Fright Manual: Five Great Hand-Themed Horror Stories

Hands have figured prominently throughout the cinematic history of the horror film, but what about in horror fiction? Here’s a handful of short stories likely to leave readers with sweaty palms. (A few disclaimers: the list is confined to human hands–hence no raising of “The Monkey’s Paw”–and leaves out Clive Barker’s superlative story “The Body Politic,” only because I have already addressed that piece in a recent Countdown post.)

 

1. “The Flayed Hand” by Guy de Maupassant (1875)

Not the first horror story focused on a Hand of Glory, and certainly not the last, but no doubt one of the most frightful ever penned. The character Pierre is way too flippant about the morbid relic he has obtained from the effects of a recently deceased sorcerer, laughingly hanging the titular appendage as the handle of his door-bell. Naturally, Pierre comes to regret his error, as he’s subjected to some heavy-handed supernatural vengeance.

 

2. “Hands” by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

This quietly haunting story–the first in Anderson’s “Book of the Grotesque” that comprises Winesburg, Ohio–veers toward the American Gothic rather than outright horror. The eccentric Wing Biddlebaum, “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts,” is noted throughout Winesburg for his nervous hand gestures. He also has a fear of physically contacting others with his hands, and when the cause for Wing’s strange behavior is at last revealed, the end result is a tale of an angry mob’s rush to judgement and the warping effects of frustrated self-expression.

 

3. “Survivor Type” by Stephen King (1982)

Richard Pine, a heroin-smuggling ex-surgeon who finds himself shipwrecked on a remote island, goes to the most extreme lengths to survive: wounded and wracked by hunger, he resorts to amputation and auto-cannibalism. Pine’s journal entries continually emphasize the need to take care of his hands (integral to his professional life, and now his means of keeping himself alive via grim surgery), but desperation and madness drive him to bite the hand that feeds him. The ghoulish final line of this gory piece is worthy of the cackling Crypt-Keeper.

 

4. “Minutes” by Norman Partridge (1994)

This short-short is long on creepiness: a terrified wife awakens at midnight to the repeating sequence of a booming slam, a scream, and squelching against the bedroom windowpane. The climactic reveal furnishes a natural and psychologically-plausible answer to the mystery, and forms a cringe-worthy instance of hand trauma. Partridge has written deftly about hands elsewhere (“Red Right Hand,” “Dead Man’s Hand”), but the dreadful imagery/incident here has stayed with me for many years.

 

5. “City in Aspic” by Conrad Williams (2001)

While Williams claims the classic horror film Don’t Look Now as a primary inspiration, de Maupassant’s story cited above can also be detected as an influence here. An off-season hotel security guard keeps finding lost gloves during his sojourns through wintry Venice. The discoveries coincide with a series of vicious murders in which the victim has been left with a skinned left hand. Veteran ghost-story readers will likely anticipate the climactic plot twist, but the fun resides in getting there, thanks to Williams’s chillingly atmospheric prose.

 

Clown Citing

When an established horror writer turns to the Young Adult version of fearmongering, trepidation naturally arises. One worries that the language (not to mention the characters) could end up dumbed down, that the plot might end up simplified, and the horror rendered…well, less horrifying. Thankfully, none of those concerns are warranted in regards to Adam Cesare’s new novel (and YA debut), Clown in a Cornfield.

Cesare does present readers with predominantly teenage characters (high school students–including newcomer Quinn, the book’s protagonist–in the blighted town of Kettle Springs, Missouri). But these are not stock players from Central Casting, merely embodying tired stereotypes: the attractive bad boy, the bitchy hot girl, the dumb jock, etc. Cesare’s teen are not just cardboard props set up to be knocked off; they are three-dimensional figures with complex motivations. Just as refreshingly, they are not sardonically self-aware of all the conventions of the horror genre.

After taking the time to establish the characters and situation (the town’s uncanny mascot, the pork-pie-hatted Frendo the Clown, brought to life as a homicidal menace), the book kicks into full gear about a third of the way through and never lets up. Any expectations of a formulaic slasher plot– where a costumed, weapon-brandishing psycho methodically preys on his young victims, picking them off one at a time–are trampled like cornstalks beneath a runaway tractor. A carnival of widespread carnage erupts, featuring some shockingly graphic kills that earn this cinematic narrative a hard-R rating.

