Atmosphere in The Hands

Atmosphere in The Hands

My second analysis from The Big Book of Science Fiction will be The Hands by John Baxter. The short story doesn’t have a free online version. If you’d like to read it, you’ll have to buy the anthology (which you should do anyway because it is excellent). As always, this is not a review. There may be spoilers for those who haven’t read the story. If you would like to know why I take this stance, please see this post. Otherwise, away we go.

The Hands begins with seven men returning to Earth from an alien world known as Huxley. They returned before an enormous crowd, and we learn what happened to them.

They let Vitti go first because he was the one with two heads [. . .]. After he walked down the ramp, they followed him. Sloane with his third and fourth legs folded like the furled wings of a butterfly on his back; Tanizaki, still quiet, unreadable, Asiatic, despite the bulge inside his belly that made him look like a woman eight months gone with child; and the rest of them. Seven earth men who had been tortured by outsiders.

The story unfolds through third-person limited, focusing on Binns. Like the rest of the men, Binns has extra anatomy: another pair of hands. Shit gets creepy real quick when we understand how little their anatomical change disturbs the returned men, in contrast to the doctors, psychiatrists, and politicians, who are disgusted and shaken.

On Huxley, [Binns] had never felt different, and even when they left Huxley Kolo had made them feel that there was nothing wrong in having another arm or leg or some extra organs.

[. . .]

“How did they make you. . . I mean. . . .”

“You mean, how did they change us?” Binns said.


Sloane laughed. “They didn’t make us,” he said. “We did it ourselves.”

“Things are different on Huxley,” Vitti said. “Up there, this is normal. Everybody can grow and change to suit themselves. If you want to be a foot taller. . . well, you just grow a foot taller. Physically, they aren’t very different to us. This is just a sort. . . well, a sort of trick they’ve learned. They taught it to us.”

“But why did you grow these. . . appendages?”

“We don’t know,” Binns said. “Kolo just snapped his fingers and. . .” He shrugged. There was nothing else to be said.”

Like Standing Woman (analyzed last week here), the creepy and unsettling atmosphere derives from the feeling that the protagonists should not be thinking that everything is alright, that there is something deeply wrong, yet there is no explicit evidence things should not be this way. Key phrases imply what may have happened and what will happen in the end:

  • He felt nothing sharply, with real emotion.
  • He no longer had the ability to be terrified.
  • “I feel. . . odd. I’m wondering why I asked you that.”
  • Inside the hood on his chest, the hands were stirring slightly.
  • He wondered about the voice, but without real interest. It was not his problem.

The Hands builds its atmosphere by giving just enough that the readers know something isn’t right and withholding just enough that readers can imagine how terrifying it may be. The story builds atmosphere through impressions, specifically, through adverbs and adjectives.

Read this passage at the beginning of the story:

After the medical examinations they were brought back to the big room again for more questioning. Everybody was very quiet and very understanding. Binns wished they could be a little less reverent. It made him feel different and this disturbed him. On Huxley, he had never felt different, and even when they left Huxley Kolo had made them feel that there was nothing wrong in having another arm or leg or some extra organs. He almost wished that Kolo was back with him. When he had been there, the group had been complete. Now it was wrong, out of balance. Something was missing.

Here is a list of the descriptors in the above passage.

  • Big
  • Quiet
  • Understanding
  • Reverent
  • Different
  • Different
  • Wrong
  • Extra
  • Complete
  • Wrong
  • Missing

I tried to draw a graph in Google Drawings to convey what the emotional path of this passage felt like to me, but it reeked of hokum so I stopped. While I like combining literature and math, I don’t enough enough about either to confidently conclude anything about descriptors and their placement through a short passage.

Hopefully you can see what I mean in the passage.

As the story continues, visual elements, combined with the descriptors, build to an inevitable yet surprising conclusion. Another short story in the anthology does this even better (The Man Who Lost the Sea, partially analyzed here with a link to read free online). Other stories that do this well are those in the horror genre. Horror is not my favorites genre, but if you have recommendations, please shout them out to me. Thank you again for reading, and the next analysis should be up by next week.

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