Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Hands of Murder

March is Marvel month here at THOIA, and we're looking at the best of the illustrative big guns from the amazing 1950's pre-code Atlas bullpen... moving right along with a real spooker from Mike Sekowsky and Christopher Rule, originally presented in the June 1951 issue of Adventures into Terror #4. (And click HERE for a variation of this story from Mister Mystery #1 too!)


Mr. Cavin said...

Jeez, that x-ray is so clear you can even see her hair bones.

Man I love that classic splash--those spotted green hands clutching at the girl's pink dress, the nighttime sky so crosshatched that it looks speckled. The whole thing reminds me as much of a newspaper drive-in ad as it does a comic book panel.

Unknown said...

I hadn't thought of it but Mr. Calvin is right--you can see her hair bones. I've gone to nursing school and you know what--I never realized that hair had bones! I'm glad to have been enlightened!
BTW I can't help but wonder why Trudy and Janet's parents were such wusses that they didn't choo-choo Janet's crazy ass on over to the mental asylum. This story was unusual in that the evildoer didn't pay for their ill deeds.

Anonymous said...

The panel on pg 5 where Trudy falls out the window is classic! Wow i get dizzy lookin' at it. Great story!

SpaceLord said...

For a moment I thought sweet and blonde Trudy may have been the evil one all along - and is just telling us her twisted version of the story.
But, alas, Janet gets to be the bad-ass-chick even beyond the grave.
As the text at the end states: "There was no way to explain it,no way at all!" Can't even sue them.
"There are some things we were never meant to understand" - Hair bones and all...

Anonymous said...

I didn't like this one as much as the others because of the (what I call) "anti-EC" factor that (as I understand it) "SpaceLord" was refering to. That is; unlike the old EC comics where there was an (admittedly twisted) sense of morality (the bad guy/gal always "got it"/"got his/her just desserts", or is it "deserts" in the end) here (at least this side of the grave) the bad guy/gal not only gets away with it in life; but does and gets away with more after death!

Maybe it's just the Roman Catholic in me; but some one's due for "The Big Furnace Room/Barbeque" and someone else owed some "harp lessons"!

Daniel [oeconomist.com] said...

First, I note that I've seen a fair number of movies and comic book stories in which someone suffocates in a closet. Now, I've lived in one home built in the late '20s, and others built in every decade from the '50s into the '90s. In none of these would there have been so little airflow in and out of the closests that a person might be suffocated. What's up with this wack motif?

Second, I'm with those who don't like these no-justice stories. On top of Trudy meeting an undeserved death, the jack-ass pseudo-scientist (substituting what amounts to faith for actual empirical evidence, and factoring probabilities but not the significance of potential outcomes into the decision-making process) doesn't receive the beat-down that he so richly deserves!

SpaceLord said...

Whoa! Didn't want to raise any justice issues here. But seeing the innocent being haunted and tortured always hurts.
The motif of the strangling hands is nothing new to horror comics. Uncorporeal ones or amputated limbs appear in some stories throughout the 50s.
I'm sure to have read a very similar story about ghost hands strangling a man - involving an X-ray picture as well. Can't put my finger on it... anyone?

Mr. Karswell said...

Interesting range of thoughts on this story, hairbones and unhappy endings aside, it's important to note that in 1950's pre-code horror comics it was pretty much ANYTHING GOES.

>I'm sure to have read a very similar story about ghost hands strangling a man - involving an X-ray picture as well. Can't put my finger on it... anyone?

Did you check the link in my intro to this story, Spacelord?

SpaceLord said...

Got me there, Karswell!
What a nice "Stranglings Ghost Hands" double feature, though.

Gumba said...

The fun thing about these stories is to imagine what you would do in this situation. OK, getting chocked by ghost hands.

First, slap the doctor and then go get a trac kit and learn to use it, just in case.

Second, dig up the sister and start experimenting with the body. Will effecting the body effect the ghost?

The closet thing gets me too, and it would take just a little jury-rigging to be better (for instance, Janet could have hid in the closet holding the knife, and Trudy could have closed the door which forced the knife in.

Mr. Cavin said...

I can't believe nobody's made an auto-erotic asphyxiation joke here yet. I mean, lots of people have suffocated in closets.

All kidding aside, it's a traditional enough motif that children were still warned about playing in closets when I was a kid. They were warned about playing in the titular wardrobe at the beginning of the Narnia book. The concern was probably initially that the children might get locked inside and suffer from heat or loneliness. But then that warning mixed with the usual warning about refrigerators--where the concern was very much about getting locked-in and rapidly suffocating. I'm sure parents didn't bother differentiating, so closets became just another inflated childhood bugaboo right up there with candy poisoners and kidnappers.

