This will hardly be the first time that I have mentioned editor/author Karl Edward Wagner, and his so-called KEW 39 list, in one of my reviews here. But ever since 1983, when the list first appeared in the pages of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, it has been used as a guide of sorts by horror readers in search of something different. Those 39 novels were divided amongst three categories: The 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels, The 13 Best Science-Fiction Horror Novels, and The 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels. In that first category, I have already discussed five of the 13 here – Walter S. Masterman’s The Yellow Mistletoe (1930), Abraham Merritt’s Burn, Witch, Burn (1932), R. R. Ryan’s Echo of a Curse (1939), H. B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary (1940), and William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel (1978) – and would now like to tell you of my latest reading experience from this list; namely, J.U. Nicolson’s Fingers of Fear.
Unlike some of those other titles, Fingers of Fear has not been quite so difficult to acquire over the decades. The book was originally released in 1937 by the NY-based publisher Covici-Friede; a $2 hardcover with memorable cover art by one Arthur Hawkins. After going OOPs (out of prints) for almost 30 years, it was revived in 1966 for the Paperback Library Gothic series, sporting one of those woman-fleeing-from-spooky-looking-house covers (perhaps you’re familiar with the kind I mean?), this one by George Ziel. The novel would then go OOPs for another 35 years, till Midnight House opted to resurrect it in 2001, this time featuring a cover sporting a woman standing in front of another creepy abode, one with the shadow of a devil on it, done by Allen Koszowski. Valancourt Books would reissue the novel again in 2015 (the edition that I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on), this edition boasting the novel’s original Hawkins artwork, and I believe that the publisher called Nodens Books has since come out with its own edition, in 2018. And so today, the book should not pose any problem for prospective readers to acquire. And that is a happy state of affairs, because my recent perusal of Fingers of Fear has revealed it to be quite the doozy of an experience.
Before getting into the details of the book, however (or at least, as many as I may discuss without spoiling things for others), a brief word on the author himself; very brief, I’m afraid, as just about all the information I could find on J. U. Nicolson was the one-paragraph biography in this Valancourt edition. John Urban Nicolson was born in 1885 in Alma, Kansas, and released three volumes of poetry from 1924 – ’25, as well as translations of The Canterbury Tales and the poetry of the 15th century French poet Francois Villon. Fingers of Fear is his only novel, sadly enough. Nicolson passed away in 1944, at age 59, at which time, according to Valancourt, he was the manager of a storage warehouse in New Hampshire.
Now, as to Fingers of Fear itself, the book is narrated to us by a New Yorker in his early 30s named Selden Seaverns (not Seaforth, as this Valancourt edition tells us on its back cover). By June of 1933, when his story begins, Selden was in pretty desperate straits, having lost his job, all of his money (except for 68 cents), and his wife Muriel as the Depression Era only got worse. But out of the blue had come potential salvation: An old college acquaintance, Ormond Ormes, had offered him the job of organizing the library at Ormesby – his family estate in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts – and writing a book concerning the Elizabethan Influence on Colonial Literature, the writing of which would fulfill the requirements of a will and net Ormond $100,000. Though wholly unsuited for the job, Seaverns had happily accepted the offer, driving up with Ormes to the lonely estate that very night. There, he had met the oddball occupants of the house: Ormes’ sister Gray, who never wandered far from the property and who was mistress over a pack of vicious police dogs; Barbara, the 30-year-old invalid aunt of the 30-year-old Ormond; Ormes’ wife Agnes; the servants, Hobbs and his wife Alice; and another few whom perhaps I should not mention.
Strange events had begun to occur on the very evening of Selden’s arrival. Invisible claws had seemed to touch at his throat, and he’d awoken on his first morning at Ormesby with a sucking wound on his neck. In the house’s library, he’d seen what he took to be a ghost – the so-called Lady in Mauve – and had discovered a secret passage hidden behind a panel in his bedroom closet. Gray had told him some truly horrible stories concerning the Ormes family history, immediately before the woman had gone berserk, attacked Selden, and later ran naked, screaming and frothing into the night. But then matters had grown even more serious, when Selden had come upon the body of Agnes in the estate’s garage, her head practically severed from her body! And this had only been the beginning of Selden’s experiences at Ormesby, in a tale that conflates, vampirism, lycanthropy, family curses, madness, incest, vicious canines, secret passages, ghosts, a hidden fortune in government bonds, multiple-multiple murders, suicide, braining, a family portrait with living eyes, and skeletons. (While it is true that many families have a few skeletons in their closet, not many, I have a feeling, have them in their basement … and wall safe!) Is it any wonder, then, that Selden tells us early on “But my God! What a nest of murderers, maniacs and villains I had stumbled into!”
