Highsmith @ 100: Snails by K A Laity

K A Laity, Patricia Highsmith, Writing

When a strange story broke about the confiscation of a bag of giant African snails at JFK airport this week, I knew Patricia Highsmith was calling. The man who brought them from Ghana declared them to customs, but didn’t realise they were illegal. Why’s that, you say? ‘They eat almost anything, breed like crazy, and carry a terrifying parasite that causes something called “rat lungworm.” The snails can reach up to 8 inches long and 5 inches wide when fully grown.’

Most people do not see snails as cuddly pets, but then most people are not Patricia Highsmith. She famously smuggled them in her bra on trips between France and Britain because she could not bear to leave any behind. Vic Van Allen, the protagonist of her serial killer novel Deep Water (1957) adored his snails Hortense and Edgar and watched with sentimental rapture as they made love. That snail sex scene is probably the most tender passage to be found in the whole of Highsmith’s published work.

With the release of Under a Dark Angel’s Eye we have easy access to a broad swathe of Highsmith’s short fiction and this seems the perfect moment to give a closer look at ‘The Snail Watcher’ which was written in 1948 and appeared in print in 1964. The main character by chance gives a closer look at some snails intended for the dinner table and finds himself enraptured. They become his hobby, ‘and snails were never again served in the Knoppert household.’

The strangeness of their sexual habits draws the broker’s fascination (and seemingly Highsmith’s too). Searching in vain for information in his encyclopaedias, Knoppert voyages to the public library to find an offhand remark by Darwin in untranslated French about their sensualité. While one might see the violence inherent in the process, Knoppert and his creator focus on the ritual of the ‘courtship’ between the gastropods. They are both male and female, so the process involves rearing up and tentatively interacting until they decide who’s going to take which role. This can take hours.

Knoppert becomes so entranced by the reproductive process—though losing interest somewhat in the sex part, he begins to focus on the egg hatching—that he gives over his entire study to his obsession as the snails multiply. His wife finds this distressing, unsurprisingly. But Highsmith believes in obsession. Knoppert finds it stimulating. ‘His colleagues in the brokerage office noticed a new zest for life.’ He becomes more daring and successful, and ‘saw his bank account multiplying as easily and rapidly as his snails.’

So successful that, focused on his work and bank balance, Knoppert neglects his hobby. For a couple of weeks. Even his wife notices and suggests he check on them. You can probably guess what happens: it’s good to remember that in the short stories Highsmith went as often to horror as she did to crime. The last few pages of the story show her relish for supreme discomfort.

Along with an abiding appreciation of the beauty of the snails. After all, they’re just doing what nature bids them do.

K. A. LaityGraham Wynd is an award-winning author, scholar, critic, editor, and arcane artist. Her books include Chastity FlameLush SituationLove is a GriftSatan’s SororityHow to Be Dull, White RabbitDream Book, A Cut-Throat BusinessOwl Stretching, and Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering UterusRespectable HorrorWeird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Her work has been translated into Italian, Polish, Slovene, German and Portuguese. Follow her on TwitterInstagram or Facebook. Her podcast Is It Funny? can be found here.


K A Laity, Paul D. Brazill, Short Stories

Back in 2012 I wrote a story for the late lamented Dark Valentine Magazine. It was a noir/ horror crossover yarn called Drunk On The Moon, and it featured a werewolf private eye called Roman Dalton. The story proved to be quite popular and I wrote a few more Roman Dalton yarns. There were even a couple of anthologies where a wide range of authors wrote Roman Dalton yarns. Oh, and he’s been translated into Slovenian and Polish.

Anyway, I recently decided to collect as many of the yarns as possible in one place. There are stories from me, K A Laity, Carrie ClevengerGraham Wynd, Matt Hilton, Vincent Zandri, Allan Leverone and more! (Artwork by Marcin Drzewiecki – Ilustrator)

When a full moon fills the night sky, Private Investigator Roman Dalton becomes a werewolf and prowls The City’s neon and blood soaked streets. Vivid and violent noir horror stories based on characters created by Paul D. Brazill

Netflix ought to swoop in and bag those stories for a new series.’

