The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
The Body Politic
The Body Politic
“He found himself staring at the hands of other people in his paranoia, becoming obsessed with the way hands spoke a language of their own, independent of their user’s intentions. The seductive hands of the virgin secretary, the maniacal hands of a killer he saw on the television, protesting his innocence. Hands that betrayed their owners with every gesture, contradicting anger with apology, and love with fury. They seemed to be everywhere, these signs of mutiny. Eventually he knew he had to speak to somebody before he lost his sanity.” – Clive Barker
Control is something humankind lauds over everything, from relationships to health, from work to free time, and everything we can get our grubby little paws on, ripping away resources from the environment, or from one another. It’s the one thing we hate to give away, something each of us clings to for dear life. It’s control which keeps us at the top of the food chain, and one could argue that humans wouldn’t have so much control if it weren’t for our hands. Stop for a second and appreciate your thumbs if you can. Be nice to them, even, because what would you do without them?
More to the point, what would it mean to lose control of your appendages entirely? For them to betray you in secret, to conspire against you? It’s not an original notion; the evil hand trope has been around for a while, from the word sinister which derives from the Latin for being on the left-hand side, to Michael Caine’s murderous digits in the gleefully silly The Hand. We even blame our hands when things go wrong, giving them a sense of independence which they simply don’t have.
Clive Barker’s The Body Politic, from Books of Blood Vol. 4, explores what happens when hands start to think independently of their owners. Like a few other stories across the expansive Books of Blood collection, the core concept may be familiar to devoted horror fans, but Barker’s writing surpasses each and every effort before or since. I can’t think of a single other killer hand story which turns such a daft concept into a masterclass in horror. Not only does the story grapple successfully with the chilling notion of loss of control, but it goes much further, taking one person’s bodily autonomy away before other people’s hands join in a nightmarish vision of domination.
Barker’s mastery over the short story form is apparent from the first page; even the first few hundred words form an effective piece about a troubling hand-based conspiracy. Then, like a slow zoom pulling back from a close-up, we’re shown more and more of the world in which hands have had enough, rebelling against their masters in ever more troubling ways. Amongst the bloodshed and violence, there’s more introspective horror, with the character of Charlie gradually coming to terms with his unfortunate plight, feeling ever more detached from everyday life as his hands seize power. What starts as a sense of ennui grows into what Charlie thinks of as insanity, though of course the truth is far more bizarre, yet no less terrifying. Again we loop back to the idea of control being taken away, something that terrifies both Charlie and the reader as the situation escalates. As the hands realise time is against them, they take ever more desperate measures to wrest control away from their host. It’s classic body horror in other words, making a clear statement about how our bodies betray us without warning, with lashings of gore to complement the more psychological elements.
There’s so much in Barker’s short story work which has influenced both my taste in horror and my own writing, to the point where, in one of my earliest stories to be published, I reworked the final line from The Body Politic and had one of my characters use it, It’s in no way obvious to the outside observer, but it always makes me smile to think of it. The actual final line of this story, however, is chilling to the marrow, as is the entire denouement. The scale of the nightmare expands ever onwards, control is pulled firmly away from those who cling desperately to it, and you’re left to wonder what’s to become of them all?
But you’re not in control of the answer. Only Barker is, and the fact that he doesn’t tell is perhaps the greatest example of control in the whole piece – or, more fittingly, restraint. You’re left to wonder, and fear, what comes next. As the old showbiz saying goes, leave them wanting more. That last line is a launching pad, letting your imagination take flight towards all kinds of dark places. It’s the perfect opener to Volume 4, and hands down one of my favourite Barker pieces, pun fully intended.
Ben got a taste for terror after sneaking downstairs to watch The Thing from behind the sofa at age 9. He’s a big fan of extreme & bizarre horror and well as more psychological frights, and most things in between. When he’s not reading, he’s writing, and when he’s not writing he’s on Twitter @BensNotWriting or reviewing books on his YouTube channel, BLURB.