As for this story's moral ambiguity, I'm all for it. I find literature without easy answers to be much more interesting (and much less predictable) than those stories where the plot is dictated by simple and wishful justice. (See Dostoevsky.) Were we presented with a tale that treated its characters badly? Well yes, but that's far more challenging and better fits my idea of what horror really is: testing out the idea that terrible things can happen to regular people. Justice happening to terrible people is wish fulfillment fantasy, not horror. It's instructive, like a Chick Tract or a Bible Story.

Do those of you who dislike the poetic injustice here think you would've thought so much about a story in which the wicked were punished in the expected manner? I wouldn't have.

Daniel [oeconomist.com] said...

@Mr Cavin

I really don't know about old-fashioned wardrobes; I just know that suffocation in closets isn't generally very plausible. But, for example, this notion was used in Black Friday, for the killing of Marnay.

The story isn't morally ambiguous; it is simply nihilistic. If this story truly were morally ambiguous, it might well be interesting; if it made a case for an alternate morality, it might be interesting. But we are not discussing it because it is intellectually stimulating; we are discussing it because some of us find it unhappy without some compensating (insight or whatever) for that unhappiness.

Chick tracts are likewise without moral content. They aren't about the wicked getting punished; they are about vindication of prejudice by divine fiat, and about sadistic satisfaction of that prejudice. If Chick made a case (other than “I'm sure that G_d agrees with me!”), then the things might be more than pathological outsider art.

Mr. Karswell said...

I'm always on the look-out for a non-happy ending in these old stories... I'll see what else I have for the next post. Thanks again you guys for keeping THOIA comments as interesting as the posts themselves!

Mr. Cavin said...

Daniel: I totally agree about closets (and wardrobes). It's an old wives tale, like when people believe sleeping with a running fan will kill them overnight, or cats will steal their children's breath. I like urban folklore. I was advancing a theory as to how the trope began.

Assuming that a moral system is basically a construct, I'd say advancing the argument, though example, that a story can exist without one is a statement about reality's ability to survive nihilism. Maybe that's not ambiguous, but reserving the nihilism till the surprise end is using ambiguity to subvert expectations of moral structure.

"Chick tracts are likewise without moral content. They aren't about the wicked getting punished; they are about vindication of prejudice by divine fiat..."

This presupposes that morals exist without divine fiat, and that's a rather sticky slope. Let's just say that I'm operating under the definition that morals exist only as an assumption of particular agreed-upon set of rules within a social culture, and that divine whim was then created to enforce them. Jack Chick thinks divine fiat is moral justice and that by definition its victims are wicked. Much like the expectation that the bad people in this comic are wicked and should be punished by nature. Now how's my argument sound?

Daniel [oeconomist.com] said...

@Mr. Cavin

I don't know that this story violated the expectations of the readers of the comic book in which it was published. The EC horror comics (as oft noted, and as noted above) almost always held to a moral code, but other publishers often didn't. (Indeed, many of them seemed oblivious to the rôle that morality was playing in the premium horror tales.) If the other stories in this issue or in this series were likewise morally empty, then this was just one more ugly ending amongst a set of ugly endings.

What my remarks on Chick presupposed is that divine fiat is not sufficient, which is rather different from claiming that divine fiat is not necessary. Though, indeed, I'd be quite willing to go further and baldly assert that divine fiat is not necessary. There's no slope in any case.

Doing something because one fears that G_d or the state or a mob will otherwise hurt one is no different in principle from doing it because one fears that a school-yard bully will hurt one. In none of these cases is one talking about morality, regardless of whether the behavior might be reasonable. And if you believe that there are no rules of conduct beyond whatever are imposed by gods, states, mobs, or bullies, then you simply don't believe in morality.

The word “should” of course has multiple meanings. One might have to work to tease-out what any given person might mean in claiming that this story “should” have ended differently.

I'd be willing to bet that most readers would have been as happy (or happier) with Janet just becoming nice as with her being somehow punished; what people really didn't want was for Trudy to be hurt; that's an entirely different sentiment from that of Jack Chick.

In cases where people are indeed looking for someone to be hurt in these horror stories, sometimes the motivation indeed much like Chick's — the readers cannot walk anyone through a process of explaining why the person deserves it, beyond “That's just how I feel!” or “Everybody knows that this is wrong!” or some other flaming crap argument. But, in a great many cases, they can get much farther along to explaining why the person's behavior was objectively vile. Even if they can't make it all the way, they're not simply running on prejudice, as is Chick.

