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Sunday, July 2, 2023

A Hand Full of Wyrd

Cheiromancy, the art of reading palms, has one of the most classic fortune telling motifs. The idea that the entire course of one's life can be divined by tracing the lines and creases inside the hand has such a wonderful mystique to it, a depth of uncanny visual stimuli- the glimpse of magic inside the most mundane of things. After all, what's more common than a hand? Hands hold little mystery, to anyone who is not an infant or tripping on LSD. We take our hands for granted, in spite of the fact that we're all taught that our human hands, developed over time to include an opposable thumb, are the very things that gave us the evolutionary advantage over other species. Our dexterity, borne out of the Russian roulette game of adaptation, allowed us to build tools, conjure the Promethean flame, cook food and bulk up our brains. Such are the Hands of Fate.
Sorry. I had to.

In my own early personal experiences with the paraweird, hands played a major role- and also became a point of confusion in my attempts to relate the story. The pair of lights at the foot of my childhood bed gave me the impression of the gloved, cartoon hands of Mickey Mouse. This had less to do with their appearance, other than the fact that they'd be the same color, and more to do with behavior and emotive response- the two tandem lights moved in the way one might move their hands while talking; and the feeling I had was one of pleasant recognition, as it would be with a familiar cartoon character. These “ghostly gloves”, as it were, informed my own perspective on what is real or possible in the world and, in a way, pointed me to the path which led me here. Of course, part of that path involved reading every book I could get my hands on about Weird Things.

In my years of looking into odd phenomena, I rarely ever came across stories quite like my childhood experience. Often I'd find elements that were similar, but never quite what I encountered. Very recently I was reading two books simultaneously, as one does, and managed to have startling, synchronistic shades of my story reflected back at me- which, in turn, inspired me to write this. The first was in Rock 'N' Roll Witch, by Pleasant Gehman. Several synchronicities had already been noted by the time I read the chapter about the Haunted Garage, in which the author encountered a pair of phantom arms, wearing white gloves. She makes a point of describing them as being “just like Mickey Mouse”. The second book was The Occult Sciences in India by Louis Jacolliot, a 19th century book on Brahmanic mystical traditions. The very end of the book includes an account of a Fakir conjuring the Pitris, or spirits, which could only manifest in the form of luminous hands!

The disembodied hand as a symbol or archetype is a spooky and disquieting image. Evoking some of the earliest known writings, the Codes of Hammurabi, the severing of a hand was associated with punishment and shame. The hands themselves might be displayed as a warning to would-be criminals, while the former owner of the hand would be ostracized. This concept survived into Europe in the form of the Hand of Glory- a magic candle made from the pickled hand of a hanged man, said to carry with it powers that would aid thieves and witches. Some of the most enduring yarns and urban legends also involve the loss of a hand; one such legend dates back to the 16th century, appearing in a book called La Nouvelle Fabrique des Excellents Traits de Vérité. In it, a thief attempts a robbery of a man on horseback, who hacks at the miscreant with a sword. Upon arriving home, his servant is horrified to see the hand of the criminal still clutching the bridle, no longer attached to a body. This legend survived into modern times, with versions involving automobiles and would be carjackers losing fingers or their entire hand to the effort. Still others involve sinister figures with hooks for hands. I'm sure many reading this have a friend who knew a guy that this happened to.

Disembodied hands then tend to represent corruption, and lack of morality in legend and myth. We see this in popular culture, from characters such as Captain Hook, or the One-Armed Man in the 1960s TV series The Fugitive. who frames the protagonist for murder. This story was allegedly inspired by a true story, which is more bizarre than the show and not within the scope of our exploration of handlessness. The series was made into a blockbuster film in 1993, featuring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. The "one-armed man" trope had re-occurred in the 90s already, on the hit TV drama Twin Peaks. In addition, another TV series from the 60s became a hit in theaters in the form of the 1991 Barry Sonnenfeld movie adaptation of The Addams Family. This movie well illustrated the whimsical nature that disembodied hands can, and perhaps should, have. Ooky and spooky though he may be, Thing in the 1991 movie is a charismatic and sympathetic character. Unbound from his box, which, due to limitations in television special effects of the time he was always protruding from in the show, Thing is able to run wild through a combination of practical effects and movie magic the 90s made possible. The appeal of Thing continues to the time of this writing, as the recent Netflix series Wednesday, which focused mostly on the daughter of the family, included Thing as her sidekick and compatriot. He got a bit of a redesign in this series, sporting some stylish stitches. He also remained a likable character, despite being a mute hand.

