Friday, October 21, 2016

Tallow Drips Upon a Withered Hand

It's October, my busy month, and I'm swamped at work every weekend... time to set up a post in advance. Halloween being right around the corner, I figure I'll post something appropriately creepy... One of my prized possessions is a copy of the first paperback edition of Katharine Briggs' British Folk Tales and Legends: A Sampler, a gift that my father purchased for me while on a business trip that took him to London. Yeah, I was a nerd from day one.

One of the most outré bits of folklore in the book involved the Hand of Glory, a black-magic talisman used by thieves breaking into a house or business. Creating a hand of glory is a grisly affair, involving the amputation of a hanged murderer's hand. From clergyman and folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould's monumental Curious Myths of the Middle Ages:

The Hand of Glory .. is the hand of a man who has been hung, and it is prepared in the following manner: Wrap the hand in a piece of winding-sheet, drawing it tight, so as to squeeze out the little blood which may remain; then place it in an earthenware vessel with saltpeter, salt, and long pepper, all carefully and thoroughly powdered. Let it remain a fortnight in this pickle till it is well dried, then expose it to the sun in the dog-days, till it is completely parched, or, if the sun be not powerful enough, dry it in an oven heated with vervain and fern. Next make a candle with the fat of a hung man, virgin-wax, and Lapland sesame.

In this particular tale of the hand of glory, the hand has the power to render the sleeping unwakeable and to open all locks:

Several stories of this terrible hand are related in [William] Henderson's Folklore of the Northern Counties of England. I will only quote one, which was told me by a laboring man in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and which is the same story as that given by Martin Anthony Delrio in his Disquisitiones Magicæ, in 1593, and which is printed in the Appendix to that book of M. Henderson.

One dark night, after the house had been closed, there came a tap at the door of a lone inn, in the midst of a barren moor. The door was opened, and there stood without, shivering and shaking, a poor beggar, his rags soaked with rain, and his hands white with cold. He asked piteously for a lodging, and it was cheerfully granted him; though there was not a spare bed in the house, he might lie along on the mat before the kitchen fire, and welcome.

All in the house went to bed except the servant lassie, who from the kitchen could see into the large room through a small pane of glass let into the door. When everyone save the beggar was out of the room, she observed the man draw himself up from the floor, seat himself at the table, extract a brown withered human hand from his pocket, and set it upright in the candlestick; he then anointed the fingers, and, applying a match to them, they began to flame.

Filled with horror, the girl rushed up the back stairs, and endeavored to arouse her master and the men of the house; but all in vain, they slept a charmed sleep; and finding all her efforts ineffectual, she hastened downstairs again. Looking again through the small window, she observed the fingers of the hand flaming, but the thumb gave no light: this was because one of the inmates of the house was not asleep.

The hand cannot be extinguished through conventional means:

The beggar began collecting all the valuables of the house into a large sack -- no lock withstood the application of the flaming hand. Then, putting it down, the man entered an adjoining apartment. The moment he was gone, the girl rushed in, and seizing the hand, attempted to extinguish the quivering yellow flames, which wavered at the fingers' ends. She blew at them in vain; she poured some drops from a beer-jug over them, but that only made the fingers burn the brighter; she cast some water upon them, but still without extinguishing the light. As a last resource, she caught up a jug of milk, and dashing it over the four lambent flames, they went out immediately.

Uttering a piercing cry, she rushed to the door of the room the beggar had entered, and locked it. The whole house was aroused, and the thief was secured and hung.

The Hand of Glory has made it into several modern works of fiction- in my mind, most notably in John Bellair's The House with a Clock in its Walls. A variation on the theme plays a major role in Charles Stross' 'Laundry' books, in which the talismans can provide protection from observation and be used as projectile weapons- in a further deconstruction of the trope, they can be made from pigeon feet. The hand of glory also figures prominently in the 'weird tale' Dead Man's Hand by Manly Wade Wellman, a tale which also introduces Wellman's take on a particularly 'Lovecraftian' subject- the survival of hostile not-quite-humans in what Robert E. Howard dubbed the dark corners of the earth.

The hand of glory lends its name to the title of a Smithereens song I first heard as a high schooler, the lyrics of which the title of this post references:

The Smithereens song is actually a cover of a song by the late Jimmy Silva.. As Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken explained to music journalist Joe Clark:

Joe: All right. What is the song "Hand of Glory" about, and what are the damn fucking lyrics that I can't understand?

Dennis: I'll give you Jim Silva's number. You can call him. He's the guy who wrote that.

Pat: Jimmy Silva was a--

Joe: He sung it. He must know.

Pat: I sung it. I always felt I did a very piss-poor interpretation.

Dennis: It's an obscure kind of lyric. It's about this medieval ritual to ward off evil spirits froma a person's house, where you take the hand of a freshly-hung felon, chop it off, pickle it with these various herbs and things in, dip it in tallow, light the fingers, run around the house several times, and what it's supposed to do is, for a robber that wants to rob the house, it makes the people inside the house asleep.