Writing in his excellent overview volume Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books, author H. R. F. Keating mentions the formula for successful crime fiction that the British novelist Margery Allingham had once given him: “a surprise every 10 pages and a shock every 20.” Well, it seems to me that not only was J. U. Nicolson instinctively aware of this secret, but managed to up the ante considerably … by quadrupling it! Thus, in this book, practically every page, remarkably enough, contains some kind of surprising revelation or shocking incident, be it a bit of the Ormes family history, the appearance of an unexpected character, a homicide, a supernatural visitation, or a plot twist; no wonder, then, that The New York Times hyperbolically wrote of the novel “Piles horror upon horror until there is not a shiver left in the reader’s spine”! And, I may add, this novel really does fall into the supernatural category, so those readers who hate being gypped with a rationalized explanation for macabre doings will not be disappointed here. This is not one of those “weird-menace” stories that were so popular in the 1930s, in which outre events are ultimately revealed to be faked, but rather, a genuinely bizarre story combining some dreadful family secrets with the aforementioned ghosts, vampires and werewolves. It really is quite a family abode that poor Selden has landed himself in! And oh, what a bunch all the characters are here! Each of them, we see in retrospect, has his or her fair share of concealed secrets; each has a remarkable backstory, as well as a private agenda for the present. I should also mention that the body count in Fingers of Fear is a high one – practically total, in fact – and that the book is pleasingly violent, even at times gruesome, what with its torn-out throats, that beheading, German shepherds consuming people, and on and on.
I wish I could tell you about some of those amazing plot twists and shocking events that transpire herein, but at the same time wouldn’t want to ruin any of the fun for the prospective reader. But I don’t think I’d be spoiling your experience too much by mentioning just a few of the book’s remarkable scenes, among them Selden seeing one of the keys on the Ormes library’s typewriter (the letter “O”) depress itself, immediately before the Lady in Mauve appears; Gray’s attack upon Selden in that same library, before she runs frothing and naked into the night; the discovery of Agnes’ body in that blood-drenched automobile; the thrilling dukeout that Seaverns has with the much bulkier Ormond Ormes; the loosing of the canine pack to dispose of some inconvenient corpses; and Selden’s exploration of the hidden crypt beneath the Ormes abode. All these scenes carry a shocking charge even for the modern reader; how they must have stunned Nicolson’s readers back in 1937! And how those same readers must have reacted to the icky and distasteful tales of incest and other taboo matters in the Ormes family history is anybody’s guess!
Fingers of Fear is a remarkably well-written book for a first-time novelist, and it is to be regretted that Nicolson could not have given the world another book in this same, uh, vein. The book, indeed, is well-nigh unputdownable, especially since the first 80 percent of it transpires nonstop over the course of three very long days and nights. Many of the story’s mysteries, I might add, go unexplained by the final page, but isn’t that the very nature of supernatural happenings? The fact that many of the events depicted cannot be analyzed rationally only adds to the macabre nature of the story; in the case of this particular book, I was still left highly satisfied even without that full disclosure … and closure. This novel was the perfect accompaniment for me over the course of several October evenings, and did provide some undeniably chilling moments.
Having said all that, I am also compelled to add that the book does come with some minor problems. For one thing, the plot is so very recomplicated that it is at moments a tad hard to follow, with explanations superseding other explanations, multiple theories competing with each other, and characters whose motivations are continuously suspect. Making matters for the reader even more problematic is the fact that one of the characters (no, I won’t reveal which one) is apparently able to mentally control the others from a distance! Thus, you will surely need to pay attention here as you proceed. Some of Nicolson’s descriptions, despite the generally fine prose, are a bit hard to visualize, too; I am thinking specifically of that underground crypt, and the cistern within it. Your inner eye might be sorely taxed during this passage … “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Nicolson also seems to have made a few booboos during the course of his writing here; not surprising, considering the novel’s complexity. For one thing, he mentions a character who had died with the forefinger of his left hand extended; 140 pages later, that forefinger is said to be on the right hand. Too, one of the characters (I am trying to be coy here) is said to have attacked her aunt, when in actuality, it was her sister-in-law who had been set upon. But these are all minor matters. The bottom line is that Fingers of Fear does indeed live up to its reputation as a supernatural classic, now 86 years after its debut. Karl Edward Wagner is to be thanked for shining a spotlight on it, as is Valancourt Books for making it readily accessible in a handsome edition. All fans of beautifully written supernatural fiction with a Gothic cast should certainly emulate one of the Ormes here, and pounce…