His Beautiful Hands by Oscar Cook
This will be the second of Oscar Cook’s stories we have read, the first being Boomerang.
Boomerang is here
It was danged hard to find a copy of His Beautiful Hands, but I succeeded. HBH is rated as one of the best horror stories in those inevitable lists that pop up on the Internet, almost certainly compiled by people who never read it because print copies of the anthologies it was in are either out of print or cost hundreds of cash units (dollars, pounds, euros, roubles, take your pick).
Cook’s work, I realise now, is characterised by graphic body horror rather than the supernatural so it is a horror story rather than a ghost story.
He deliberately sets out to shock us, but shocks modern listeners most probably by accident.
What I mean is that we have become inured to graphic horror, after all we have had The Saw and The Human Caterpillar (neither of which I’ve seen) and the horrid bit in Midsommer when the old folks jump off the cliff and are then finished off… but let’s not go into that.
Then he throws in a bit of incest. That’s never nice and I think even modern listeners find that shocking. As an aside, I actually deplore the race for shock that you see in detective series on TV. Once theft was enough (if you go back far enough), then murder became a staple, then we had serial killers, serial rapists and now we have a regrettably frequent addition of paedophilia sometimes with incest thrown in. I prefer Miss Marple personally, and I’d say to the TV companies: don’t pander after these most base shock-jock tactics, you’re better than that. I saw the Dig on Netflix recently with Ralph Fiennes. How brilliant that was. And I like the Detectorists also. But back to Oscar Cook.
Oscar Cook Biography
Richard Martin Oscar Cook was born in London in 1888 and died also in London in 1952. His father owned an athletic goods company and they were fairly well-off. He seems to have been brought up in Broxbourne just outside London and his first job was a clerk there but very shortly afterwards he went to make his fortune in a rubber planation in Borneo. Unfortunately he did not get on well and was sacked, but remained in Borneo and got another job in the British Colonial Service.
He was an administrator of the British Empire and worked in North Borneo from 1911 until 1918 and then had District Officer posts. This was a position in the British Colonial Service and these administrators and often magistrate was at the heart of colonial administration in the British colonies.
He was married in 1924 to Christine Campbell Thomson but got divorced in 1938.
When he returned to England he wrote an autobiography of his time in Borneo and thereafter wrote supernatural stories, many of which appeared in various anthologies. This story appeared in the 2nd Pan Book of Horror. I used to read those books when I was a kid, which may explain a lot.
Cook bought a controlling interest in a publishing company which produced a series of horror anthologies called Not at Night which ran to twelve books.
His Beautiful Hands
Starts like Boomerang I think with the device of the urbane Englishman in his club in the Far East. This fellow has few adventures and relies on his unsteady journalist friend Warwick to tell him the ghastly tales.
He even warns us it is going to be horrible. And it is. As the story goes structurally, it’s pretty neat. It has at least two twists, probably three: that the manicurist poisoned him so his fingers drop off (ideal revenge on a violinist); that she is his daughter; and that the child is his.
It is ghastly and shocking and if you like that kind of thing, then it’s good. I’m amazed it was published in 1931.
I like the conversational style at the beginning that allows a lot of expression when reading. I also quite liked the fact that Paulina throws the rotted finger in the wastepaper bin. The fact that the baby is born without fingers or toes is another gratuitous excess.
These are all distasteful, and he meant them to be. The racism in it is casual and probably not even intended to offend us. We find this again and again in our stories. Now, this podcast is not intended to be political at all. We have enough politics outside our leisure hours. But, people might say, why read out this particular story? I could have de-platformed Oscar Cook, but I think if we erase all stories like this because of their racism, it is in some way like erasing the racism itself: fundamental world views from the period they were written in. We could pretend it didn’t exist and we might feel easier about that, but it did exist, it was pervasive and fundamental to the way certain groups of people looked at the world and how they treated other people.
So that’s my justification for reading this story. I have avoided other overtly racist stories for two reasons: firstly that the racism in those stories conveyed hate, and secondly when even if it was just casual it was every page. I am minded here of Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo and Hume Nisbet’s Land of The Hibiscus Blossom where the language was so casual and frequent I couldn’t enjoy reading it.
There we are.
Next week, some more Poe.
I got my second commission. The first was Lady Ferry and the second was from a writer who wanted me to do a version of one of his own stories for publicity purposes. It was a good story and I enjoyed doing it.
So if you would like to commission me, Order A Story!
The Heartwood Institute
The last track with the lovely violin is Under The Rose by The Hare & The Moon, whose lead performer is Grey Malkin
We also feature music by Michael Romeo of Dvoynik
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