Friday, August 1, 2014

Some Beasts With Five Fingers

The most famous disembodied hand in horror entertainment is probably the character known as “Thing”—played by “itself”—who appeared in nearly every episode of the 1964-1966 television series, The Addams Family.  Emerging dramatically from a small wooden box, “Thing” was capable of an impressive range of emotional expression, though he was given few lines.  (“Thing” was actually played by the same actor who appeared as “Lurch” on the show.)  By the 1960s, the notion of animated, disembodied limbs as objects of horror had devolved to parody, though there have been numerous attempts since that time to reinvigorate this subgenre of horror.

Dismemberment itself is horrific because of its violation of the ideal and familiar human form. When dismembered limbs become animate, perhaps through the agency of ghosts, or a vengeful will, or as a manifestation of a dissociated personality, the horror is amplified.  Readers of Clark Ashton Smith may recall the disturbing scene in The Return of the Sorcerer, (1931) when the dismembered wizard reunites his dissembled parts to deal justice to his murderous brother.  
Of all the body parts, (with the exception of the mouth perhaps), the hand is capable of the most evil, whether attached or not.  William F. Harvey’s well known The Beast With Five Fingers (1928) deals with this theme; it was later made into the marvelous Peter Lorre film of the same name, in 1946.  Lorre plays the mild mannered Hillary Cummins, a musicologist, who by degrees reveals the inner torment of a murderous, dissociated personality.   He utters the classic line that reveals his fractured psyche:  “It wasn’t me---it was the hand!”  (For a more contemporary example of this horror syndrome, see The Horror of the Dissociated Mind). 

Vengeance is the impetus for Robert E. Howard’s contribution to this genre, in his The Right Hand of Doom.  This short story was published posthumously in 1968 but was probably written in the early to mid 1930s.  Given that Harvey’s story was published in 1928, and that the notable silent film The Hands of Orlac (1924), which deals with similar ideas, came out just a few years before, it seems plausible that Howard drew some inspiration from these works for his own. 

 The Right Hand of Doom is a Solomon Kane story, though the well known Puritan strongman and adventurer is mostly an observer in this tale.  He merely watches supernatural events as they unfold.  Here Kane resembles Manly Wade Wellman’s character of “John the Balladeer”, who always arrives at some location just in time to observe something uncanny or chilling take place.  (See Back Up on Yandro, Yonder).

In The Right Hand of Doom, Solomon Kane is visiting a tavern in Torkertown.  A local necromancer has been turned into the authorities, and faces execution by hanging the following day.  The man who turned him in, the boastful John Redly, is making light of the affair over drinks.  Kane, being a fervent Puritan, supports the execution of the evil magician, but points out that Redly has committed a graver sin by betraying the man, who was Redly’s friend, “for a few filthy coins.”  It is not clear how Kane has come to know this, but it is never a good idea to betray a necromancer.

Howard skillfully and economically sets up the motivations and situational factors and that lead to Redly’s horrible demise.  The mechanism of vengeance is gruesome but not altogether predictable from the title; Howard has given this trope his own grisly variation on a theme.  Its unique and graphic nature would make a memorable scene in a horror film, if it has not already been used.  

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