‘The Birds Poised to Fly’ by Patricia Highsmith

With the publication of her diaries this year which, before editing, ran into 8000 pages, it’s clear that Highsmith was devoutly hypergraphic. Likewise, her work is so packed with apprehension and other mischief that it’s easy to miss her characters are also constantly, maniacally and compulsively, writing—letters, signing fake documents and scribbling dodgy wills on the back of cigarette packets and napkins.  
 
It was while reading ‘The Birds Poised to Fly’ that I realised letters have something of a ghostly or phantom presence in Highsmith’s fiction. They often carry the words of a person who is already dead or pretending to be alive. They have little physical presence in the world of things, yet have the potential to wreak havoc in their recipient’s lives, like something of a poltergeist.   
 
In this story a crank, Don, tires of checking his mail box for a message from his lover and, convinced that it may have been posted into the wrong one, breaks open his neighbour’s box. He finds a letter from a woman that his neighbour has ignored, and starts writing to her. Arranging to meet at Grand Central, the man arrives just for a glimpse of her disappointment when nobody turns up.   
 
Highsmith wrote in her guide to suspense fiction that you should start a short story as near to its ending as possible, and here there is a brevity that cleverly suggests whole lives beyond that of this short piece of writing. It’s expansive and the ghosts just keep appearing in different ways.

First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1969, and collected in Eleven by Patricia Highsmith, Grove Press, 1970, now a Virago Modern Classic

‘Where the Door is Always Open and the Welcome Mat is Out’ by Patricia Highsmith

The title is a promise whose unravelling, during a familial visit, is what drives the story forward, but isn’t what makes it linger. A young woman, living in a tiny New York apartment, rushes to prepare for a visit from her sister from Cleveland. Highsmith’s mastery of building tension out of absent-mindedness (did she leave the eggs on the stove or not?) is as enjoyable here as it is in any of her novels, but it’s the moment when Mildred, the city-dwelling sister, rails, mildly and politely, against her sister’s haughty assessment of New York’s unfriendliness that the story’s generosity breaks open. The description of her watching a police parade in the rain is a very beautiful moment: “Why, they even call them New York’s Finest!”

Included in Nothing that Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories, Bloomsbury, 2005 and Selected Novels and Short Stories, Norton, 2010