Thursday, October 31, 2019

"The Eye and the Finger" (1936)

Donald Wandrei's completely ridiculous and excellent story works much like F. Marion Crawford's "Screaming Skull"—by insisting on its premise with a relatively straight face. Indeed, with a quivering distended face of terror. A weary man comes home from his exhausting job in a downtown department store, where the people are rude, the noise constant, the lights too bright, and he stands all day. He trudges up to his 5th-floor apartment to find himself confronting an eyeball sitting on his bureau and a disembodied hand floating in the air, pointing first at him and then at the window. It's almost comical when you reduce it to description and in many ways functions as a forerunner to the Warner Bros. cartoon style of slapstick brutality. Wandrei, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, and a fantasist who ran with H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth et al., keeps the focus on the tactile and sensory in this very short story. The man's first impulse is to go over to the bureau and pick up the eyeball (something of the object's mysterious power is already suggested by the way he even notices it across the room). It's soft and sticky, covered with a moist film, and warm. It's disgusting. Later, when he finds an available psychiatrist to make an evening house call (perhaps my favorite of all the ridiculous details here), his first move is also picking up the eyeball and being disgusted. In fact, he won't have anything more to do with any of it and leaves immediately. Meanwhile, the hand. I love this business of pointing at the man and then at the window. Talk about telegraphing it! Yet Wandrei maintains tone: "Where it should have been attached to an arm, he clearly saw blood, veins, flesh, muscular tissue, and bone. But it did not bleed." The man tries to grab it. In my mind it's a right hand, and shakable. "The hand felt neither living nor dead, neither hot nor cold. The fingers instantly curled around his own, not fiercely, but tugging him along, pulling him towards the window." This thing obviously has priorities. Another great detail Wandrei interjects throughout is the man's hearing, which somehow alternates between acute silence and a mysterious deafening roar. I'm probably not giving away much by reporting the man ends up taking the hint and goes out the window. Heck, what would you do? We know from cartoons and horror fiction you can never get rid of things like that. Capture it, put it in a cage, take a bus to a train to a seaport and put it on a freighter going to Hong Kong. It's still going to be waiting for you when you get back to your place. And it might not be in such a good mood anymore. Again, see also "The Screaming Skull." The thing about this kind of horror—based in Ineffable Evil, let's say—is that it's almost binary, alternating between ridiculous and effective, like that image of a vase and/or two profiles. But whichever this story might be ultimately, it's totally entertaining—the hand gesture, the available psychiatrist, everybody reaching for the eyeball first. I love it.

When Evil Wakes, ed. August Derleth (out of print)
Read story online.

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