‘It’s noir. It’s supernatural. It’s sleazy as hell.’

“A crackling fun read that puts werewolves in a Sin City/hardboiled world.”

5.0 out of 5 stars.  Brilliant and Dark

5.0 out of 5 stars.  Noir Fun with a Werewolf Detective

5.0 out of 5 stars.  A Howling Good Read!

5.0 out of 5 stars.  Both gruesome and awesome

Why not sink your teeth in, if you fancy?

Noir Classics: I Wake Up Screaming (1941) by K A Laity

Films, K A Laity, Noir

Noir Classics: I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

K. A. Laity

Even though I teach a course on film noir, there are some I still haven’t got around to seeing: I Wake Up Screaming was one of those. Released through the Fox Film Noir brand now, it’s one of those artifacts that reminds you ‘film noir’ was retconned into existence. At one point the film was called Hot Spot, which hits closer to the thriller genre it was planned to be. It’s a whodunit that begins with interrogation of the likely suspect, then works its way back.

The film went through a few changes. Betty Grable, who gets top billing, also had a song ‘Daddy’ which is about what you’d guess from that title. In a cut scene included on the disc, she ‘demonstrates’ the song for a customer in the music shop whilst fielding creepy eyes from her boss who has given her permission to leave early with the expectation that she ‘owes him’ now. All the more eye-rolling because I had just finished our required annual sexual harassment training exercise.

It’s impossible not to see a lot through modern eyes. Laird Cregar’s super-creepy stalker vibe outweighs the fact that he’s the cop in charge. And you can’t see Elijah Cook Jr and not think he must be guilty of something. Victor Mature’s smug sports promoter is supposed to have feelings for someone but you can’t find an expression on his face apart from the weight of those eyebrows.

Carole Landis plays the waitress turned celebrity gal-about-town with a tough gal bravado that works. Grable is kind of lost in the first half of the film but gets better in the second half. Maybe once she knew what kind of film she was supposed to be in, she knew better what to do. There are some fun plot twists and turns in a vintage New York setting – diners, the Lido Plunge, the Garden, all-night adult cinemas! – and good turns by supporting cast William Gargan and Alan Mowbray as a columnist and an over-the-hill actor also sweet on the Pygmalioned dame.

The weirdest thing has to be the music. Landis’ screen test has her singing a pop song based on Tchaikovsky. The other two repeating themes are really disconcerting. One is ‘Over the Rainbow’: I guess Fox wanted to get their money’s worth out of the tune but the whole audience is going to be waiting for Dorothy to show up. The Wizard of Oz was just two years before. The other theme is Alfred Newman’s ‘Street Scene’ composed for the 1931 film of the same name, but then recycled in half a dozen other films including Grable’s big turn with Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Film companies have always had such contempt for art and artists.

Nonetheless it’s an entertaining film and I’m going to have to find time to watch it again with Eddie Muller’s commentary as I’m bound to find out a lot more background. The stories behind the scenes have some real tragedy.

Review: Sisters With Transistors by K A Laity

Art, K A Laity, Non-fiction, post punk

Review: Sisters With Transistors


2020 / 84 MIN / UK / Metrograph Pictures


Thanks to EMPAC I had a chance to see this new film and a talk by the director Lisa Rovner and producer Marcus Werner Hed. This documentary chases the early history of electronic music and the women who were at the heart of it—though you wouldn’t know that from most music histories. features the work of visionary composer and Rensselaer professor Pauline Oliveros alongside Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Wendy Carlos, Delia Derbyshire, EMPAC-alum Maryanne Amacher, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel. 

