Friday, February 26, 2010

"The Scarred Hand" ("I Accuse Myself")

"The Scarred Hand" was originally published in the November 1946 issue of Doc Savage, making it one of the earliest John D MacDonald stories to see print. The author's first work to hit the newsstands -- "Cash on the Coffin" -- had appeared only six months before and his first story sold appeared in July of that year. And thanks to its inclusion in JDM's second pulp anthology More Good Old Stuff, it is the earliest of his mystery-crime stories I have read.

It's a story that owes much to the style of Cornell Woolrich, as does much of MacDonald's early pulp work, with it's amnesiac protagonist, uncertain reality and the feeling of inevitable doom. JDM was obviously still in a learning phase and was borrowing, sometimes in the development of his own writing style and at other times in writing for a particular market. Yet there are already some of the characteristic markings of the author's own voice in description and dialogue, and the seasoned JDM reader will at once recognize some of the often-used literary devices such as the childhood memory-metaphor, the symbolic dream, and the tiny detail that becomes the story's fulcrum. Oh, and a great surprise ending that is either reality or nightmare.

The setting of "The Scarred Hand" is a hospital room, a place we never leave except in the thoughts and memories of Peter Warlow. He awakens to the random, scattered thoughts and images of a man coming up from a long sleep, unaware of the borderline that separates reality from dream. He hears a constant siren sound in his ears, yet it really sounds like a woman's scream. Unable to remember who or where he is, he concentrates on the random tactile impressions he receives:

"On some days he could see the pain... [It] looked like the edge of a razor held close to the eye. It stretched off for miles toward a Dali horizon, each bitter blur on its edge grating like teeth on crushed glass."
At one point a woman comes to visit him, "...tall, with pale hair and colorless eyes. Her face was wide and white." (See, some things never change!)

Then a man in white, a humorless doctor with a "high sharp voice." Once he determines that Peter can understand what he is saying, he explains what has happened. Peter has undergone a prefrontal lobotomy (!), "the first time it was ever done on a sane man to relieve the internal pressure of a complex skull fracture." It's going to play tricks on his memory for a while, but he will recover rapidly. The doctor and the woman leave. Later on a fat little man smoking a cigar appears. He explains that he is a cop named Kroschik, and he wants to know if Peter can remember anything about what happened at "the office." Suddenly he remembers he worked in an office. Kroschik helps him out:

"All we know is that the four of you were working late on a Friday night about a month ago. Three guys and a girl. She was a little blondie named Clarissa Paine, but everybody called her Sandy. I'd say she was a cute little piece. The other two guys were J. Howard Jones, a fat guy who is your boss, and Trent Welch, a red-headed college kid who does part-time stuff for Jones."
Jones told the police that he heard a big argument and found Peter and Sandy yelling at each other. Then Peter grabbed a gun and shot Sandy in the head. Jones grabbed a heavy desktop tape dispenser and threw it at Peter, hitting him squarely in the forehead and sending him to the hospital. Kroschik wants to know if Peter can remember any of it. Peter "couldn't feel that he had done such a thing," and does not remember any argument. When he asks the cop why he needs Peter to answer when he already has him "hooked," he is told that they need some blanks filled in, since all of Peter's books balance and he has no big stash in the bank. They were unable to lift any prints off of the gun and want to know if he and Sandy were having an affair.

But "the mists of his mind wouldn't clear," and Kroschik leaves without answers. Then, that night, he remembers everything: his hand holding the gun, his scarred finger squeezing the trigger, Sandy falling down behind a desk, her eyes narrowing, the blood matting her hair. "It was too clear -- too vivid. It could have been no one else." He begins to call for Kroschik. 

"Get the police! Get Kroschik! Tell him I can remember!"

The story proceeds predictably, and then it doesn't. In the end MacDonald leaves the reader in Woolrich country, where reality and fantasy are indistinguishable, and where redemption is a gift rarely given.

"The Scarred Hand" is an entertaining and at times frightening tale, and despite heavy borrowings of both style and substance, it is a joy to read. It's fun to encounter MacDonald before he became such a realist, when he toyed with the workings of a damaged or healing mind, when he leaves his stories in a vast uncertainty. It reminds me of his 1950 story "Miranda," whose ending is equally as enigmatic but whose style is far more polished.

It is perhaps unnerving for the modern reader to confront a prefrontal lobotomy used as an accepted medical therapy, but that's just what it was in 1946. While we generally think of works of fiction like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or The Bell Jar in reminding us of the horrors of the procedure, it was an oft-performed means of dealing with then-untreatable psychiatric conditions. I think immediately of Rosemary Kennedy, or Tennessee Williams' sister who he seemed to be haunted by. It was popular in most Western nations, although the Soviet Union banned it, calling the procedure "contrary to the principles of humanity." When you've got the Soviet Union standing on higher moral ground than the rest of the world, it should be a reason for pause. The procedure was at the height of its practice when "The Scarred Hand" was written, so it should not be a surprise that JDM used it as a plot device.

MacDonald "updated" the story for its inclusion in More Good Old Stuff, but those changes don't have any jarring effects. A radio is changed to a television, but that's all I can spot. He obviously didn't change the medical procedure, as lobotomies were rarely, if ever, performed in the United States in 1984. He also used his original story title, "I Accuse Myself," which makes it sound even more like a Cornell Woolrich tale.

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