When I was a kid, my older brother, Justin, used to crack me up by reenacting a scene from Sam Raimi’s cult horror classic Evil Dead II (1987). In it, the besieged hero does battle with his own demonically possessed right hand. My brother fully committed to the physicality of the scene, grappling with his suddenly unruly limb and smashing imaginary dinner plates over his head before—with an ironically gleeful “Who’s laughing now, sucker?!”—carving his right hand off with his chainsaw-wielding left. It was tough to tell whether he was more hero than hand or more hand than hero. Who—or what—were we rooting for in this bloody battle of wills? What did it mean for a (body) part to rebel against the whole? And why was it both hilarious and horrifying?
So maybe it’s my brother’s fault that I’ve become weirdly fixated on the the severed, possessed, or otherwise wayward hand, a trope that shows up more often than you’d think. Last summer I was reading Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (1967), a moody little novel about a teenage girl living in London with her silent Aunt and brooding Uncle, a maker of puppets. Midway through the book, Melanie opens a kitchen drawer and discovers “a freshly severed hand, all bloody at the roots.” It comes out of nowhere. Melanie faints. And when she awakes the hand is gone, the episode done. But what was it doing there in the first place? Dainty painted fingernails and ragged at the wrist, it could be evidence of a crime: a fleshy reminder of the gendered mutilations that move the patriarchal household. Or is it the aftermath of an attempted grab for power? In a domestic space controlled by a malevolent puppeteer, does a dismemberment ensure that nobody else—and no girl, certainly—pulls the strings?
How willful is the wayward hand? Let’s consider some evidence.
A grim story. Angela Carter would want me to start with a fairytale. (After all, when her protagonist discovers the hand in the drawer, she assumes that she’s going out of her mind before concluding that “Bluebeard was here.”) So I want to begin with the Grimm brothers’ tale of the willful child. It was Sara Ahmed who first told me this story. She uses it to launch her exploration of what it means to be called “willful,” where “willfulness” is an accusation made against some of us more than others. In the Grimm story, the willful child defies her mother, so God allows her to become sick and die. When she’s buried, her arm repeatedly rises up through the loose soil of her freshly dug grave. Only after her mother arrives to strike the arm with a rod does it stay buried and the child find “rest.” The child disobeys her mother and displeases God, but her willfulness persists even after her death. It’s displaced, Ahmed notes, onto the arm that refuses to stay put; the hand that rises from the grave again and again, marking the place of a body that’s been made to disappear. I’m here, the hand says. Still here. This turn to the willful hand leads Ahmed to wonder about the relationship between the part and the whole: parts are charged with “willfulness” when they fail—or refuse—to cooperate with the whole. The stubborn arm stands in for the child who wouldn’t bend to parental authority; who threatened not to reproduce the family unit. The willful child was an unwilling part.
A bloody revolution. When I started reading Clive Barker’s “The Body Politic” (1985), I thought of my brother and giggled. Barker’s short story is about a guy named Charlie whose hands are plotting to free themselves from the tyranny of the body. Cautious Left and militant Right, they meet on Charlie’s chest at night while he sleeps, conspiring in gestures and bobbing fingers. But after Charlie’s wife becomes alert to the situation, Charlie wakes to find his hands around her throat. So we go from twistedly amusing to darkly disturbing pretty quickly. Right eventually “frees” Left with a meat cleaver and Left skitters off into the night, waking other hands from their complacent slumber until the narrative is thick with bloody dismemberments and autonomous, spider-like members. And I have to be honest: I don’t know what to do with this story. I’m generally inclined to root for the little guy; to take the part of the parts that push back against the oppressiveness of the whole. But I’m uneasy about the fact that Charlie’s hands—or Left and Right, I should say—murder a woman (and, by extension, her hands) en route to their freedom. Besides, I have my own embodied experience with an uncooperative part. In fact, when Sara Ahmed gave the talk in which she first introduced me to the willful child back in 2011, I had just found out that my heart is less than reliable when it comes to keeping the rest of me ticking. True story. While I was listening to Sara talking about willful parts at McMaster University, I was a couple of days away from having a pacemaker implanted in my chest to keep my heart from taking coffee breaks. So while I wanted to root for Left and Right and their bid for freedom, I also felt Charlie’s pain. Maybe “The Body Politic” is a deeply conservative short story that casts revolution as a murderous, body-rending—and so unthinkably horrifying—scenario. Maybe. Or maybe it captures something of the violent logic of the concept of “the body politic” itself: of a political imaginary that assembles the parts in such a way that the refusal to do one’s part can only be seen and experienced as murderous, mutilating aggression. Clive Barker is writing in Margaret Thatcher’s England, after all, when the Conservatives framed striking unions as “enemies within” siphoning strength from the national economy. I’m not sure yet whether “The Body Politic” reproduces or scrutinizes that political vision, but for now, in my mind at least, Left and Right are the willful child’s creepy cousins.
A too-willing part? W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) tells the story of a mummified monkey part that grants its holder three wishes. Unlike the hand of the willful child and unlike Left and Right, this one, at first glance, seems to be all about service. But the paw arrives at the English country home of Mr. and Mrs. White by way of Britain’s colonial maneuverings in India; and the Sergeant-Major who carries it warns that the man who had the paw before him ultimately wished for his own death. So when Mr. White wishes for two hundred pounds and the dried out little paw twists in his hand “like a snake,” we fear that something is amiss. The money arrives the next day in the form of a payout from the factory where the Whites’ son, Herbert, has just been killed in an accident. This death sets up the final two wishes: with one, Mr. White reluctantly—at his wife’s insistence—asks for his son’s return from the grave; and when this wish results in an ominous knocking at the front door, a “fusillade of knocks” that echoes through the house, Mr. White uses his last wish to get rid of whatever is on the other side of the door before his wife can open it. (There are two hands in this story, then. There’s the little paw that’s too eager, too willing to fulfill the wisher’s wishes and there’s the unseen hand knock knock knocking on the Whites’ front door.) From one point of view, I suppose “The Monkey’s Paw” can be read as a colonial-era tale in which all that’s evil, mysterious, and contaminating originates in faraway places and then infiltrates and undoes whatever is “properly” British. But I wonder if we can read, instead, for the way the paw manifests a strange continuity between servitude and subversion: for how the fantasy of the grateful, solicitous colonial subject—Your wish is my command—twists like a möbius strip, revealing an aggressive underbelly. The part will serve, but it’s going to cost you.
My brother might tell you that I’m overthinking this; that whether it’s suddenly sentient or raised from the dead, a hand that turns on you—or turns up where it shouldn’t be—is funny because it’s weird. But I keep thinking about his reenactments of the Evil Dead, and how sometimes he’d act the part of the sawed-off hand itself; the one that, after the hero’s severed it from his wrist, skitters around the cabin on its own, still attacking the body of which it was so recently a part. Which brings me back to perspective. From the point of view of the whole, the wayward part is dangerous. But from the point of view of the wayward part, the whole system must come down.