkus reviewer dismissed it as “simplistic” and “predictable” without acknowledging how rare it is to center non-humans in fiction, and especially in tales of injustice (as opposed to adventure stories, or in roles as “man’s best friend”). Highsmith dedicates more words than most writers to describing the horrors of animal abuse, cruelty, and neglect. She is often disparaged for her amoral perspective, but these stories show that she had a keen sensitivity to the unreasonable amount of pain and suffering in the world, and knew all too well the role humanity plays in perpetuating it.
There is more moral clarity here than one expects, perhaps because the animals know or intuit whether a person is kind or not, good or bad, conscientious or indifferent or cruel.
Perhaps the trajectory of some of the stories is predictable — can there be such a thing as a happy circus-animal story? — but to suggest that this somehow renders the collection unworthy is to say that the trials and tribulations of animals are beneath our notice or care. And while the pages are chock full of blood and gore — the gruesome scene in which a cornered rat feasts upon a baby’s face comes to mind — there are glimmers of goodness, too. Characters like the devoted cat owner in “Ming’s Biggest Prey” and the gentle Marion in “There I Was, Stuck with Bubsy” prove that not everyone in Highsmith’s universe is rotten to the core. There is more moral clarity here than one expects, perhaps because the animals know or intuit whether a person is kind or not, good or bad, conscientious or indifferent or cruel.
Like Ming, the Siamese cat, they know “the tones of love.”