While it’s likely that you will know some of these artists, unless you’re a real electronic aficionado you’re unlikely to know them all. Even the ones I knew I didn’t always know all the things they were up to. I didn’t know about Barron’s recording of Anaïs Nin and her husband Hugo; I didn’t know the astounding amount of work Ciani did in advertising or how Spiegel created the Music Mouse for Apple computers. I did know about the Barrons being denied composer credit for the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet because the musicians union feared people being replaced by machines—instead of the reality that people found more ways to mess with machines and make fascinating sounds.

The approaches differ: some are more interested in the machines and the process, others in how the machines facilitate the sound. Oliveros of course started her Deep Listening practice with as much concern for healing as for music, embodying listening as a form of whole body meditation. It’s interesting that Radigue, too, was profoundly influenced by Buddhist teachings. So much for the ‘coldness’ of electronic music.

While any one of these women could be a whole documentary subject herself, this film offers an entrée to the wealth of women working in electronic composition and performance. You can find further diverse suggestions in this Reddit thread. It’s not all one might wish, but it’s a lot more than what we have, which is nothing much.

Best of all it’s energising, inspiring, full of wonderful sounds, and will make you itch to see what sounds you can make.

Sisters with Transistors is an essential primer for those interested in discovering this vital, oft-overlooked history but also offers plenty of pleasures for crate-digging experimental music obsessives who know the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s output like the back of their hand. Contemporary musicians, such as Holly Herndon and Kim Gordon, also offer insights into their forebears’ indelible music and their personal significance.

Watch the Sisters With Transistors teaser here: https://vimeo.com/471330312 The film opens April 23.

Gresham’s Wicked Cards by K A Laity

K A Laity, Non-fiction, William Lindsay Gresham, Writing

While musing on Nightmare Alley (something I do more than most people I suspect) I often wonder how deeply William Lindsay Gresham studied the tarot and whether it was for more than just carny sideshow purposes. So I was pleased to receive a gem from a talk hosted by the Folklore Society.

The Katharine Briggs Lecture by Dr Julia Woods, ‘“I Cannot Find the Hanged Man”: Tarot Cards in Fantastic Fiction’ traced many references to tarot in fantasy fiction in the modern age (from a medievalist’s perspective the 19th century is modern). Since my knowledge of The Inklings was limited to C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and ‘some other guys but not women’ I was delighted to hear more about Charles Williams and his novel The Greater Trumps. Not only is it a novel steeped in the tarot (yeah I ordered it), but Gresham wrote an introduction for it in 1950.

Obviously this was before his wife Joy Davidman left him for fellow Inkling C. S. Lewis.

Gresham offers a brief overview of the history of tarot which mostly pokes holes in the purported truths: ‘Eliphas Lévi, the French magus, writing in the middle of the last century, treated the gipsies with his usual blend of eloquence, erudition and inaccuracy. His speculations on the Tarot must be taken in this light.’ I’d love him for that alone, but he brings in Jung and Ouspensky and tilts some more at Lévi, so I suspect that he did indeed make a serious study of the cards.

Where did the Tarot designs come from, and what do the Greater Trumps mean? No one knows. But anyone who has studied them at length has felt their power of releasing unsuspected ideas from the subconscious. The cards seem to have an inner life of their own.

Gresham sees the tarot as unlocking the psychology of an individual: ‘The Tarot is not a mnemonic device for a set doctrine, it would seem, but a philosophical slide-rule on which the individual can work out his own metaphysical and religious equations. He and Davidman had converted to Christianity. For her it stuck, but he was always doubtful it seems.

He divines his own imagined idea of the history of tarot based on the ‘internal’ evidence of the cards, but admits it will take real historical digging. ‘Let us hope that in the future some devoted iconologist of means and broad scholarship will set himself the task of solving the mystery of the Greater Trumps’ origin. But let him not be an occultist, clasping his secrets close. Let us hope that he is a humble Christian, eager to share.’

