Today’s Short Story: “The Four-Fingered Hand”

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, phantom four-fingered is a heriditary 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 quite 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 intent.

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.

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Today’s Short Story: Stephen King’s “One for the Road”

Image from "The Secretary of Dreams" published by Cemetery Dance

Image from “The Secretary of Dreams” published by Cemetery Dance

At this point, almost any horror story featuring vampires is a reclamation project. I don’t need to rehash it here, but what the hell, I’ll do it anyway.

Vampires have become many things. Stylish, moody, desirable, heroic, even enviable. But they haven’t been proper horror villains–at least not consistently–for a long time.

Partly due to the setting, I think, the vampires in Salem’s Lot weren’t black-garbed, urbane charmers who happened to drink blood, but monstrous sub-humans with a hunger so unchecked they’re likely to kill off or convert their entire food supply before they realize what they’ve done. Salem’s Lot is not a perfect novel, and isn’t Stephen King’s best, but it still might be my favorite of his. Vampirism as presented in this novel isn’t merely a burden or disease; it’s not something you can struggle against. Its communicability seems less bite-related and more like it’s riding on a general miasma of malfeasance that has settled over a small town already nurturing its share of unpleasantness.

In short, what came to Salem’s lot was classic, old fashioned evil. A level of evil so incontrovertible and palpable that even after the head vampire is killed, Jerusalem’s Lot is rendered a permanent ghost town. There’s no going back to the way it was. And it’s not just about the heavy death toll, damage, or the lingering presence of a bloodsucker here or there. “The Lot” is effectively cursed. In King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “effectively cursed” becomes “literally cursed,” which might be why I’m a little bit biased against that story. Salem’s Lot doesn’t need a backstory featuring an ancient, Lovecraftian presence as the forgotten source for all of its future perils.  All it needed was the pestilence of vampirism to turn it into a fallout zone. And that’s how it’s presented in King’s short story “One for the Road,” from the Night Shift collection.

Dread Central broke the news last week that “One for the Road” is being developed as a short film. This gave me incentive enough to make “One for the Road” my short story read and write-up for today. The story is strong, but flawed. The opening is straightforward enough: in one of The Lot’s neighboring towns, a desperate man comes barging into a bar just before closing time. A blizzard rages outside, and the man, an out-of-towner who had underestimated the Maine winter, has accidentally run his car into a snowbank–wife and daughter still inside–near Salem’s Lot. The man thinks the biggest danger to his family is the unforgiving cold, but the two older locals know better. There’s a reason why the Lot was abandoned, after all, and why people who venture into it tend to go missing.

“One for the Road” does a good job of selling the recent history of Salem’s Lot effectively. Even if you’ve never read the novel, you’ll have a clear enough idea about what transpired within it to understand the threat faced by the protagonists of this short story. The idea of living within short driving distance of a town known to have been overrun by vampires, a limited but unknown number of which may still be lingering there, is chilling. And I’m an unabashed sucker for a horror story set in snowy conditions. Top all of that with a no-frills premise and you can understand why I would call this a solid micro-sequel to my favorite Stephen King novel.

But, again, the tale has its flaws. King’s first person narrator gets sidetracked by wistful remembrances of deceased wives and the history of the bar that don’t add color to the setting or characters, and show up just in time to temporarily stifle the story’s momentum. There are also a few too many instances of clever dialogue that don’t mesh with the urgency that should be present in the story. When our hapless out-of-towner, Lumley, scared for his family and demanding answers, imprudently but understandably grabs one of the two men who can help him by the shirt, the latter man responds, “Mister…I think your hand just ran away from your brains, there.” In a vacuum, or in a more fitting story and moment, that’s a pretty good tough guy line. But with these characters and what’s at stake, it feels stilted. Lastly, King’s affinity for stand alone, on-the-nose closing lines gets the better of him here, and he wraps “On the Road” with a pair of superfluous sentences that are a little too clever and don’t match the established voice of the narrator.

Still, if nothing else, the simplicity of the story keeps it moving briskly enough to give little time for significant missteps. When the seemingly doomed impromptu rescue mission gets underway and the vampires start making their presence known, dread and the sense of inevitability become all that matter or exist in the story. Things escalate quickly, and the vampires in Jerusalem’s Lot are once again shown to be deceptive, gluttonous monsters.

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Today’s Short Story: Ramsey Campbell “Call First”

Ramsey-Campbell-Call-FirstHis mind was backing away faster than he was…”

That’s one hell of a line (well, hell of a half of a line). Lean, efficient, and brilliant. As a horror writer, you sometimes face the issue of trying to come up with yet another semi-fresh way of saying, “this person is really, really scared.” It’s easy to overthink it, overdo it, and often harder to just summon a direct, fat-free line like this.

