The Four Fingers of Death

So, I’m a little behind in talking about what I’ve been reading. Since the last post I wrote, I’ve finished The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody and The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry, and I’m about a hundred pages into DeLillo’s White Noise, which I feel is overdue. Years ago, on my first attempt, that first page of back to school station wagons tapped into my dread of new semesters and the special horror reserved for my foreign language classes–I imagine I would’ve defenestrated the poor book if I’d discovered Jack Gladney struggled with the same German that was cold-clocking me three to six hours a week.

But that’s what I’m reading now, and I want to talk about what I’ve already read, and I’m going to start with The Four Fingers of Death.

It’s… weird, and it’s mostly weird in a good way. Moody starts off in the voice of Montese Crandall, which is a delicious name that belongs to an actual fan who won a contest, if Moody’s note in the back is to be believed. Crandall won the right to write the novelization of the remake of The Crawling Hand, which is a real movie from 1963. It’s about a dead astronaut’s arm come crashing back from Mars to strangle people, and it’s probably as terrible as it sounds. I’m fairly certain it’s been given the MST3K treatment, so that might be worth seeing. Anyway. The 2025 remake, from how Crandall speaks of it in the fictionalized Afterword, is nearly as bad as the original, but that’s okay, because his novelization has almost nothing to do with it, and he glories in his publisher’s impotence to change that.

The novel is split into two parts, Book One and Book Two, framed by essays in Crandall’s (pompous) voice. He sounds like a Montese Crandall, and it honestly grates a little in the afterword–like Moody lost the fun he was having in the fictionalized Introduction and was just writing the second half of Crandall’s story for the sake of symmetry. And Crandall is a fun voice–he’s a caricature of an author, taking lengthy short stories and condensing them into single sentences that he figures totally encapsulate their meaning but are really so vague they could refer to anything… though I guess I could probably BS a paper out of that, just like I could write some dense and bloviated prose about how much of the bulk of the text, the little third person narratorial asides, are meant to be from Crandall’s perspective or from Moody’s, and whether this makes a difference in how we read the text, which quite frankly makes my head hurt and why I am not in graduate school.

But Crandall takes up a surprisingly small portion of the novel, maybe a hundred pages out of almost eight hundred. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to suggest you not get too attached to anyone–the back cover does say the severed arm is the only thing to make it back to Earth. It’s hard, though. This section is framed as the blog of Col. Jed Richards that he first writes for NASA, and then writes for himself. Space travel is… not fun, let’s say. People have a tendency to go completely bonkers in a way that I’m sure would make a wonderful, claustrophobic space-thriller–something like Pandorum. Things only get worse once they actually land on the planet, because it seems they aren’t alone… the explanation for the Crawling Space Arm is that bacteria deposited by past earth hardware has mutated in the barren Martian desert, turned into a pathogen that drives men mad and causes them to “disassemble” and seep various bodily fluids. It isn’t pretty, and like I said, only an arm makes it back to Earth intact.

The second book shifts from first to third person narration. It was jarring and unpleasant and if Moody hadn’t done such a good job with the characterization and pacing in the first half I probably would’ve put it down right then. There’s a central plot of sorts–Moody follows the arm, doling out vignettes to certain of the arm’s victims, splitting his time between several major characters, including a talking lab chimp dementedly, deeply in love with his research-assistant caretaker. These pitstops are never unpleasant, but there was always part of me wondering when we’d get back on the road, when we’d get moving again.  And oh, don’t get me started on the ending. It was too pat, too… well, too bad horror movie.

I don’t regret taking the time to finish this. I’m not sure I’ll like the rest of Moody’s fiction quite as much–I’m a sucker for the speculative, for the paranormal and for the fantastic, and as far as I’m aware this was Moody’s first foray into this seedier side of fiction. I’ve read “The Mansion of the Hill” for a class, and I enjoyed it (for the writing even, and not just for the man in the chicken suit), but I might hold off on Garden State until I’m a little closer to that quarter-life crisis stage.

The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody was first published in 2010 by Little, Brown and Company; the edition reviewed by Back Bay Books in 2011. The paperback is 725 pages.