Meanwhile, there's simply no need to turn to fiction for unhappy endings. And if people are going to forgo the happy endings that fiction affords them, they want some actual pay-off for that itself. They could have got ghostly bones (and hair bones, for that matter) in X-ray images, and still had Trudy saved.

Mr. Cavin said...

Daniel: it seems obvious that we are not going to get much further as differently as we understand what is meant by morality. I consider it to be a system by which a culture assigns the impetus of virtue to a collection of social ethics. Since I can observe different cultures with different moral standards--and since I posit that nature, unobserved, has none--I fail to understand how you can advance a definition of morality that does not require some greater arbiter as to the nature of right and wrong, be that arbiter the consensus of society or something supernatural. I believe that we, as a society, make up spooky-doo reasons why given actions fit or do not fit within our social ethic, and that those reasons are what we mean by morality. Other people believe that god does this, offering the carrot or the stick to those who choose to operate within moral limits or else. You have indicated that the holders of either opinion must, by their very opinionating, fail to believe in morality itself, something you seem to feel is immutably part of nature whether we observe it or not.

I can’t argue against that. Having a conversation in which even the words we must use to communicate our ideas have to be harangued over is clearly nothing but trouble. You said that “there was no slope” to this discussion, but we started off talking about an unhappy ending and now we’ve gotten to hear your uncomfortable conclusions about what my beliefs “simply are.” In another five thousand words we’re going to be questioning the subjective value of critique, the antisocial activity of objectifying opinion, and the nature of the artistic contract with the eventual consumer and whether that contract can change over time. I think I’m going to bow out early if you don’t mind.

Instead, I will tell you what I liked about the story. Then, even under the very worse-case scenario, you will only still be just as dissatisfied with it. I like the story because the characters are solid and because the ghost is especially nasty and, therefore, scarier to me than the standard tools of a moral allegory.

The story has basically three characters: person A is a victim we assume to be innocent and good natured, though this is never demonstrated. What we see is a person who keeps receiving glorious presents while her sister looks on. She is also a person unable to defend herself against the opposition in the story, frequently running away. Person B is an unrepentant and jealous villain who is accidentally killed by a closet and becomes an unrepentant and jealous ghost. Person C is a scientist who cannot grasp that he occupies a universe constructed to permit both closet suffocation and jealous ghosts. Throughout the story, everyone operates within the confines of their own character, and since these three characters are bad for one another, like rock paper scissors, bad things happen predictably.

Ultimately it’s just a simple story, and yeah, I feel bad for some of the characters involved. But I also find it pretty convincing—those characters act just exactly as I’ve been told they will, before and after dying--and I don’t mind enjoying literature that makes me feel kinda bad. I don’t feel like I have to turn to literature for unhappy endings, but I also don’t see anything wrong with that. And I certainly don’t feel cheated when I am presented with a horror story that does not reinforce my desire that the universe reward virtue and innocence or punish jealousy and wickedness.

Daniel [oeconomist.com] said...

@Mr. Cavin

You are not being at all careful in your use of terms. You begin by insisting that a morality is assigned by a culture, then somehow you permit it instead to be assigned by a god. You don't tell us anywhere in what conceptual space we are supposed to measure the greatness of the “greater arbiter”, which makes it impractical for me to attempt to address your claim that I deny such an arbiter. And if you simply posit that nature has no morality, that should not prevent you from understanding how others might advance a definition at odds with that position.

The slope to which you earlier referred was one onto which someone stepped with the presupposition “that morals exist without divine fiat”. That's different from whatever slope one might step on by openly disagreeing with you on some matter. And the slope to which you originally referred was “rather sticky”, with no mention of a countervailing sharp incline. I'm not here suggesting that you shouldn't feel entitled to defend your position (nor to refuse here to defend them); I am simply noting that we were discussing a different alleged slope.

If you'll recall, this discussion didn't start with folks saying that they liked this story, and others insisting that they should; it was rather the other way 'round, with a few of us noting that we didn't like this story, and finding ourselves compared to Jack T. Chick.

TheHolderOfTales said...

This was clearly "inspired" by Fritz Lieber's short story "In the X-ray" which had come out a couple of years previously.

It's got the same set-up; cruel bullying sister comes back from the dead as a hand inside the live sister's body and ends with her falling off a building. The original story is more grisly though; it actually starts with a swelling in her *ankle* and slooooowly moves upwards until it reaches her throat.

TheHolderOfTales said...

Hmm, interesting...the other comic version of the story you linked to *does* use the ankle element.