Gresham lists meanings for the Major Arcana, claiming ‘Here is a personal list of interpretations of the Greater Trumps, drawn from Williams, with Waite in the background, and intuition-of-the-moment playing a large part.’ How much weight each of those has is difficult to judge. I was most struck by this one:

(xiii) The Hanged Man. Renunciation of self is the greatest triumph; the long battle with man’s untaught impulses and self-will; sacrifice leading to the secret at the heart of the world.

Always the meaning in flux, always Gresham hiding behind layers of disavowal. Did the cards have different meanings when he wrote Nightmare Alley in the mid-40s? Did their meanings change again after Davidman left and his fortunes fell further? Did they bring him comfort? Did he long for The Sun or fear The Last Judgment? The Juggler keeps all the balls in the air, but when they finally fall, are we all just The Fool?

You can read Gresham’s introduction to Williams’ novel here.

Palace of Swords Reversed by K A Laity

Flash Fiction, K A Laity, Short Stories, The Fall

Palace of Swords Reversed

‘Look, this is the Five of Swords. That means conflict or strife. Which seems appropriate, right?’ Joy looked up with bright eyes but Will only grunted. ‘Strife it is, indeed. Oh, but look! It’s reversed. Now let me remember. Oh, no I can’t. I have to peek.’

Joy picked up the well-thumbed Rainbows and Unicorns spiral notebook she had bought at WS Smith at the beginning of this new enthusiasm. She had taken notes more carefully  than ever she had in school. Perhaps she had only needed the right subject to awaken the avid scholar within. ‘Ah reversed: here it is. An ongoing conflict, one you can never win so you just need to walk away. Avoid it. Well, that’s a new path to walk as Mother Shipton would say.’

Will offered no reply to this. Perhaps he had grown tired of Mother Shipton says this, Mother Shipton advises that. Perhaps he realised that she had drawn her name from a slightly more famous, somewhat earlier, vaguely notorious psychic of some sort who had a cave now doing a bustling business as a tourist destination in Yorkshire. Perhaps he wasn’t listening.

‘Now this one seems obvious, but it’s not. We had many discussions about this trump. They’re called trumps, you know,’ Joy said, the excitement evident in her voice and the way she bounced on her chair. When they met back in the local primary school, he had found that endearing and told her so. So much energy in such a small bundle was what he always said.

‘The Death card is much feared, and it looks rather daunting, but it doesn’t necessarily doom you,’ she added with a giggle. ‘It means a big change. Things cannot go back to the way they were. An old life is ending—not always literally, mind you!—and a new one begins. That’s encouraging, don’t you think? I think so!’

Will sighed and coughed a little. He was having some trouble breathing. It may have been the knife in his throat.

‘But the last card: that’s the way forward. Look, Will. Knight of Swords. Two swords in this spread. Past and future both the same suit.’ Joy looked over at Will. The spill of red blood down the front of his vest looked rather like a bib, which struck her as funny.

‘The Knight cards area always about energy and motion. Mother Shipton says that real knights were seldom better than mercenaries! Nothing like the stories at all. You know, King Arthur and all that. Maybe Guy Ritchie was right, they were thugs. You liked that film, didn’t you?’

Will did not respond.

‘Motivation. Oh who was that, Will? Comedian fellah, doing the football manager. You know! The three Ms: motivation, motivation, motivation. How we laughed. It was on the YouTube. You remember, I know you do. Motivation, determination, overcoming challenges. Don’t let anything faze you. Brazen it out.’

Joy pulled the knife from his neck and Will fell forward onto the table. Fortunately the vinyl tablecloth would keep the blood from staining the veneer. Incoherent babble emanated from his shape and his hands clawed uselessly at his sides. It had been a good idea to tie him up. Serves him right for nodding off right in the middle of his tea. Four cans of Boddingtons before he sat down! No wonder.

‘I was wondering what I would tell the polis when they came,’ Joy said, more serious now, ‘but as I turn the matter over in my head, I think I may just wait for a nice dark night and slip you into the compost.’

Will did not offer an opinion on the matter.

