Paul Bowles once said that a story should remain taut throughout, like a piece of string. That tense, stretched tone is the key to this collection of 17 eerie tales by the author best known for The Sheltering Sky. This book is dedicated, "For my mother, who first read me the stories of Poe." If Poe had lived in Mexico, and he'd had ice-water in his veins to counteract that feverish romanticism, he might have crafted something like these odd vignettes about human frailty and cruelty.
Tobias Wolff wrote an interesting review (in Esquire) of this collection: "The Delicate Prey is in fact one of the most profound, beautifully wrought, and haunting collections in our literature ... Bowles's tales are at once austere, witty, violent, and sensuous. They move with the inevitability of myth. His language has a purity of line, a poise and authority entirely its own, capable of instantly modulating from farce to horror without a ruffle..."
Now I find Wolff's praise to be a bit overblown, but I do connect strongly with the phrases "inevitability of myth" and "poise and authority." That's what you respond to, when you're reading these tales--the feeling that everything has already happened, either in future history, or in long distant past, and also that tremendous sense of authority that only true myth can convey.
Finally, what lingers, now that it's been some years since I read the book, is intense awareness of setting. It's a night world, where palm trees are like "shiny green spiders," where bats reel silently overhead in a jet-black sky, where a hot relentless wind blows across deserted plazas.
This story of a young flute player and his uncles who are Arab traders crossing a remote desert region begins innocently enough but soon a stranger appears on the horizon who comes closer and closer. This desert episode is told with a perfect accumulation of atmospheric detail and just the barest amount of human detail to place this tale in the realm of myth. The tale involves many things that will later appear in Bowles' other short fictions including hashish and flute music and other things that will go unmentioned so as not to spoil their discovery by new readers. "At Paso Rojo" is a story set in South America on a ranch. There two sisters go after their mothers death to live with their brother. As the sisters settle in one sister especially decides she wants to live a freer life than women in the cities are allowed to live and she begins to allow herself liberties that shock her more conservative sister. As she rides through the wild jungle her horse bolts and the sensations she has impart to the reader that hers is no ordinary psychology. Used to suppressing her sexuality while her mother was alive she begins to explore her power as a woman and as events unfold we see that this power has sprouted something in her that cannot be mistaken for anything but pure evil. Every story in this collection presents striking locales and lurid acts. The appeal of them is partly in the exoticism of the locales and partly in the allure of the lurid. Bowles aesthetic is a strange one but his tales could not be delivered with any more force. The collection is dedicated to Poe, and appropriately so, but the depth of the psychological examination of different kinds of pathologies lend these stories a power that magnifies their effect beyond mere horror stories. They are stories of modern psyches with the superficial but protective veneer of civilization removed.