Thursday, March 12, 2009

"The Red Right Hand" by Joel Townsley Rogers (Simon and Schuster, 1945)

A hallucinatory account of one devilish night on the back roads of New England with a murderous maniac on the loose, Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand (Simon and Schuster, 1945) is the rare psychological thriller that actually disturbs the reader’s equilibrium. All sense of balance and logic is sent on a tailspin that moves further and further off course, never righting itself. Even in its wonderfully and preposterously slapstick finale, The Red Right Hand abides by no rules and leaves you flabbergasted as to how such a fiendish novel could ever be assembled by a sane mind.

Like a perpetual downward spiral, the narrator of The Red Right Hand – one Dr. Henry N. Riddle, Jr. – repeatedly goes over the same gruesome events, as though in search of not only an answer, but proof of his own sanity. Here is how the story begins:

"There is one thing that is most important, in all the dark mystery of tonight, and that is how that ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height, and all the other extraordinary details about him, could have got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside after killing Inis St. Erme."

If the facts are to be believed, the killer was a hitchhiker picked up by St. Erme and his fiancé, Elinor Darrie. When the hitchhiker attacked the two lovers, St. Erme fought back – and lost. Meanwhile, Ms. Darrie escaped. The hitchhiker stole the car and kidnapped St. Erme. The car was later found along with St. Erme’s corpse…which was missing its right hand. Several other bodies lay dead in the car’s path. But one thing has Dr. Henry N. Riddle, Jr. puzzled – why didn’t he see the car that night? He was on the same road all night, yet he neither saw nor heard any sign of the maniac.

So, the spiral continues, with Riddle returning to the central events over and over again, but always from a slightly different perspective. But the closer to the truth Riddle comes, the farther away he seems. Impossibility is the only possibility, surreality the only reality - unless Riddle himself is the answer to this illogical equation. Could he be the killer?

Joel Townsley Roger’s lucid prose captures Riddle’s own compulsive, psychological instability. Some passages read like Henry Miller-style stream of consciousness, with paragraphs consisting of solely one sentence that go on for more than a page. Other passages consist of short, terse sentences. These fluctuations in style prevent the reader from ever pinning down Riddle – we are never sure whether we are reading the ramblings of a madman or the objective observations of a purely rational mind.

Structurally, The Red Right Hand defies every accepted convention. The narrative is not an “arc” but, instead, a conical wrap-around, like a carousel of horror that switches horses trying to find the perfect viewpoint, but never finding it. The few flashbacks are brief and serve only to contextualize the central murder. Much like Riddle, the author refuses to allow the reader’s mind to wander from this surreal, fiendish plot for even a second.

Often if can be difficult to find information about the personal lives of pulp writers. Thankfully, Rogers’ son, Tom, has compiled an extensive biography and bibliography and published it online. Detailing his background at Harvard, experience during World War I, and his entry into the pulps as an editor, this biography is a blessing to readers and fans of The Red Right Hand. As if that weren’t enough, Ramble House Books has made available many of Rogers’ rarest novels! Thank you, Fender Tucker, for keeping Rogers’ work in readers' hands.

Lovers of language can do no better than to read The Red Right Hand. Rogers’ playful and virtuoso prose is delectably intoxicating.

“One only thinks of something as inhuman which should be human. And perhaps is, in part.”

“It is the thing which I must do now, to the exclusion of all else. There is a killer loose. There is a malignancy to be located and excided. It is a problem in diagnosis, nothing more.”

“Through the open window at my right hand the mingled odor of yellow roses and damp night grass and rich black garden earth comes in. Moths are fluttering against the copper window screen, with soft repeated bumping of their white dusty bodies, their crimson eyes reflecting in the light.”

“Unistaire lay ten feet from me, already partly buried, with his feet upward on the sliding slope, his head down. With a great red gash across where his throat had been, as wide as the mouth of a tiger laughing.”

“The figure of something – animal or human – swung into my headlights on the driveway in front of the porch steps, crouching on all fours among the debris. It wore a leopard skin and a pale purple gown, and had a feather duster fastened to its stern like a rooster’s tail. It leaped up with a rabbit scream and away from in front of my lights as I came around at it, and went rushing up the steps like something in a surrealist’s dream…”

“What you need is to believe with all your soul in phantasms which cannot possibly exist.”

5 comments:

  1. Sounds as batty as a Bale!What a great opening line!

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  2. I agree with Paul about that opener. Anyone who writes "ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man" in the same sentence with "sharp dog-pointed teeth" is an author I want to know more about.

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  3. Sounds intriguing. Checked into availability and it looks like there are lots of cheap copies of this around (at least in later editions). I'll check it out.

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  4. If any of you read the book, I certainly hope you enjoy it. Please let me know what you think!

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  5. I salute you, Cullen for honoring another forgotten masterpiece.
    You rightly point to the most important, namely the hallucinatory aspect of this book. The reader feels the scary atmosphere in his bones. The ending does not disappoint. The writing is first class. And, my God, what an opening paragraph!
    (By the way, I was the Turkish translator of this book in the 70s.
    http://www.cinairoman.com/seriler.php?d=1,12,249&item=5421

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