‘Listen, I’ll call Alice in a few days. Oh Alice, Will left me for a woman Ayrshire! Or should it be France?’ Joy pursed her lips, thinking. Inspiration hit and she turned over another card.

‘Queen of Wands. Ooh, I like that. Independent woman. Wands…hmmm…Poles! I know, you’ve run off with Polish woman to France. Ha! So much for your Brexit, take back control nonsense, Will. You must admit you were wrong about that.’

Will admitted nothing.

Joy wet her thumb and cleaned the drop of blood off the Death card. ‘Can’t have that, now can we?’

Noir Classics: The Candy Kid – Dorothy B. Hughes by K A Laity

Dorothy Hughes, International Noir, K A Laity

Noir Classics: The Candy Kid – Dorothy B. Hughes

by K. A. Laity

While Hughes’ reputation is assured by the brilliance of In a Lonely Place, Ride the Pink Horse or The Expendable Man, her other novels offer great reads that show her experimenting with characterisations and locations as well as story-telling methods. Her love of the southwest takes centre stage in The Candy Kid, which turns out to be nothing like the gloriously lurid Pocket Book cover by Edward Vebell.

The story begins in the border town El Paso. Even today that town and its twin across the valley, Ciudad Juárez, embody the fraught relationship between the US and Mexico. Hughes’ impression of the tension between the people living and working there and the crime networks that exploit the border crossings seems sedate compared to the cartel violence that led to the image of  Juárez as Murder Central in the early part of this century, when hundreds of women were kidnapped and murdered.

When Jose Aragon, disheveled from driving cattle to El Paso from his New Mexican ranch, first spots Dulcinda Farrar, we suspect here’s the femme fatale. ‘She didn’t look like Texas, not even Dallas. She looked like a turista from the East…she was upper-level stuff’ (2). In Hughes’ books, judging anyone by their appearance is likely to be a mistake. Farrar mistakes Aragon for a cadging Mexican and asks him to pick up a package for her across the border. He agrees despite being equal parts amused and annoyed. Aragon is proud of being Spanish but it rankles a little to be taken for Mexican though he’s aware at that moment he looks the part, hanging around a swank hotel, waiting for his cousin so they can go check in.

It’s meant to be a joke he can spring on the woman as he gets to know her later. He plans to show up after he’s showered and dressed, ready to see her surprise at the handsome man-about-town. But Aragon discovers he’s picked up a shadow. He can’t tell who the guy in the non-descript seersucker suit is (cop? criminal?) but when the guy ends up dead he realises there’s a lot more going on that a joke that’s gone too far.

The mystery straddles the border and then moves to Santa Fe—and Los Alamos. There’s more murder and more questions as a bottle of perfume isn’t at all what it seems. Aragon gets a lot more than he bargained for entangling himself with Farrar and her brother, and a Mexican kid who’s trying to escape the crime kingpin her family sold her to in desperation.

In some ways the 1950 novel looks back to the war-time thrillers Hughes wrote, perhaps as a way of adapting to the growing Red Scare, but I don’t think it really suited her. Also Aragon seems too much built from the outside; we have the facts of him, but he doesn’t feel real in the way that her other creations Dix Steele and Hugh Densmore do. Ride the Pink Horse (1964) works much better with outsider Sailor looking at the cultural collisions of the southwest town. But it’s a fun read with plenty of twists. You can’t go wrong with Hughes. 

Order Coming Through in Waves: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Pink Floyd NOW!

Andy Rausch, Anthology, Bill Baber, Jim Shaffer, K A Laity, Mark Slade, Music, Paul D. Brazill, Pink Floyd, S.W. Lauden, T Fox Dunham, Tom Leins

Perhaps no other major band or artist has equaled the lyrical and musical poignancy that Pink Floyd has achieved in landmark records such as The Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall.In this, the fourth installment in Gutter Books’ Rock Anthology Series, we pay tribute to, and hopefully in some small way enhance the legend of, a band that has spoken so compellingly to— and for—millions of people searching for meaning in the modern world.Featuring some of today’s most exciting authors, and edited by horror author and cancer survivor T. Fox DunhamComing Through in Waves weaves together a plethora of dark, strange, and intriguing images that only Pink Floyd could inspire.




