This Week’s Prompt: 124. Hideous secret assemblage at night in antique alley—disperse furtively one by one—one seen to drop something—a human hand—
The Resulting Story: A Lost Limb
This story has a number of potential prompts. First, of course, there is the secret assemblage gathering in an ancient alleyway–each member leaving, and one leaving with a human hand they drop. The first thing that comes to mind here is we have borne witness to the careful dismemberment and scattering of a body by a group of strangers. We will go into what purpose this might serve in a moment. The second thing to note is that it is a hand that is left behind. Something we can examine in detail as well, as there are one or two uses for a hand that come to attention.
In general, it appears that these strangers have murdered someone and departed with various pieces of him for their own purposes. It hardly takes a leap in imagination to suggest that they have done so for occult purposes, whether magical or scientific. We have discussed various uses for the dead before–relics here, the hand of glory here for instance–but there are many more that remain.
In the more disgusting is the Bezoar, a concentration of human hair that forms within the body. Bezoar’s were collected as a cure for any poison, instead of an ailment or tool of murder. The strange, almost rocky things, were believed to somehow filter out the toxin as it passed. Alchemists further described various rituals as the bezoars of celestial bodies, and in Goa there was a business of manufacturing such objects. Using hair, fossils, teeth, and gems, they were used for much the same purposes.
We did discuss, in our work on cannibalism, the idea of monstrous bandits eating hearts of children for occult powers. They are not the only ones who sought power through cannibalizing human beings. The idea of criminal organizations harvesting organs can be found throughout the world–particularly the organs and eyes of children in the 1980s to 90s in Latin America. And we have talked about cannibals here as well.
On a mythic level, eating the body of the holy monk Xuanzang during the journey to the west supposedly granted numberless boons–including immortality for the one to do so. Of course, the result of a demon devouring a divine personage was never seen in the story–the monk made his way across in safety. The threat remains, however, and reminds me of a Japanese story about eating Ningyo–by eating one, a given person might live forever. The most famous example of this is a buddhist priestess who lived to be 800 years old before taking her own life. Perhaps this congregation in an alley was dividing up leftovers?
One of the more esoteric and surprising suggestions of uses comes from the Magus, Book 1. This book of magic instructs that, by using a Grimoire called the Book of Pluto, one might generate animals from the bodies of animals. While it does not specify generating something from the body of a man–although it does generate a man from a hen’s egg–it is not beyond the realm of possibility to do such things. These creations have unique and potent powers–said man is a mandrake, a creature with an infamous song. The virtues a full grown mandrake might have were sadly not listed in the Grimoire in question. Still, we might imagine that the parts of a man might create something particularly potent and ghastly. The body parts of gods, in the Classic of Seas and Mountains bring forth their own divinities.
The hand in particular is interesting, going back to an iteration of the Bluebeard narrative. In a version recorded by the Grimm Brothers, The Robber’s Bridgegroom, a woman marries a man only to see him and his comrades beat and dismember another woman at night. They leave behind a finger with a wedding ring still attached–and this becomes the incriminating evidence against the robber. This of course gets the robber slain by her brothers. A number of Bluebeard myths feature the grizzly dismemberment of the body.
There are also cases of the Hand of Glory. We touched on this here, but I’d like to expand somewhat from that. For those unfamiliar, the hand of glory is the hand of a thief, where one finger has been replaced with a candle made from the fat of a hung man. Its powers are many–it opens locks, it opens heavy doors with ease, it cannot be extinguished except by milk, and it can put to sleep entire households. In more than one case, it is lit by the fire place of the house the thief intends to rob–perhaps subverting the traditional power of the hearth.
In Germany, there are stories of thieves lights–similar criminal tokens but made from the fingers of unbaptized children. These light at the thief’s thought, and are visible to him only–everyone else sees only darkness. Further, anyone sleeping in the same room as a thieves light will not be woken, even by heavy storms.
In Poland, the finger of a hanged criminal preserved in a jar will bring about successful businesses. Sadly, he was caught by his own servants and arrested for possession of such a grisly device. His business did not survive him afterwards. Perhaps it was the lack of magical prowess…perhaps instead it was the rumors that a finger was preserved in his basement and the very public arrest. Who can say, precisely?
Another grizzly example of dismemberment comes from a Pope. Pope Sylvester II supposedly, as discussed here, made a deal with demons for his position or for his knowledge. The condition of a long life and knowledge was he not set foot in Jerusalem. When he fell ill after giving Mass at the Church of Jerusalem in Rome, he asked that after death his body be cut to pieces and scattered throughout the city. Why is unclear–I briefly wonder if something about an intact body of a pope that made a compact with the devil would have left it open to possession. Another version leaves out the dismemberment–instead Pope Sylvester simply had his body taken out of the city by a cart, and buried where the horses stopped.
I would love dearly to now pivot to a story by Lovecraft that features this strange and ghoulish gathering–but sadly I cannot trace this story to its fruit. The closest I can find is a story about an alleyway where, eventually, a group of Russian communists plan a coup on Independence Day. That story…is so terrible, that I don’t think it makes for particularly compelling material.
So instead, I shall point to a better writer. Tanith Lee’s ghouls meet underneath the ground, every now and then, and feed on the bodies of men like ours do here. They also scheme and plan, and hold something comparable to a witches sabbath. Those too were marked by murder and canniblaism in stories past, which could leave behind a hand or eye for someone to find.
The meeting here then has a number of gruesome implications. There are notions of ghoulish cannibalism, perhaps, but also perhaps occult attempts at preventing the living from returning from the dead. The construction of ritual objects of dark power. The prosperity of business at the expense of lives.
Our character is no doubt an unintended observer–someone who one night stumbles upon this scene of terror. Perhaps they see it out their window, or maybe they see the alley when they are walking home. Given the phrasing, it is in an old part of town. I am inclined to think a mostly abandoned part of town–and given they leave one by one, and seem somewhat confident in their efforts.
What can be done with a hand however? At best, at the very best, one might extract identity from finger prints. Maybe a ring or glove left behind, that is especially notable? But how to go about finding out who this victim was, without the authorities? And if it is with the authorities, how to involve them without them taking over the stories? Perhaps the sign isn’t entirely unknown ahead of time. We will have to see.
Burnell, F. S. “The Holy Cow.” Folklore, vol. 58, no. 4, 1947, pp. 377–381. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1257194. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
Samper, David. “Cannibalizing Kids: Rumor and Resistance in Latin America.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 39, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814829. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
“The Hand of Glory.” Hand of Glory Legends, University of Pittsburgh, 19 Jan. 2019, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hand.html.