“His mind was backing away faster than he was…”

I won’t spoil what has the character’s mind retreating too fast for his feet to keep up in Ramsey Campbell’s excellent, compact short story “Call First.” But I will say that the rest of Campbell’s horror story is as terrifically composed and confident as the quoted line above. Call first begins with a “mystery” that is less mystery than curiosity born of annoyance. The story very easily could have been derailed by lingering on the insecurities and idiosyncrasies that prompt the protagonist, Ned, to put himself in the kind of perilous position that characters in horror stories often wind up in. Sometimes an author goes overboard in trying to sell you on why a character behaves a certain way, particularly if that charcter is doing something that will put himself or herself in danger.

Campbell keeps it moving, obeying the show-don’t-tell “rule” of writing without cluttering the story with junk details. Here’s Ned; here’s where he works; here’s what’s eating at him; here’s what he decides to do about it; here’s the result. Even as the claustrophobic conclusion creeps nearer, Campbell keeps the story focused and tight.  By the end, the story provides a swift, coldly creepy answer to the element of the mystery that is at once the most mundane and the most vital. Again, I’m not here to give away too many details, but by the end it’s apparent that of all the questions surrounding the mystery that stirs the story’s progress–“who?” “what?” “why?” and so on–the criticality of one renders the others unimportant. It’s an effective way of reinforcing the writer’s right to leave some questions unanswered.

“Call First” can be read in Ramsey Campbell’s collections Dark Companions and Alone With the Horrors, or in various other anthologies. Go find it and treat yourself.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: ‘Shudders’

I think I’m still too young to be using phrases like, ‘They don’t make them like they used to.” Given that I don’t have kids of my own and don’t read current horror anthologies that are geared toward kids, I really have no clue if they do or don’t actually make any more anthologies like Shudders (edited by Ross R. Olney). But from what I gather from the people I know who do I have kids, I’m guessing that much of what pre-teens are given to read these days isn’t half as grim as some of the stuff I picked up from the school library when I was in third grade.

So let’s see… I must have been about eight-years-old when I picked up Shudders. I remember thinking the cover looked cool–a spookier version of the covers to Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books of the era–and then flipping to the table of contents and seeing that it contained “The Monkey’s Paw.” Not that I wouldn’t have picked it up anyway. By that time I was in the habit of devouring anything in the library that was remotely related to ghosts, monsters, madmen and things lurking in the shadows. But I point out “The Monkey’s Paw” because I think its presence in the anthology set me up to expect a certain style of horror fiction. I hadn’t read the original “Monkey’s Paw” short story by then, but I knew of the story via retellings around campfires. So with that, I opened the book thinking that I knew what I was getting into.

And then I was greeted by the opening story, “Sweets to the Sweet” by Robert Bloch. If the author’s name isn’t familiar to you, he’s the gentleman who wrote Psycho. While that ended up being the signature work of his career, thanks in no small part to Hitchcock’s film adaptation, Bloch is a legendary and prolific author of horror and crime fiction. At the time, in fact, I didn’t know who Bloch was, or that he had anything to do with Psycho (again, I was 8, cut me a break). So my introduction to a master of the genre–and, to my recollection, to the world of “grown up” horror literature–came completely by surprise.

Robert-Bloch
Robert Bloch

“Sweets to the Sweet” features a grisly, abrupt ending that is still one of the best examples of implied violence and gore I’ve ever read. It’s a textbook case of leaving it up to the reader’s imagination, except you’re not left to imagine what happened–that much is plain–but what it looks like. And unless you have the world’s tamest, blandest imagination possible, it can’t help but to be spectacularly gruesome. Years later,  in the anthology My Favorite Horror Story, Stephen King would introduce “Sweets to the Sweet” by saying that it had “one of the most chilling snap endings I had ever read.” And it really does happen in a snap, so fast that you could mistake it for a twist, or perhaps a punchline, when really it’s a well-earned, expertly set-up knockout blow.

The ending to “Sweets” is disturbing, clever, vicious and brilliant. It’s one of the things that really made me think, “one day I’d like to write something like that, and make other people feel whatever it is I’m feeling right now.” But even before that “snap ending,” the story has proven disturbing. It raises a simple “chicken or the egg” type of question regarding evil that it doesn’t get anywhere near answering. That’s for the best. It’s an unanswered philosophical question that enhances the tale’s impact.

