Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 24: We're Friends Already

Can I shill for just a second? Am I permitted? I promise this stems from my own excitement and enthusiasm only, and I'm getting nothing in the way of kickbacks or free books or anything. But Wordsworth Editions, you see, is a British publishing company, and they have a line of books collectively dubbed "Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural." Clicking this link will take you to that particular catalogue, and you can see what's on offer. Pretty much all British mystery and horror fiction from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of it forgotten and ignored. All's I'm saying is, if you like this kind of thing, the price is right. I've bought I don't know how many of these things over the last couple of days. I feel no embarrassment over the preceding paragraph.

And it's not entirely a non sequitor, either, because before I have one of those very same Wordsworth Editions books, this one called The Beast With Five Fingers by William Fryer (W. F.) Harvey. I wrote briefly about Harvey the other day, and his story "The Clock," which interested me enough that I sought to learn more. What I learned, mainly, and this I related in that same post, was that Harvey had written the story "The Beast With Five Fingers" on which the well-known, but not especially faithful to Harvey's story, Robert Florey film was based. From there I stumbled across the Wordsworth Editions book, called The Beast With Five Fingers, which is a rather thick (over 400 pages, 45 stories) "best of" collection. Introductions to these books are generally written by David Stuart Davies, the series editor on Wordsworth's "Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural" line, and he takes that task on the Harvey book as well. In that introduction, Davies explains that Harvey was one of many "amateur" ghost story writers from the early 20th century. By this, he means people whose professions were something other than "horror writer," or even "writer" in a lot of cases, but who took to the form as a kind of hobby. This approach is probably best exemplified by M. R. James, though Davies lists several other much less famous names, Harvey's among them. Davies sketches out Harvey's life, which was considerably shortened (he died when he was 52) by injuries sustained during a heroic act performed in his capacity as a Naval surgeon during World War I. His lungs badly damaged, he was left an invalid, and between his return home and his death in 1937, he wrote four collections of short stories, the last one published posthumously.

It goes without say, I should think, that I chose to start with "The Beast With Five Fingers." It's by far the longest story in the collection -- most seem to be about ten pages or less -- and, as I've said, is considerably different from the film version (which, in all honesty, I hardly remember now, but Davies backs me up on this). The story begins with a summary of the life of Adrian Borlsover, a kindly, well-off bachelor who, in his middle age, goes blind. He is occasionally visited by his nephew Eustace, a student of heredity who lives with Saunders, his secretary and a top-notch mathematician, and a cluster of servants. One day, while visiting his uncle, Eustace discovers that the old man has taken up what Harvey describes as "automatic writing," which typically refers to a psychic channeling spirits during a seance and manically and unconsciously scribbling what the spirits communicate to her. You know, real stuff like that. Watch the movie The Changeling for a good scene involving automatic writing. Anyhow, is that really what's happening with Uncle Adrian? While sleeping, his right hand writes things like:

"King George ascended the throne in 1760...Crowd, a noun of multitude; a collection of individuals. Adrian Borlsover, Eustace Borlsover.

And eventually Eustace begins communicating with this whatever it is. Again, while Uncle Adrian is asleep:

"Who are you?" asked Eustace in a low voice.

"Never you mind," wrote the hand of Adrian.

"Is it my uncle who is writing?"

"'O my prophetic soul, mine uncle!'"

"Is it anyone I know?"

"Silly Eustace, you'll see me very soon."

"When shall I see you?"

"When poor old Adrian is dead."

Presently, poor old Adrian dies, and among the meager offerings he leaves to his nephew is a box sent to Eustace's home one day. Inside, his butler believes there is a rat. It turns out to be Adrian's left hand, which escapes. A few times, over the course of the story. There is a great deal of humor in the early goings of this development, and off and on thereafter. Harvey is well aware of the basic absurdity of his premise. Upon first discovering what he's up against, Eustace wishes Saunders were home because "one can't tackle this sort of thing alone." (Funnily enough, when I wrote about Harvey before, my one complaint about his story "The Clock" was that the protagonist felt fear earlier than I thought reasonable, whereas here the exact opposite occurs, and it's played for laughs.) But the hand is not easily tackled by anyone. It defeats a bird that harasses it, it uses its handwriting skills to escape a locked drawer, it even overcomes being nailed to a board. The story slowly creeps towards something nastier towards the end, and there's a powerfully sinister quality to the hand. What it says, or writes, has a barely hidden yet gleeful malevolence, so that it finally does rise above absurdity to become a genuine monster.

