This Week’s Prompt:53. Hand of dead man writes.
The Story: The Dead Man’s Rites
This will be the second week of the dead speaking! But this is a bit more strange form. The form of a dead hand has a particular piece of imagery associated with it, the Hand of Glory.
The hand of glory is an infamous bit of black magic, made for thieves and burglars. It, unfortunately, requires the failure and hanging of another man. The hand is removed from the hanged man, and enough fat is removed to construct a candle. The candle, while lit and occasionally after a spell is spoken, will paralyze all who are in the house, or alternatively put them to sleep.
The hand of a dead man, that of a not necessary criminal, is cited here as a source of healing among the Americas. Notably, rubbing the hand of a dead man on the thyroid. Similar cures are suggested for blackheads and moles.
In Lincolnshire, there is a report of another dead hand, more sinister in nature. As related by Daniel Codd, the Dead Hand is a hand without a body that searches out individuals and drags them deeper into the marsh. In this way, it is sort of a flesh and more proactive will-o-wisp. The origin of this mysterious monstrous hand are not reported.
Other free hands are more noble caliber, especially regarding writing. The most famous precedent is from the Bible, specifically the book of Daniel. Here the hand is not dead, but is a supernatural agent anyway. It communicates a divine message, as the dead often do. The message is ignored, and then what happens when you ignore the messages of the gods happens.
The power of a hanged man’s hand to heal is a novel to me. The role of the dead as a sort of healing means is not terrible new, if only as ancestors possessing mastery of the dead by association. In popular culture, the dead are more malicious nowadays it seems.
The context, however, is less jarring when compared to the notion of saint’s relics. Saint relics frequently have healing capacity, being empowered by the holiness they bore in life. Often, though not always, portions of the body are considered relics of the saint. These relics are, of course, not the regarded as the same sort of person as a criminal is. However, many saints are martyr’d or sacrificed by the state. This might be a point of connection between the two, but little else. I have yet to find a saint who’s hand wrote beyond the grave anyway.
The idea that portions of the body contain portions of the soul or vital parts of the mind is rather old as well. The humor theory of medicine attributes emotions to various fluids. While the soul itself is not a physical component, it’s possible to alter thoughts in that way. The Egyptian theory of the soul traced the various portions of it—in Egyptian theory, there are five portions of the soul—to specific organs that were preserved in canopic jars.
The discovery of a dead writing hand is probably a good portion of this story. A novelist dies, but then suddenly his hand is heard scratching at the coffin. There is a record of many forms safety coffins, that warn people if they have buried their loved ones alive. The scratching of a hand or the ringing of a funeral bell therefore serve as a good start. Imagine the horror of only the hand, the instrument of art, being alive and crawling spider like out of the crave after it was dug up. Then, such a thing produces art…but art of what sort? What writing does it bring froth from beyond the world? What poetry does something that is only a hand produce? Which has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no mouth to speak, that operates only on a detached sense of touch?
The role of inhuman or altered art in Lovecraft is something we explored before, although there it was more in the form of inspiration. Here I think we have the chance to return, from the perspective not of an artist but of an audience for the audience.
We would be remiss not to note the notion of quite literal posthumous publishing seriously. After all, it is what we claim to do here.
If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.