Jim: No, it's an unborn hand. It's a--

Dennis: Well, that's another interpretation of it. So there''s your answer.

Pat: But anyway, to make a long story short

Jim: That's some weird shit, man!

Joe: [Laugh] That's even weirder than what I thought it was [namely, finding a severed hand in a railway yard]!

Pat: I could never get behind the lyric of that song. It was more the type of song that had a lot of energy live and it always went over great, and we thought we'd give it a shot in the studio, and it wound up on the album.

I hadn't heard the original before, but the Smithereens cover is a pretty faithful rendition:

I love it, I'm going to have to second musician Scott McCaughey's take on the song- the combination of macabre subject matter with a nice jangle-pop song is particularly appealing to me.

Now, to make things even creepier, Yorkshire's Whitby Museum has a purported hand of glory in its collection. Don't go to sleep tonight!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Single Best Moment of Tonight's Debate

I listened to tonight's presidential debate, much to the dismay of those on the left, especially myself. I had to admit that I laughed when I first heard Trump's trademark debate sniff. The crowning moment of the debate was when Trump said this:

We have to keep the drugs out of our country. We are ­­ right now, we're getting the drugs, they're getting the cash. We need strong borders. We need absolute ­­ we cannot give amnesty. Now, I want to build the wall. We need the wall. And the Border Patrol, ICE, they all want the wall. We stop the drugs.


I imagine Trump's coke trafficker is one 'bad hombre' Donald doesn't want to stop.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Remember These Two?

Longtime readers of my blog will have noticed a conspicuous absence over the past few weeks. I haven't posted any pictures of mah preshus kittehs. I've been so busy with our Fall fundraising events that I have not had any time to spend with my beloved Fred:

And my adored Ginger:

For a change, I am at my principle jobsite for a 5PM to 9PM shift rather than an overnight. I was supposed to have a night off, but one of my subordinates texted me to know that his brother-in-law had bought him a ticket to see Steely Dan at Manhattan's Beacon Theater as a birthday present. I couldn't say no to him, and I couldn't say no to an opportunity to frolic with my precious, precious kitties.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Not Deplorable, Just Sad

This afternoon, I had to cover one of my worksites because we have an eight-week afterschool program for one of the local elementary schools. After touching base with the managers on duty, I hung around the parking lot to make sure that no unauthorized individuals entered the site, which is normally closed on Mondays. I like to take a low-key approach, informing anyone who enters the front gate that we are closed, but that some other local points of interest are available for visitors.

While I was lounging around the parking lot, I saw a vehicle enter, driven by a man who appeared to be in his sixties or seventies. He had an older man sitting in the front passenger's seat. The driver had long hair, a beard, and spectacles- he could have passed for an aging hippie, or an aging biker, or an off-duty new-age guru. I introduced myself and told him that we were closed, but would be open to the public Wednesday through Sunday. We spoke briefly about local affairs, and he told me that his dad, the ninety-five year-old man in the passenger's seat, used to work in the area until the 1970s and wanted to see his old stomping grounds.

The talk went very well until, somehow, the guy brought up politics, and noted that 'one of the candidates should be in jail' (oddly enough, I think I agree with him on the point, but with one significant difference). He lamented how corrupt politics had become, and I reminded him that politics have been corrupt since before the Teapot Dome Scandal. He lamented how bad things had become, and I reminded him that it was the rich who screwed things up so a worker couldn't put in thirty to forty years of honest work and retire with a wristwatch and a pension. Every point he brought up, I countered, gently bringing up the reality behind the rose-colored vision he had of history.

The conversation remained cordial, for the most part. He did drop a hint about 'even the poor black people were honest', which I deflected by noting that a lot of the necessary grunt work of the country was performed by poor black women who deserved much higher pay and decent benefits. For the most part, we talked about local affairs- even though the guy was now living in Colorado (I made a point of reminding him that this is a Spanish name), he grew up in the same neighborhood in Yonkers that I inhabit, going to middle school in the school across the street from my place. He asked me if I could help to locate the building where his dad worked decades ago, and I referred him to the local historical society, providing him with an address and a phone number.

After our talk, he tended to his dad, a World War 2 veteran, for a brief while, making sure his oxygen tank was properly connected and giving him a cup of water. We parted on good terms, but when he left, I felt a certain amount of melancholy. Here was a guy who isn't a bad man, he's just misinformed, and the gaps in his knowledge, or better yet, memory, have been filled with poison. I don't think he was a hateful person, just a scared and uncertain person. While I think he will make a deplorable choice in November, I don't think that he fits in the 'deplorable' half of Trump's 'basket'. He wasn't deplorable, just sad.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

October is Halfway Over

October is halfway over, and I haven't put anyone through a wall yet. Yesterday, I returned to work at 5PM and was greeted by the sight of a tour bus in our parking lot, backed into our Fall fundraiser 'will-call' tent. The tent was canted at an angle, but no damage was done, and nobody was hurt. I tapped on the bus window and explained the situation to the bus driver, who pulled up a couple of feet- no harm done.

