This week’s weird fiction selection comes from an unexpected place.
Review: “The Snail-Watcher”, Patricia Highsmith, 1964.
There’s a certain predictability to this story, a story more farcical than weird.
Our protagonist is Peter Knoppert. He’s a moderately successful financier who will become more successful during the story. He’s not your stereotypically gray and dull man of business, and he does have one strange hobby: snail-watching. He is obsessed with snails. He’ll bend the ear of anyone who cares to listen about snails. Even among amateur naturalists, snail watching is hardly popular. For Knoppert, though, there is the “piquancy of the esoteric” bound in the observation and study of the snail. Knoppert, through snails, has had his eyes opened to the “beauty of the animal world”. For others, it’s a “unusual and vaguely repellent pastime”. To them, snails are ugly and not even really animals.
When our story starts, the snail population in Knoppert’s study has already grown to thirty glass tanks’ worth in two months. I suppose the first foreshadowing of how things go is when Knoppert sees a couple of snails not in his study, where they are supposed to be, but in his kitchen. He observes them doing a strange dance, swaying side to side, tendrils connecting snail head to snail head.
It goes on more than an hour. Knoppert thinks they’re mating. His cook thinks they’re fighting.
It turns out Knoppert is right. He takes the mating pair, watches them deposit eggs in the sand in a tank, and the eggs hatch. He has observed the entire reproductive cycle of these snails.
The young snails grow, and Knoppert brings even more snails home to his increasing collection of tanks in his study. He feeds them lettuce, and he thinks they may appreciate touching his hand.
All this snail watching seems to have practical benefits despite Knoppert making people uncomfortable at dinner parties with his talk of snail sex. At work, Knoppert becomes
more daring in his moves, more brilliant in his calculations, became in fact a little vicious in his schemes.
He makes his brokerage house more money and gets a raise.
By this point, to stop anyone from crushing any snails, Knoppert’s study is off limits. Last time he checks, the snails were crawling around on the bookshelves and on his desk.
Knoppert gets busy for a couple of weeks making some more daring stock transactions and doesn’t get back to his study.
His wife, a bit worried about the fishy smell from the study, suggests he goes to take a look and see that no tanks have overturned.
What Knoppert finds, due to laws of geometric population growth, is snails crawling on the ceiling, thousands on the chandelier, lumps of them on the chair, masses on the windows. When he tries to get them off the ceiling a chain reaction of snails and collapsing lights and wallpaper leads him to death by suffocation. His last vision is of mating snails.
It’s not a horrifying story. It’s not particularly funny though it is a bit humorous in parts. Highsmith didn’t quite suspend my disbelief when her snails come tumbling down on Knoppert. It seems, apart from making snails a menace, a predictable combination of mad scientist and revenge of nature plot.