The Quest for the “Blank Claveringi”

Illustration by Jean L. Huens for the Saturday Evening Post. Done for the short story “The Snails,” by Patricia Highsmith.

A while back, viewing a hyper-realistic sculpture of hundreds of snails climbing a beer stein to their doom jarred loose an ancient flake of memory from the cobwebby and calcified ruins inside my skull. It was a memory of a short story from my childhood. It’s funny how strangely strong, yet distorted, these moth-eaten impressions can be. I remembered a story about a man on an island looking for giant man-eating snails and coming to a bad end.

Little bits, which may or may not be accurate… I remembered reading it in a magazine; I remembered an illustration showing the snail; I remembered a long, slow battle to the death between the man and the snail. Oh, I did remember being shocked at the ending. I think the story was written in the first person and I was confused at the death of the protagonist… who was telling the tale?

Now that the memory was jarred loose, it had to be teased out or it would drive me nuts. So, off to the Internet. It didn’t take too many crude search queries to quickly realize that many people had been looking for this same story. It didn’t take much more work to find the name of the story, “The Quest for the ‘Blank Claveringi.’”

I was surprised to read that the story was by Patricia Highsmith, the Forth-Worth born (though she fled quite effectively to Europe) author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train.” The author had a particular affection for snails – from the book Snail, by Peter Williams:

So attached was the author Patricia Highsmith to snails that they became her constant travelling companions. Secreted in a large handbag or, in the case of travel abroad, carefully positioned under each breast, they provided her with comfort and companionship in what she perceived to be a hostile world.

The story was included in an Alfred Hitchcock collection of tales for youngsters, “Alfred Hitchock’s Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense.” That must have been where I read it, not in a magazine. The only problem is that the book seems to have first come out in 1973 and I felt like I was younger than that when I read it. But again, memories are funny, I must have got it wrong.

A quick check of the Richardson Library’s website and I found the book. So I went down there, grabbed it off of the shelves (It was odd looking for the book in the children’s section – it was such a horrific story) and I sat down and read it.

That was the story from my childhood. Of course, a lot of it I didn’t remember, but there can’t be too many tales set on an island with a scientist fleeing from a man-eating snail. If you wonder about the title – “The Quest for the ‘Blank Claveringi,’” the protagonist, Avery Clavering, is fantasizing about getting the new species of giant snail, about the size of a Volkswagen, named after him… though he can’t decide on the genus (thus the “Blank”).

I was wrong about the story being in first person. It is told from the protagonist’s point of view and does go inside his head – that must have been what threw me. The horror of the story is real – the snail is slow, of course, but relentless. The hero can walk faster than the snail, but the island is small and the thing will eventually catch up. He has to sleep sometime.

I enjoyed the story and made a note of reading some more Highsmith. Looking in the front of the book, I discovered that the story was part of a collection called, “The Snail-Watcher and other stories.” The library had that one too, and I checked it out. That collection has at least two horrific snail-related tales… I guess the woman did have a thing for slimy mollusks.

In the front of that collection I found another clue – it said, ““The Quest for the ‘Blank Claveringi’” originally appeared in slightly altered form in The Saturday Evening Post, as “The Snails.”

Back to the Internet. A little searching found that the story was in the June 17, 1967 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. I would have been ten years old then… and that felt about right. I checked the library archive, and they had the 1967 ‘Post in bound form in the archives. The woman at the information desk didn’t seem to understand what I wanted (“Yes, we have magazines… 1967?”) but eventually I was able to get her to go back and retrieve the volume for me. I had to sign a form and give up something (my library card) as collateral to get the tome, and I did.

It was really cool to sit down at a library study station and look through a set of forty-five year old magazines. The ads, the photographs, the illustrations…. pretty damn cool.

I found the story, with an excellent illustration by Jean-Louis Huens. In the white space above the title, someone had written in pencil, “This is what I wanted you to read.” So, I am not the only person on a quest for this story, not even the only one to end up in the archives of the Richardson Public Library.

I took a photo of the illustration with my phone and then sat there and read the story again. Since I had cruised through the Alfred Hitchcock version only a few minutes before, I immediately began to notice differences in the text. At first they seemed minor, only polishings, or rearrangements of phrases. But as I neared the end, the story veered and suddenly it was a completely different tale altogether.

This was probably the version I had read as a ten-year-old child. I seemed to remember another person on the island, and that was only true on the Saturday Evening Post Version. Though the only real significant difference between the two is in the last handful of paragraphs, the thrust of the two plots diverged completely. While the Hitchcock version was an existential tale of the futility of man against the inexorable power of nature, the second was a revenge tale of murder and madness.

I really don’t know why the story was rewritten so savagely, though I think I did like the Hitchcock version (which I assume is the revised tale) a tiny bit better.

At any rate, I checked out two of her books of short stories – The Snail-Watcher and other stories, and Little Tales of Misogyny (a slim volume of very short works about very bad people). I really should not read this kind of stuff. What I am reading is a very strong influence on what I am writing and these stories play into my natural tenancies toward repulsive scribbling.

But it is what it is. As a matter of fact… I have to write something tomorrow for my Sunday Snippets…. Maybe something about giant Volkswagen-sized man-eating snails…. maybe a sequel. What would happen if someone brought a snail back to the mainland?

Snails can reproduce frighteningly fast under the right conditions, you know.

Sunday Snippet – The Revenge of the “Blank Claveringi”