My fascination with ghost/supernatural/horror stories began at a young age, and at some point, I received a copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense, which anthologized several chilling tales by such authors as Raymond Chandler and Muriel Spark. I found this book again while helping my mother clean out her attic a few years ago, and I immediately snagged it, because while I found the entire book scary as hell as a child, there was one particular story that frightened me and stayed with me to this day, some thirty years later.
“The Quest for ‘Blank Caveringi'”, by Patricia Highsmith is the story in question. I didn’t remember the premise, but I remembered the “monsters” of the story, and I remembered the ending, which horrified me on some deep, primal level, although I’m not sure why.
Re-reading it as an adult, I have a different perspective, because the story is about a 48 year old academic who goes off in search of an island reported to be the home of giant, carnivorous snails, because he wants to be famous and have something named after him.
I repeat: giant, carnivorous snails.
Reading over it now, I have to admit, it has excellent pacing and a solid build-up to the ending which so horrified me as a child, but… snails? How could you not escape a snail, even a giant one? It’s like not being able to outrun a zombie. And how did they get to be carnivorous? WTF? If this were made into a film today, it would probably be a cheesy B-grade horror flick, worthy of the drive-in or MST3K, but at the same time, it’s a solid little horror tale, suitable for scaring the pants off less jaded children.
I think it’s probably more the sense of isolation and primality that create the fear factor here; civilization has no place on the island of the snails, and the professor made the standard mistake of most protagonists in horror stories: he wasn’t prepared.
And now the end of the story, which has stayed with me for so long:
“Please — here!” the professor screamed. He plunged again into the water. “Please!”
Dr. Stead was trying, that the professor could see. But the natives were rowing, paddling with hands even, and their sail was carrying them obliquely away.
The snail made a splash as it entered the sea. To drown or to be eaten alive, the professor wondered. He was waist-deep when he stumbled, waist-deep but head under when the snail crashed down upon him, and he realized as the thousands of pairs of teeth began to gnaw at his back, that his fate was both to drown and to be chewed to death.