I remember revisiting “Sweets to the Sweet” several times immediately after reading it. At the time I told myself I was simply captivated by my new favorite short story ever, but looking back on it, I wonder if I was just scared to read the next story. If Bloch’s story was any indication, I was way out of my weight class here.

So it makes sense that I then skipped ahead to “The Monkey’s Paw.” Again, it was a story I was familiar with, even if I had never actually read it. In the campfire re-tellings I can recall, in fact, it was less horror story than morality tale with the general themes of “Be careful what you wish for” and “Don’t be greedy.” Obviously that does the story a tremendous disservice, but I’m willing to guess that much of the blame for that interpretation was the fault of the listener, not the storytellers. When you’re six-or-seven years old and listening to a story about a magical, wish-granting monkey hand, it’s pretty easy to turn the thing into one of Aesop’s fables.

The story proper is considerably grislier than I expected it to be. The beauty of this classic is that it doesn’t need any meaning attached to it. W. W. Jacobs wrote a fantastic, creepy story in which one innocent, frankly modest wish goes awry. Mister White says outright that he doesn’t know what to wish for because he already has all he wants. Happy wife. Healthy, grown son–Herbert–who’s happy to sit down with the old man and beat him in chess (“the only [child] left to us” White would grimly comment later).  All White asks for is two-hundred pounds; enough to “clear the house.”

When news comes of Herbert’s death due to industrial accident (“caught in the machinery,” *brrr*) and the two-hundred pounds is offered by his employer “in consideration,” it leaves his elderly parents in a condition of misery so profound they practically become the living dead. They spend days in a stupefied despair, hardly speaking to each other, until Mrs. White is spontaneously struck by the idea to use the paw to wish for her son’s resurrection, days after his mutilated corpse has been buried in the graveyard…

The_Monkey's_Paw

Similar to “Sweets,” “The Monkey’s Paw” keeps all of the gory details off screen, but they remain vivid in the reader’s imagination. You can picture the lumbering wreck of a human being that’s on the other side of the White’s door, knocking and expecting to be let inside, even with Jacobs only giving us a hint of what Herbert’s condition must be. The final handful of paragraphs–a race between the mother trying to let her son inside, and the father trying to find the paw so he can wish the thing that used to be his son away from the house–is a master class in tension and mounting dread. You know what Herbert’s living corpse must look like, but it’s scarier for you to still remain a bit unsure, to wonder whether or not the characters–and by proxy, you as the reader–will get a clear, direct look at Herbert’s undead form. Sometimes shielding your eyes from the horror is more frightening than looking directly at it, and Jacobs is aware of this. “The Monkey’s Paw” ends with the a moment that can make you sigh in relief for the same reason that another character screams in mourning.

The story moves fast enough for some of the other frightening elements to be lost. But I was always struck by two things that are mentioned well before the fantastic climax. For one, the man who cursed the paw to grant wishes did so to deliberately prove that people cannot escape their fates. It is, in effect, a cruel trap, specifically designed to manipulate even a humble wish–such as one for enough money to pay off a home–into the catalyst for a brutal, fatal tragedy. All just to make a lousy point. How screwed up is that? And not long after we find this out, we learn that the first man to possess the paw ended up wishing for death. What the hell could have resulted from his first two wishes to push him to that point? We never come close to knowing, and we’re perhaps better off not knowing.

Shudders-Book-Cover2After reading “The Monkey’s Paw” in  Shudders it was clear to me that this was a more potent dose of horror than I was used to. But I couldn’t stop. The anthology includes a couple of other stories that remain favorites: H. R. Wakefield’s “Used Car” is another straightforward, no frills supernatural story, with some nice noir touches surrounding its haunting; “The Waxwork” by A. M. Burrage perhaps has one too many twists, but given the apparent direction of the story based on its title and setting, you can understand why the author would want to outwit savvier readers. Regardless of what you think of the ending, it has some of the coldest, creepiest lines spoken by a killer that I’ve ever read: “The world is divided between collectors and non-collectors…[t]he collectors collect anything, according to their individual tastes, from money to cigarette cards, from moths to matchbooks. I collect throats.”

Shudders made for one hell of an introduction to the assorted flavors of horror. From the Lovecraftian (“Second Night Out”) to the whimsical (“The Inexperienced Ghost” by H. G. Wells) to the pleasant-yet-macabre “Floral Tribute” (Bloch once again), and still more. As much as I love everything else I’ve written about thus far in my little “Fear Junkie” series, Shudders might have been the most important book I’ve ever read. Reading it at the age I did was akin to skipping from straight grade school level scares up to a collegiate level lesson in proper Horror.

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