THE BLACK HOUSE
Eleven stories, published some time ago in England, from the darkly gifted, highly uneven Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, Found in the Street), who is rarely at her best in the short-story form. More psychodramas than crime/mystery tales, most of these pieces feature unpleasant, obsessive, neurotic behavior--but without the clinical credibility of Ruth Rendell's best or the nasty zing of Roald Dahl. "I Despise Your Life" presents a 1960's-ish case of father/son estrangement. In "Old Folks at Home," an intellectual, upscale couple adopts--very implausibly--a frail, needy, increasingly selfish pair of senior citizens. "When In Rome" features a bored wife who conspires in a kidnap scheme with a slimy Peeping Tom. And, in "Blow It," a marriage-shy swinger tries to choose between his two girlfriends-but merely manages--unconsciously, on purpose--to lose both of them. (Highsmith's sour view of male/female relations is on relentless, sometimes cartoonish display throughout: in "The Dream of the Emma C," the presence of a young beauty aboard sends the crew into bestial rivalry.) Elsewhere, group guilt is the theme, iffily dramatized: the genteel cover-up of a neighborhood killing; a social outcast supposedly driven to his death by a childishly cruel in-crowd. And there's an occult tinge in four entries: "The Terrors of Basket-Weaving" (murky intimations of reincarnation); "Under a Dark Angel's Eye" (vengeance via mind-power); "The Kite," in which a boy stays connected to his dead sister through flight; and the title story, in which a haunted house is the focus for the macho memories of some prideful boy-men. Disappointing, strangely anticlimactic work--with US backgrounds that never quite ring true, in part because of Anglo-isms (e.g., "torch" for flashlight) and dated slang.