Cesare’s latest effort (following such works as Zero Lives Remaining and The Con Season) has been heralded as hearkening back to the classic slasher narrative, and the elements of that paradigm are readily apparent, right down to some rousing Final Girl feistiness. The horror icons of the title also instantly invoke a distinct Stephen King vibe (besides echoing the communal corruption of Derry in IT, the book offers a clever riff on “Children of the Corn”). Nevertheless, with its Midwestern/cornfield setting, its small-town secrets and conspiracies, its generational conflict and bullying cop figure (the hardcase Sheriff Dunne), the novel perhaps compares best with Norman Partridge’s Dark HarvestClown in a Cornfield might not be destined to become a timeless classic like Partridge’s novel, but it is a very enjoyable read and highly recommended to anyone looking for a few quick hours of frightful fun this fall season.

 

 

O. Boy, Oh Boy!

I am doing a happy dance, on the heels of some incredibly exciting news. Norman Partridge’s 2006 novel Dark Harvest–an instant classic of Halloween fiction–is finally being adapted as a feature film.

Set in 1963 in an archetypal Midwestern town, Dark Harvest features a legendary bogey called the October Boy–an animate scarecrow with a jack-o’-lantern head. He attempts to run a gauntlet of teenage boys armed like angry villagers, as part of an annual Halloween ritual that is integral to the fate of the community. I would describe the novel (my favorite book by one my all-time favorite writers) as Ray Bradbury meets Shirley Jackson, yet nonetheless a tale of stunning originality presented in Partridge’s unique prose style.

The film is slated to be directed by David Slade, whose work on 30 Days of Night appears to make him an appropriate choice for this project. Dark Harvest‘s compact narrative, fueled by hard-charging action, also makes it the perfect vehicle for a cinematic adaptation. If visualized correctly (and not scythed down by bad CGI), the October Boy has the chance to grow into a horror icon.

Production details are limited at this point, and the film probably won’t be released until next Halloween season, but whenever Dark Harvest does crop up in theaters, rich rewards stand to be reaped by viewers.

 

 

Mob Scene: The Highwaymen

Not every mob scene is concerned with hostile ostracizing. As the Netflix original film The Highwaymen demonstrates, sometimes the villagers aren’t angry, just downright mad.

The film forms a counterpoint to 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Director Arthur Penn’s Academy-Award winner was considered edgy and graphically violent at the time, but today seems somewhat frivolous, treating the Barrow Gang’s murderous interstate crime spree almost like zany hijinks (complete with rollicking banjo music to accompany bank-robbery getaways). John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen (co-starring a superb Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson) doesn’t romanticize the notorious criminals/lovers; instead the emphasis is on the monstrosity of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and the acts of cold-blooded savagery they commit. In contrast to Bonnie and Clyde‘s spotlighting of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s characters, the pair of public enemies here are kept mostly offscreen. The Highwaymen is the story not of the killers but the pair of former Texas Rangers–Frank Hamer and Maney Gault–tasked with tracking them down.

In the film’s climax, the diligent Rangers finally get their man (and woman), and Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down by a ferocious firing squad. The mob scene follows upon this dispensation of bloody justice, as the bullet-riddled car containing the corpses of the executed fugitives is towed into the nearby town of Arcadia, Louisiana. Word of the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde has spread quickly, and a huge crowd has gathered in the street, driven less by morbid curiosity than the crazy desire for souvenirs. The frenzied masses push past the police to get at the open-windowed car, snatching at the inert bodies and tearing at their clothing. The Highwaymen exposes the grotesquerie of the cult of idolatry that formed around Bonnie and Clyde, as a significant portion of the American public treated the homicidal duo as Depression-era celebrities, admirable antiheroes. What makes this mob scene that much more harrowing is that it actually happened (the real-life details are even more disturbing, with someone going so far as to try to hack off Clyde’s trigger finger; the “death car” itself would subsequently become a macabre tourist attraction).

Bonnie and Clyde have been fictionalized before in American Gothic works such as Norman Partridge’s hard-boiled/supernatural hybrid “Red Right Hand” (which riffs on the 1967 film’s scene of Faye Dunaway fleeing through a cornfield) and Stephen King’s novella 1922 (whose “Sweetheart Bandits” form a clear analogue to the Barrow gangsters). The dark and gritty (and immensely entertaining) The Highwaymen, though, treats directly with the historical figures, presenting a memorable demythologizing of Bonnie and Clyde’s life of crime, and a sharp indictment of the misguided, morally-suspect American public.