The film adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel is unsurprisingly simplified in comparison to its source material. While it has its moments, including a fairly well executed and suitably gruesome climactic reveal, and Alice Krige is pretty magnificent in it, it also has more than its share of corny scenes doomed by bad shot selection, or oversold acting, or questionable (even unnecessary) dialogue. There’s an opening scene featuring a man plummeting to his death that’s laughable even by 1981’s “We’re still sketchy on how best to execute believable falling scenes” standards. A later scene of someone falling off a bridge ends with the same clumsy impact seen when a character takes a dive in Les Miserables thirty-one years later. Apparently, in this one very, very specific area, we haven’t collectively learned much in the past three decades.
All of that out of the way, I’ve nonetheless always liked the trailer for Ghost Story. From the opening micro-monologue (which is one of the few elements that is even more effective in the movie than it is in the trailer), to every glimpse and hint it gives us of something horrific waiting to be seen, to the effectively mysterious tagline, it does a good job of selling the film.
This is, to my recollection, my earliest encounter with a ghost story, antedating my ongoing, abusive, unhealthy love affair with horror. It’s not the clearest memory, I was only five-years-old, but it’s less opaque than other memories from that age.
“Who’s got my Golden Arm?!”
My kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Nina (I can’t believe I remember that) and one day she decided to introduce the class to a classic tale about a chimeric spirit. I’m unsure if this was just a weird southern or Mississippi thing or if other parts of the country also had kindergarten teachers relate tales of terror to their classes. Granted, she wasn’t reading us Lovecraft or anything quite so dire and potentially scarring, but some part of me still wonders about the objective of letting us hear this story. For that matter, though, the same could be asked about the purpose of telling ghost stories around a campfire, or even writing the stories I write now as an adult. Ultimately, it’s about the thrill of scaring the audience, no matter what age, with a well-crafted creepy yarn. Telling a scary story for its own sake is never as much fun as telling one that successfully terrifies your audience.
Twenty-plus years later, this story still floats around in the back of my mind, so to Mrs. Nina, wherever you may be good madame, mission accomplished. As for the story itself, here is the briefest of synopses:
A man has a friend who has a prosthetic arm made of solid gold. Said friend dies and the man decides to disinter his buddy, remove the 24-karat limb from the corpse and sell it. The dead friend takes offense, crawls out of his grave with his one remaining arm, hunts down his buddy and then…
Well, you could Google “Golden Arm” and find a number of variations to the tale. Some give you a formal rendition making abundant use of the word “thou”; others give you the chitlin’ circuit interpretation. Its central characters are alternatively friends, brothers, or man and wife.
In most portrayals the returned friend/brother/wife stalks through the thief’s house, crying out repeatedly, “Who’s Got my Golden Arm?!” until finally they happen upon the terrified thief, cowering in his/her bedroom, and then the ghost screams “You’ve Got it!!!” That’s where the story abruptly ends, but it’s intimated that some grievous demise awaits the one who stole the arm. I’m sure that the ghost didn’t rise from the grave just to say “You’ve got it! And I’m very disappointed. I’m really reconsidering our relationship. I thought we were closer than this.”
Despite the story’s obvious intent, it wasn’t the vengeful spirit’s return from death that disturbed me most. It was more disturbing to me that someone had a golden arm in the first place. The surrealistic, abominable image of this character still stands in my mind the same as when I first heard the story and imagined his appearance. This is a greedy, selfish, maniacal, loathsome person. One with jaundiced, spoiled eyes and skin the color of the ocean at night.
Today I can apply some semblance of logic to the conclusion I’d drawn as a kid. Even setting aside the callousness of getting buried with an appendage that could be donated to your friend, or wife, or charity or something, a golden arm would be terribly heavy and cumbersome. Only a severely troubled mind would dream of grafting such a gaudy, useless artificiality to their body. In short, you’d have to be crazy to want a golden arm, and not the good, comedic kind of crazy, or the tolerable, fearless-when-it’s-not-necessary kind of crazy, but the seething, malignant kind. That special brand of crazy potent enough to wake the dead.