Highsmith’s short story career started at the top: this story won the prestigious O.Henry Award for the Best First Short Story by a writer. Highsmith’s favorite theme of the perversion of good intentions is on full display in this tale of a servant who conceives a plot to set her employers’ house on fire in order that she might have the opportunity to save them and demonstrate her heroism and courage.
“Old Folks at Home”
This variation on the perverse consequences of good intentions tells of a different kind of adoption. A couple adopt a frail old couple out of their misery inside a nursing home rather than adopting a helpless baby. Soon enough they realize the full magnitude of their decision to adopt two helpless individuals who are never going to become independent in any way.
“The Terrors of Basket Weaving”
An old wicker basket that looked like something that might have carried the baby Moses to freedom in Egypt incomprehensibly slices through a middle-class married woman’ precarious sense of self-confidence and esteem at being what may be determined as a leading a successful modern life. But of what use are those things that determine modernity in comparison to the skill that have for millennia shaped and defined the ability to become civilized and maintain civilization. Terrified to admit the reality of her own feelings of inadequacy, she projects the cause onto the basket and destroy the artifact in a desperate confrontation she hopes will put an end to her anxieties.
An explosion of repressed rage and guilt occurs when the father of a son afflicted by Down’s Syndrome in a marriage without romance takes out his bitter anger toward God and revulsion toward himself on an innocent stand-in. Killing a with his hands as he imagine his victim to be his son is his attempt to purge himself by transforming the murder into an act of revenge.
“Where the Action Is”
A young man still living with his parents but fancying himself a photographer happens by pure chance upon a single image that can make a career. It is a snapshot showing a moment frozen in time when a woman supposedly trying to escape a rapist. The narrative becomes a revelation of the false premise that the camera never lies.
“Mermaids on the Golf Course”
Like the photographer above, this is another story of what happens when fate shows up to throw a curveball. A St. Patrick’s Day Parade becomes an opportunity for a spectator to save the life of the President from a sniper attack and thereby transform his life into something that he vaguely even recognizes anymore.
“A Shot From Nowhere”
Another story about shots ringing out, but this time only art studio visiting Mexico seems to have witnessed the killing of a young boy. His attempts to report the death and get something done result only his arrest and ultimate expulsion from the country without any explanation about anything.
Domestic trauma erupts with the arrival of a turtle into the home. Victor is at first excited by the unexpected accompaniment of the animal with his mother. Excitement turns to terror when he learns the turtle is really there to become part of the soup being cooked for dinner.
The title character finds the greatest joy in life is simply watching his pet snails ago about their business of multiplying. They breed and breed and grow in numbers until finally there are enough to launch an attack against this thing always observing them. He dies in this this story that becomes an offbeat version a common theme in Highsmith’s work: the seemingly benign human who reveals unexpected depths of malevolence.
In the aftermath of the death of the mother of a young woman, she starts dressed up and going out to sit and pretend she is waiting for the arrival of a lover. Actual dates only serve to point out that her imagined romantic interests are far more preferable than anything reality has to offer.
“A Girl Like Phyl”
One Highsmith’s most high acclaimed stories is the tale of a coincidental meeting between a man and the daughter—and almost exact physical duplicate—of a woman he had loved twenty years earlier. The quick series of events surround his relationship with the daughter, his memories of the mother being shattered by an instant image what she has become and the meaninglessness he feels toward having sealed one of the biggest business deals of his career lead to a single existential moment of recognition that propels him into the path of an oncoming bus.