Last night, our organization sponsored a 'Moth-esque' storytelling event at another site. The organization had received a grant to foster literacy and the storyteller's art, and this event was attended by a lot of our mucky-mucks... the President, the head of HR, and a couple of Vice Presidents were all in attendance. I have to note here that this was the first nighttime event at this site in eight years, and nobody 'scouted out the terrain' beforehand to see what the current conditions are. Needless to say, the parking lot lights weren't functioning. The event manager who was there called me to note that my subordinate, who was scheduled to be there, was nowhere to be seen. I sent him a text message, and he replied that he was in a hospital emergency room (he's okay now). Murphy, as they say, was an optimist.

I was stuck working the Fall Fundraiser, so I called another subordinate, who was having his first night off in two weeks, and explained the situation to him. He told me that he was just about to have the first beer of the night, but that he'd forgo it and save the day. This particular co-worker is a ball-buster, but he's got your back when the chips are down. Suffice it to say, I love the curmudgeonly snarker. He's also a big flashlight nerd and perhaps the best dumpster-diver I've ever encountered... he's actually made a pretty penny salvaging discarded objects and selling them on the internet in the ten years I've known him. He just happened to have a big inflatable emergency light tower that he fished out of a dumpster on site when the organization discarded it. He showed up with his big inflatable light tower and saved the day on a night when all of the organization mucky-mucks and some high-profile guests were in attendance. That's what I call a major coup, and the crowning glory of it all is that he had been scheduled for forty hours this week, so the four hours he put in were overtime, so he made time-and-a-half. Afterwards, he stopped by on his way home to bust my hump... did I tell you I love the guy?

Tonight, in comparison, was pretty low-key. The weather was gorgeous, there were no crashes in the parking lot. There's one potential wrinkle in this fantastic evening- my curmudgeonly, day-saving co-worker called me to inform me that his copy of the master key broke off in the lock of a door that has been a recurring problem- last year, one of the IT guys broke his key in the lock of this door. I might have to drive up to the site in order to lock up any other buildings that may be unlocked. I have to e-mail our boss in order to tell him that we need a new key and a new cylinder and, hopefully, new hardware for the door so this situation doesn't recur. Should he make the call, I can drop off some of the ice-packs that arrived last week.

Two weeks from now, things will get nice and quiet on the job. My standard line is that my job is cushy, except when it's not, and this month I am earning my keep... we all are.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Everybody, Repeat After Me: Conservatives Cannot Comprehend Consent

Four years ago, I wrote a post titled Conservatives Cannot Comprehend Consent, and this week, events have borne this out. Rush Limbaugh actually came right out and demonstrated that he does not understand the concept of consent:

You know what the magic word, the only thing that matters in American sexual mores today is? One thing. You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, as long as there is one element. Do you know what it is? Consent. If there is consent on both or all three or all four, however many are involved in the sex act, it's perfectly fine. Whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there's no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police. But consent is the magic key to the left.

Yes, rush, consent is the magic key. If three or four or more individuals want to dress up in fursuits or latex bodygloves and engage in a mass orgy involving vegetables and baked goods (but not animals, which cannot give consent), then it is perfectly fine. Kink is not immoral or amoral if everybody is consenting and the safety of the participants is taken into consideration.

This is pretty much sex education 101- one should not use another's body without affirmative consent. Conservatives such as Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh hate women. Trump may bloviate that the women who have accused him of sexual assault were 'too ugly' to grope, but this is patent bullshit- sexual assault is about dominance, not sex, which is something that Trump pathologically tries to assert over those around him.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Shuddersome Old Gringo

Tonight, I am preoccupied with work, so I decided in advance to compose a chilling little tale by Ambrose Bierce: author, satirist, gadfly. Bierce disappeared in revolutionary-era Mexico after accompanying Pancho Villa's army for a while. Bierce's disappearance was the subject of the 1989 film Old Gringo, hence the title of this post.

Bierce's place in 'weird fiction' will forever be secure by virtue of such horror works as The Damned Thing (which manages to be blackly funny even as it puts a chill up one's spine) and The Boarded Window. Bierce's An Inhabitant of Carcosa, slight as it is, spawned a major horror franchise which still resonates with current writers and fans of the weird.

The first story by Bierce that I read, in 7th grade, was An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. SPOILER AHEAD- READ THE STORY When The Sixth Sense came out, one of my co-workers told me I HAD to see the movie, and I would never guess the big twist was. I guessed the twist immediately, which kinda freaked her out, and I immediately thought, "She really needs to read her Bierce!"