Horror movies have used the trope of murderous disembodied  hands countless times, but there's a certain absurd charm to them that makes this type of movie monster less threatening yet still captivating to watch. The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) is a fine example of this, featuring Peter Lorre, and this movie was based on a story by W. F. Harvey in 1919. The hand of a pianist seeks revenge, or does it? Similar stories appear in films like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and The Hand (1981), in which Christopher Lee and Michael Caine respectively square off against disembodied hands. These examples all involve art in some way- the hand of a pianist, a painter, and of a cartoonist. For a sci-fi spin on the murderous hand with a mind of its own, there is the 1963 movie The Crawling Hand, in which the severed arm of an astronaut who has crash-landed on Earth goes on a killing spree, possessed by aliens! Later offerings such as Idle Hands (1999) are worth a mention, and of course Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) - in which the hero, Ash, undergoes a transformation into the ultimate badass slayer of the undead by cutting off his own hand with a chainsaw. The chainsaw later replaces the hand entirely, but first he must square off against it. The physical humor and truly dark imagery, masterfully put together by Sam Raimi and acted out by Bruce Campbell has unsurprisingly endured in its cult cinema appeal. Oddly, though, this scene was based on a short film the pair worked on, called Attack of the Helping Hand! (1979). The comedic short film involves a maniacal Hamburger Helper glove going on a rampage- and even flipping the bird as we later see Ash's former hand do in the aforementioned Evil Dead II. And so, we come back to humor, interpretation, and gloves again.

Getting back to fate and hands, a classic spooky story that has seen a great number of adaptations since it was first published in 1902, The Monkey's Paw, carries with it the moral that one should be careful what they wish for. The taxidermied monkey hand has the power to grant three wishes, but they all go horribly wrong in execution. In Norse mythology, Tyr, for whom we get the name for Tuesday, was a god of war and bloodshed but also justice and

reconciliation. He was said to have sacrificed his right hand, or arm, depending on the source, in order that the Aesir might bind Fenris the Wolf once and for all. Tyr's hand was placed in the wolf's mouth as a safeguard against trickery, as the beast was bound with enchanted chains. Upon realizing he could not break free, he bit off Tyr's hand. Fenris stayed chained until Ragnarok, where Tyr would meet his demise battling another mythic canid. 

This brings me to a book I discovered by way of an advertisement in an old issue of FATE Magazine. One of my favorite things about those old mags are the ads, and this ad stood head and shoulders- or perhaps fingers and knuckles- above all the rest. It was for a book called Hands: A True Case Study of a Phenomenal Hypnotic Subject, by Lee Gladden and Margaret Williams.

The book chronicles the findings of the *cough* investigators through hypnotic regression, as they learn about a nameless entity with eight hands who looks like a giant, floating, octopoid hand himself, as well as the world from which he came. The more I learned about this book, the more thrilled I became. Every snippet I could glean from asking around and searching online only made me want a copy of it even more, and inspired tons of laughs. It has become a white whale of mine, and the only copies that seem to exist from booksellers on the internet are absurdly expensive. If anyone can help me find Hands, I will be forever in your debt.


Hands can be an indicator of our fates, or an eerie reminder of our mortality. The disembodied hand trope can be unsettling, or absurd enough to engender warm feelings or laughter. It was utilized to great effect by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel in Un Chien Andalou, their groundbreaking surrealist film from 1929. A blind girl is poking at the disembodied hand on the street, shortly before being awarded said hand- and meeting her demise. The hand again appears, covered in ants, in another scene.

From their surrealist points of view, they surely understood the mystical and mundane symbolic qualities of the human hand, and used it to dramatic effect in a number of ways. Hands are also, as any visual artist can affirm, one of the most difficult parts of the human anatomy to draw. I can attest that the image at the top of this post, which I drew myself, was no easy task. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, and maybe a little ironic, that AI image generators seem to have such difficulty with hands in particular. The nightmarish visions that result, purely because early generations were based on limited machine understanding of what hands are and how they work, present a type of body horror that assures us in some respect that there are things about us that can't be faked. Hands can be a paradoxical exercise in ontology, as my meandering post might indicate. Lines on our palms may indicate our futures, prints on our finger tips may be unique to us as individuals and give us away in the act of some crime we will commit. We may lose the hand, like criminals have in the past; or we might sacrifice one for the greater good. But before we take our hands for granted, we might just be thankful they are of natural design, and not made by machines.

The future is in our hands.

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