phantom pain

In Stephen King’s 1978 short story collection Night Shift, the image on the first edition’s cover corresponds to one of the stories called “I Am The Doorway.” In it, the protagonist is a former astronaut who is physically affected after being exposed to alien matter on a trip to Venus. The ex-astronaut is retired with a pension, and the effect of the alien matter manifests physically as eyes that develop on his hands (the doorway in the story). The eyes are connected to the astronaut’s brain, and the eyes’ sensory input into his head portrays our world as hideous, fearful and strange. The alien eyes take over control of the hands, and the astronaut commits murder on several occasions. He keeps his hands bandaged to prevent them from “seeing” and committing these dreadful crimes. To maintain his human self and to free himself of the evil that his hands have become, the ex-astronaut ends up burning his hands, ridding himself of the alien presence for years. I won’t tell you how the story ends, this is all that is significant to this post. I do have a copy that I am unwilling to lend out because it is from the original print run, but I’ll let anyone who wants to come over read it.

One of the earliest horror movies I ever remember watching was Oliver Stone’s 1981 The Hand. It showed on late night TV when I was a child; it must have been in the early 80s because the setting I remember it in was our flat in south London. Which means I couldn’t have been older than six. I don’t know who was responsible for my supervision (I’m guessing it was one of my uncles, they are solely to blame for my fondness for that genre), but epic fail for not preventing me from watching that one. Not that I minded. In The Hand, a man’s hand is severed in a driving accident, cleanly amputated by a lorry. The man, an artist, starts going insane, a madness driven by the loss of his drawing hand (come to think of it, that movie was probably also my first undisguised, up-front witnessing representation of artists and madness). In the film, the severed hand possesses a life of its own and begins committing murders driven by the unspoken vengeful desires of its former owner.

This idea of separation from the body, of body parts disassociating from their owners is frightening. In the first instance, the ex-astronaut deliberately burns his hands, rendering them useless to prevent them from committing murder, to stop himself from feeling this alien invasion. King’s story, I interpret into a fear of aging, and possibly paradoxically, a commentary on how messed-up and gruesomely alien our own world is. I think that we all get messed-up over how horrible human nature really can be, and the belief in the goodness of humanity can only be the desires of the naïf. In the latter example, the artist loses his hand unwillingly in a freak accident, releasing the hand to undertake what we perceive to be the least human of actions (what is murder of another human being if not an affront to humanity?). The Hand is an adaptation/re-interpretation of the 1946 film The Beast With Five Fingers, which I haven’t watched, but apparently the only significant change is that in the earlier movie, the protagonist is a pianist.

(Freaky coincidence for those who believe in omens, symbols and connections: the screenplay was adapted from a book called The Lizard’s Tail by Marc Brandell.)

I’m writing about these stories because they represent significant moments in my own pop culture history. I’m also writing about them for personal reasons. This year, I’ve been obsessed with the agency of body parts in the city (while still connected to living people), and I’ve gone through a hallucinatory phase where I unwillingly saw strangers as amputees.

Maybe this post should have been called “Hands Gone Wild.” Maybe I should have looked at the possession of other body parts. But what this post really is though, is phantom pain.

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