The Tin God—Daniel Figgis by K A Laity

K A Laity, Linear Obsessional, Music

Linear Obsessional is delighted to present the first of two EPs by the extraordinary Irish composer Daniel Figgis: Figgis (a long time friend of this label) released the magical “Skipper” in 1995. Since then Daniel has primarily worked on extraordinary large scale live happenings involving waterfall, abandoned buildings, forest, World Financial Center New York, Symphony Space Broadway, Wexford Opera House, National Concert Hall Ireland, City Hall Dublin, National Basketball Arena Ireland, underwater choreography conducted under hypnosis at the Olympic Swimming Pool Limerick, and site specific compositions for various ensembles. See danielfiggis.com

First I should declare that yes, I have ties to Linear Obsessional, so I may be biased when I say that Richard has released an incredibly fascinating array of sound recordings, but 1) everyone has their biases so why not be clear about mine and 2) why wouldn’t I want to be associated however slightly with such an amazing catalogue?

As you can tell from the liner notes above, Figgis has been working in a lot of different mediums and spaces. This recording is a wonderful introduction if you are unfamiliar with them and an absolute treat to anyone who loves sound. The tracks have a texture of sound that transports you to liminal spaces and new vistas. I recommend putting on headphones and shutting out the noise of this unstable world for something more magnificent. The title track offers an almost operatic sweep of sound that vibrates with the very pulse of life. Quite extraordinary.

While I have the digital edition, THE TIN GOD has been released as a limited edition in the Linear Obsessional cassette imprint (design by David Little) with download coupon, and as a download. Both downloads come with a PDF of text, images and further information. The companion cassette THE TYPING POOL is now up for pre-order.

Review: January Sounds – Cannell & Ellis by K A Laity

Indie, K A Laity, Music

Brawl Records has begun a new year long series These Feral Lands, growing out of last year’s release of the same name.

Brawl Records is proud to present JANUARY SOUNDS from UK and Ireland based musicians Laura Cannell and Kate Ellis. Featuring Cannell’s signature evocative overbowed violin alongside Ellis’s deeply expressive cello playing.

This release is the first in a series of twelve as part of a major new project:

THESE FERAL LANDS – A Year Documented in Sound and Art. An ambitious and exciting creative documentation of 2021 from two innovative and highly acclaimed instrumentalists with new music released monthly, and bespoke films published at Caught by the River.

Cannell has been on my buy immediate list for some time and this EP is a good showcase of why that is. January Sounds features three tracks by Cannell & Ellis that capture those twin threads of strangeness and beauty that arise from the land. Folk horror has become such a powerful trope in recent years across so much media, but folk beauty has sometimes been more elusive. These two extraordinary musicians manage to convey both.

‘Wastelands’ captures that windswept bleakness with all the surging power lying under it, waiting to break free in something unexpected. Violin and cello have long been a beautifully expressive pair whether in folk or classical music but there’s something so knit together in the sound here that it’s mesmerizing.

‘Sea Tower’ conveys the liminal coastal space so evocatively that you will swear you can smell the salt water and wind. It sends me back to Galway but you’ll doubtless have your own windswept memories evoked by this track.

‘Harts Blood’ conjures up medieval tales for me; hunting has so much lore and tradition and, often in the stories, magic involved with it. The hunt was a matter of prestige as well as valour. But there’s also a blood red dahlia called Harts Blood so it might just as well be a tribute to those vivid petals. This is the kind of music that lets your mind soar.

The cover art captures the mood too: inspired by medieval graffiti, simple and stark. I wholeheartedly recommend the entire catalogue of Brawl Records and I can’t wait to see what February brings.