"The Beast With Five Fingers" was written in 1928 (or thereabouts, but that's when Harvey's second story collection of the same name was published), and while the idea of possessed, killer hands existed before (The Hands of Orlac, for instance), as far as I know this story is the first time a possessed, killer hand functioned independently of a body. This has gone on to influence everybody from Charles Addams to Clive Barker (see his story "The Body Politic," which does little more than multiply the concept, but does so effectively), but seems to me to have been entirely understood in all its implications by Harvey, right out of the gate. Not just the absurdity and basic surrealism, but in the inextricable implications of the source. Granted, the source of your everyday killer hand needn't be a relative, but there is a very interesting hidden story going on here about the truth of the Borlsovers genetic line, and how it could be to blame for what Eustace now finds himself facing down. Not that Harvey ever explains it, but it's there, and you'd think Eustace would catch on, being an expert on heredity. Not that understanding it would have helped much, probably.

I also read a few of Harvey's much shorter stories. It's hard to talk about them in any kind of detail, but "August Heat" is a rather brilliant little tale of two strangers who one day find their fates fatally and apparently unavoidably linked. What's great about "August Heat" is how it ends at a point where what is unavoidable still seems objectively impossible. How could what we know is going to happen, happen? There's a little bit of a time travel paradox thing going on here, except without the time travel. "The Dabblers" is a very strange story about youthful, schoolboy rituals, and what their sources could possibly be. The source is nothing good, you can be assured. Meanwhile, "The Man Who Hated Aspidistras" is one of my favorite kinds of short, short story, the kind that charts an entire life, or near enough, in just about four pages. In this case, the life is that of Ferdinand Ashley Wilton, who as a young boy is surrounded by aspidistras, can't seem to avoid them throughout his unhappy childhood and early adulthood, becomes a famous writer, who incidentally resents and therefore tortures the aforementioned plant, and comes to pay for it. This story reminded me somewhat of John Collier, in its dry, humorous cynicism. Plus Collier had a thing for plants, too.

So that's William Fryer Harvey, as I currently understand him, which, I hope, is only the least of what there is learn.


Jonathan Stover said...

Well, there's de Maupassant's "The Flayed Hand" (see below), which seems to have an 1883 publication date. I guess the old Guy uses the same gimmick in a story called "The Englishman" (?), but I've never read that one.

Cheers, Jon

John said...

There's a Conan Doyle horror story involving a severed hand, but I don't recall whether it tries to kill anyone. Sherlock Holmes wasn't involved, though, I'm pretty sure.

That line of books is really deserving of the plug. I've been picking through a couple of them lately and the quality of the writing is consistently high. Still got a few (including this one) that I haven't started on yet.

The movie holds up pretty well, I think. The special effects were kinda neat, anyway, and there's some expert scenery-chewing from Peter Lorre. Not as good as Harvey's story, though, and any comedy in it is probably largely unintentional.

Jonathan Stover said...

"There's a Conan Doyle horror story involving a severed hand, but I don't recall whether it tries to kill anyone.": Lines like that are one of the reasons I love horror fiction!

There's also a ghost story from the late 19th/early20th centuries that involves a ghostly hand that wanders around the exterior of a house testing the windows. Alas, I can't remember the title or the author, but I seem to remember that the entire story consists of just that -- ghostly hand testing windows, people inside freaking out, the end.

And then there's SCTV's parody of THE HAND, MY BLOODY HAND...

John said...

There's also a ghost story from the late 19th/early20th centuries that involves a ghostly hand that wanders around the exterior of a house testing the windows.

Is that J.S. Le Fanu? There's a Le Fanu story called "A Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand" or something similar, but I don't know it.

And then there's SCTV's parody of THE HAND, MY BLOODY HAND...


"I'm gonna report you to the FBI! That's racism! BLOODY RACISM!"

Hilarious... but where the hell is Count Floyd?

Jonathan Stover said...

It must be the LeFanu short -- I definitely read it while I was plowing through everything horror-related on Gutenberg and ManyBooks, and LeFanu was one of my most-read, though I somehow missed reading "The Familiar" at the time.