In which the protagonist receives a “pet” that even the SPCA would flee from.
By W. F. Harvey
First published in 1919
Available online from Project Gutenberg
Thank you, Creature Double Feature.
Before time-shifting existed in any form, watching television was a precarious business. To see a program, your bum had to be ensconced in a seat in front of a TV at a specific time or you were going to miss your show. Period. You’d have to wait for a rerun, or, if you’d missed a movie, you’d have to wait for the local station programming staff to schedule it again, which was sure to take six months or so at a minimum.*
This was the situation in the mid-1970s, when I was a teenager who loved classic horror and science fiction movies. And that’s why I was so adamant about being at home on Saturday afternoons, so I could absorb every frame of Creature Double Feature (CDF, henceforth).
CDF was, from my point of view, the primary reason to watch WKBS, channel 48, the broadcasting powerhouse of Burlington, New Jersey. As implied by its title, the show presented two vintage chillers every week. Most of the time these were, shall we say, substandard when considered from the viewpoint of mainstream film criticism. Still, CDF did present its share of quality work, such as Herk Harvey‘s brilliant Carnival of Souls, which I saw one Saturday afternoon a quarter century before it was issued in a Criterion edition.
Anyhow, on one of those pre-VCR Saturdays, CDF showed a 1946 film called The Beast With Five Fingers. Starring Peter Lorre and Robert Alda (father of Alan), it was written by Curt Siodmak (who had scripted the 1941 The Wolf Man), and directed by B-movie veteran Robert Florey. All in all, it was effectively spooky, so much so that I tracked down the story it was based on. I eventually found it in a Peter Haining anthology, and it stuck with me.
As good as “The Beast With Five Fingers” is, it’s structured in an odd way. I can imagine the authors of various Writer’s Press books on the “art of the short story” cringing at the first few pages or so. This section, which could be cut by at least five hundred words, serves as a lengthy introduction to kindly, blind Adrian Borlsover and his nephew Eustace.**
As benign as Adrian is, Eustace determines by accident that dark forces are swirling around his uncle — or, at least, around a part of him:
“Two years before his death Adrian Borlsover developed, unknown to himself, the not uncommon power of automatic writing. Eustace made the discovery by accident. Adrian was sitting reading in bed, the forefinger of his left hand tracing the Braille characters, when his nephew noticed that a pencil the old man held in his right hand was moving slowly along the opposite page. He left his seat in the window and sat down beside the bed. The right hand continued to move, and now he could see plainly that they were letters and words which it was forming.
“‘Adrian Borlsover,’ wrote the hand, ‘Eustace Borlsover, George Borlsover, Francis Borlsover Sigismund Borlsover, Adrian Borlsover, Eustace Borlsover, Saville Borlsover. B, for Borlsover. Honesty is the Best Policy. Beautiful Belinda Borlsover.’
“‘What curious nonsense!’ said Eustace to himself.”
That’s what I love about stories of this sort: the protagonists encounter phenomena that would freak me into a state of near catatonia, yet their reaction is something along the lines of “I suppose that would be mildly interesting on a day when the track is closed.”
I also like how the power of automatic writing is dismissed as “not uncommon.” I must confess that it’s pretty damned rare where I live, and I’m one of those sorts who keeps his eyes open.
Anyhow, after Adrian passes away, Eustace inherits his uncle’s beloved and massive collection of books. While going through these, he’s visited by his butler, Saunders:
“‘You’ll find your correspondence in the library,’ went on Saunders. ‘Most of it I’ve seen to. There are a few private letters I haven’t opened. There’s also a box with a rat, or something, inside it that came by the evening post. Very likely it’s the six-toed albino. I didn’t look, because I didn’t want to mess up my things but I should gather from the way it’s jumping about that it’s pretty hungry.'”
“Very likely it’s the six-toed albino.” Yes, the one that Eustace had shipped overnight from Mutant Rats Direct™, because, you know, when they’re polydactyl they’re just so cute.
About this time, you might start thinking that “The Beast With Five Fingers” is a spoof. I’m not sure you’d be wrong. Much of this story is quite funny, in a dark, dry manner. The humor is subtle, however, and I suspect that not everyone will pick up on it.
Well, if you’re adept at interpreting context clues, you’ll realize that the thing in the box isn’t the much-anticipated six-toed albino.*** No, it’s Adrian’s severed right hand, and it’s returned to uncanny life. It soon escapes its box and starts skittering around the library, skulking among the bound volumes of biology journals and generally making life disagreeable for Eustace.
In response, Eustace and his man Saunders engage in a series of sorties against this new lurking enemy, each more violent and less effective than the one before. Every time, the hand gains the…upper hand. (I guess that doesn’t work as a metaphor in this case, does it?)
After reading through it a few times, I’ve come to interpret “The Beast With Five Fingers” as a plea for tolerance. Had Eustace tried communicating with the hand first, instead of attacking it, the outcome could have been different. He and his uncle’s sundered mitt might have become the best of pals, and engaged in all sorts of good-natured tomfoolery and dashing adventures together.
In any case, I leave you with this: “The Beast With Five Fingers” was a 1919 story, adapted into a 1946 film. I saw on TV around 1977, and I’m writing about it on the web in 2013. All of which means that I’m greatly anticipating the augmented reality version, which will arrive in 2027. Or so I predict.
*If you’re younger than thirty, and detect a faint whiff of “you-kids-have-it-so-good-today” about this little reminiscence of mine…you’re right. Think of me as a technologically-advanced, non-alcoholic version of Drunk Uncle.
**Eustace Borlsover. Good Lord. That name escaped from an Edward Gorey poem.
***And what did happen to the poor little thing? I like to think that it escaped, befriended E. B. White, and became the model for Stuart Little. As Captain Renault said, “That’s the romantic in me.”