Barry Pain’s short story “The Four-Fingered Hand,” initially published in 1911’s Here and Hereafter, is a great, swift tale that can be read on Project Gutenberg for free. You should, perhaps, read the story first, then come back to read this post because I’m going to dive into story details, including the ending.
Ready now? Let’s get to it.
If you read enough ghost stories, you know that supernatural omens and phantom harbingers are plentiful in ghostlore; banshees, La Llorona, black dogs, death coaches, The Flying Dutchman, and a host of others that I’m not naming, and plenty more that I’m sure I’ve never heard of. These entities and their freshly imagined stand-ins often pop up in horror fiction, because a being whose mere presence foretells death is ripe for producing frights. Given the familiarity of this character type, stories often add some twist to try to keep the audience on its toes, often utilizing dramatic irony that suggests predestination (the cursed person tries to avoid their death, only to accidentally cause their death through very actions meant to prevent it), or a plot turn involving a false presumption (the banshee appears, but the person sick in bed recovers, and someone else in the house ends up dead instead).
“The Four-Fingered Hand” has a simple, smart and horrifying twist on such a being. For any who didn’t take a moment to read the story, here’s a rundown: The titular four-fingered phantom is a hereditary haint that used to appear to the forebears of a man named Brackley. Any sighting of the spectral hand was a sign to “stop anything on which he was engaged.” Brackley’s now-deceased grandfather, a wealthy man, would cease specific business dealings or cancel planned journeys whenever he saw the hand. In the story, Brackley spies the hand, but is persuaded by his skeptical acquaintance, Yarrow, to ignore the hand’s warning, which on this night seems particularly mundane and silly. The hand appears to be warning Brackley not to continue playing a game of cards. Brackley disregards the warning, plays cards with Yarrow and another man named Blake, and nothing horrible befalls him while playing.
And then Brackley excuses himself to his room, where he’s promptly strangled to death. An imprint of the hand that choked the life out of him remains on his neck for his friends to see, and that handprint is missing a finger.
It’s simple and, I’ll go ahead and gush here, brilliant. A warning and a threat may not be synonyms, but they’re very close cousins, and one very can easily be mistaken for the other. Take the following sentence: “Do as I tell you, or you will be killed by me.” Shave the “by me” off the end and you’re still essentially saying the same thing, but that omission can lead someone to misinterpret your threat as a warning.
As Yarrow tells another man at the end of the story, there’s no reason to believe that an apparition that seemingly appears to caution people against danger or give advance notice of impending, possibly avoidable danger is actually doing anything of the sort. It could be in business for itself, showing up for “unfathomable reasons” that they don’t bother to explain. We read and write often about such specters and treat them as though they must be stuck on rails, set on a path leading to a destination everyone has marked on their map. I love this story for providing the simple reminder that even a ghostly, maimed hand might be more than just a plot device. It might have a motive, and might not care to share that motive with the reader, or any other characters.