THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR (edited by by Amy Wallace, Del Howison and Scott Bradley for Harper Paperbacks) is hitting the bookshelves across the country this week. It’s a knockout collection of lists both quirky and informative, about all things horror, featuring an amazing roster of horror authors and filmmakers — from Stephen King to Eli Roth — between its covers. You won’t want to miss it…and you can order it now from amazon.com.
My contribution to the book is an annotated list of “The Top Five Horror Colleges” — something you’d never find in the US News & World Report rankings! I was going to have a second list in the book, but it was brimming so many great lists that the publishers had to limit most authors to just one entry. So I’m sharing the one that got dropped with you here, as an example of what the articles in The Books of Lists are like. Here you have it: “The Hands of Horror”!
Michael A. Arnzen’s List of Classic Dismembered Hand Stories
1. “This Living Hand” by John Keats (1819). Okay, so I’m cheating right from the get-go with a classic Romantic poem, but if you didn’t read this piece in your Norton Anthology from college lit class, be sure to hunt it down. It’s not only a creepy poem because it muses over a limb, but it also is a sick love poem as only a Romantic poet could write it. “This living hand, now warm and capable//Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold//And in the icy silence of the tomb//So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights…”
2. “The Enchanted Hand” (“La main enchantée”), by Gerard Nerval (1832). In this early French classic (available in the book, Fantastic Tales, edited by Italo Calvino), a gypsy casts a spell on a wimpy tailor’s hand, so he can overcome his foe in a duel to the death. But he is subsequently sentenced to death because of it… and the gypsy shows up at the execution afterword, demanding the charmed hand…which subsequently comes to life on its own!
3. “The Hand” (“Les main”), by Guy De Maupassant (1883). While visiting a hunter’s gallery, our narrator spots the strangest item in his quarry: “It was a hand, a human hand — not the hand of a skeleton, all white and clean, but a black, withered hand with yellow nails, exposed muscles, and with traces of congealed blood, looking like dirt. The bones had been chopped off at about the middle of the forearm, as though they had been severed by an axe.” This grotesque limb is chained to the wall, because “it’s always trying to get away.” Find out why in this classic — albeit unfortunately common-titled — tale of the supernatural.
4. “The Hand,” by Theodore Dreiser (1907). This tale is interesting in the way it creates a creeping sense of paranoia in a story about a man who fears that evil forces are out to choke him to death in revenge. The narrator is haunted by an image of a man he killed long ago, whose hand reached out at him as he was dying in a menacing way. While we never really see a ghostly hand scuttling about as we do in other creepy hand tales, it is implie. This story is also interesting because it’s a pulpy horror story written by a man who is often hailed as a man of American letters for his famous novel, Sister Carrie (1900).
5. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs (1924). I really wish I didn’t have to include this one in my list, but… oh no! I wished it! The horror! “The Monkey’s Paw” features a charmed monkey’s paw, one that grants wishes you wish it wouldn’t grant. It doesn’t really count as a dismembered hand story in my opinion (because, if you were paying attention, it’s a paw), but so many people think that this is the quintessential dismembered hand story that I have to put it on the list to correct them.
6. “The Beast with Five Fingers,” by William Fryer Harvey (1928). In its day, this may have been the most popular “dismembered hand” story of them all. Now Harvey’s novella — which inspired a quite funny Peter Lorre film — comes across as too mannered and stuffy to be very entertaining, but it is a classic tale of the absurd, in which a dead uncle’s animate dismembered hand escapes from its box to torment his family from beyond the grave in spiteful ways. If you can’t find this title, just go watch the movie. It’s not faithful to Harvey’s tale, but it is as charming as horror-comedy can be…and it may have set a precedent in horror cinema: hands have been playing pianos on their own accord ever since.
7. “The Brown Hand,” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1929). I bet you didn’t know that the creator of Sherlock Holmes wrote a dismembered hand story! Yes, and while it’s rather hard to come by (look for a book called Tales of Twilight and the Unseen), it’s a pretty good representative of this somewhat silly subgenre. In this tale of Eastern mysticism, a doctor is haunted into insomania by a ghostly one-armed “Indian” revenant who — raising his “knobby and unsightly stump” to frighten the narrator — is looking for his hand, so he can rest both whole and in peace. The good doctor devises a clever way to end the revenant’s torment.
8. “The Return of the Sorcerer,” by Clark Ashton Smith (1931). Not so much a dismembered hand story as a — well, okay, I’ll give it away — entirely disintegrated body story, this is one of the freakiest early “weird tales” culminating in an effectively chilling scene in which a hand scrabbles away to join its brethren body parts. Smith writes the preposterous in a way that is stunningly unforgettable — and entirely believable!
9. “Major Aranda’s Hand,” by Alfonso Reyes (1973). Crawling ahead fifty years, skipping over a handful of bad film representations of this horror icon (like The Crawling Hand, parodied by Mystery Science Theater 3000) and its domestication as “Thingg” in The Addams Family on television — the hand returns from the grave as a highly self-conscious literary trope in Reyes odd and artful example of magical realism. It’s not quite a horror story, per se, but it’s a great dark thinkpiece in prose poetry. “The face mirrors and express, but the hand acts….[the hand] went freely from one place to another, a monstrous little lap dog, rather crablike. Later it learned to run, with a hop very similar to that of hares, and sitting back on the fingers, it began to jump…”
10. “Julian’s Hand,” by Gary Brandner (1974). This tale of mutancy is a chilling new twist on the legend. To say much more would give the surprising premise away, but let’s just say that Julian’s tumors have grown rather troublesome.
11. “The Body Politic,” by Clive Barker (1985). An overt social allegory in which the parts of the body revolt against the dominance of their owner. A great story (from Barker’s excellent collection, The Inhuman Condition) that questions the totality of identity…and a chilling idea! But it’s also all rendered a bit silly when seen through the filter of Mick Garris’ made-for-TV adaptation, Quicksilver Highway (1997).
12. “Hands of a Wanker,” by Patrick McGrath (1988). It seems that a chronic masturbator has dismembered his hand out of guilt…only to set loose a palm that continues getting its jollies in the public women’s restroom. Filthy, just filthy. And the funniest, most ludicrous dismembered hand story of them all!
13. The Movies: I’ve purposely limited myself only to a handful (argh!) of written pieces, but if you enjoy dismembered limb stories, then you absolutely must see a few key films to really appreciate the subgenre. It is, after all, a very cinematic trope: one of the very first films, in fact, features an animated prosthetic arm — a one-reeler by Vitagraph in 1908 called The Theiving Hand. Even then, it was horror-comedy: nothing quite serious enough to scare, but uncannily creepy nonetheless. Other must-see films beyond those mentioned in the list above that feature the five fingered icon include: Un Chien Andalou (Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, 1928), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965), Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987), The Hand (Oliver Stone, 1981), and most recently, the slacker comedy, Idle Hands (Roman Flender, 1999).