Review: “The Red Hand”, Arthur Machen, 1895.
It’s the penultimate Dyson story and Phillipps from Machen’s The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations joins him again. Like that novel and the first Dyson story, “The Inmost Light”, this is an episodic tale, here in four parts.
Years later, in “About My Books” (which can be found in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said of this story “highly ingenious and quite inferior”.
The story opens with “The Problem of the Fish-Hooks”. Amateur ethnologist Phillipps is examining primitive fish-hooks. He pronounces them genuine. Dyson tells him he can find primitive men in London if he just looks. Besides, contrary to what Phillipps says, the fishhooks aren’t genuine artifacts and probably forgeries. Baiting him with remarks about representatives of trogolodytes, lake dwellers, and darker races to be found in London, Dyson gets Phillipps to take a walk with him.
As usual in Machen, adventure, coincidence, and mystery follow. Dyson’s intuitive wanderings are the closest thing he has to occult powers.
They come across a forlorn street. Beneath a lamp, on the pavement, an artist has scrawled some chalk marks. Nearby is a timber yard. Then, they come across a murdered man. His throat has been cut. Nearby is a piece of flint with blood on it, a flint knife. Phillipps says it looks about 10,000 years old given its style.
The crowd gathering around the body identifies him as Sir Thomas Vivian. After the police come and they give their statements, Dyson and Phillipps leave with Dyson apologizing about his “infernal jesting” seeming to have raised an “evil spirit”.
Dyson mentions a mark he saw on the wall above Vivian’s body. He sketches it, and Phillipps identifies it as a hand making the sign of the evil eye.
The “Incident of the Letter” takes place about a month later.
Dyson tells Phillips what he’s found out about Vivian’s murder.
Phillipps theorizes Vivian was mixed up with Italians and one killed him with a knife found in a museum. Dyson brings up the chalked red hand. Why draw it? A “murderer is always a madman” argues Phillipps.
Dyson then brings up the inquest report which Phillipps hasn’t seen. There was an open knife under Vivian’s body with no blood on it. If it was the murderer’s, why didn’t he use it? Also, it was dark when Vivian was killed. How did the artist see to draw the hand on the wall?
Vivian also had an odd envelope in his pocket, its outside addressed in a neat hand with the letter inside looking like it was ‘written by a Persian” who learned English. Vivian also had a notebook with entries seemingly written by the same person who addressed the letter. Lady Vivian can’t identify either hand.
The note bizarrely talks about a hand not pointing in vain, the meaning of the stars not obscure anymore, the black heaven vanishing, a celestial globe, an old orbit still unchanged, and “the number of my sign”. Dyson doesn’t have a theory about it yet, but he thinks, as he joked that night, there is an unknown world about them with
caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution.
Part three, “Search for the Vanished Heaven”, takes place “many days” later with Dyson still pondering Vivian’s murder.
We get another of Machen’s coincidences when Dyson goes into a pub after some wandering and sees a brawl between a man and a woman, with the latter pitching something at him. The bartender, recouping the loss of a bottle of whiskey the woman broke, auctions it off.
It’s a small, black tablet, about four inches by two with strange writing. Dyson buys it and examines the symbols.
Phillipps visits a few days later. All Phillipps can say about the stone is that its symbols are older than Hittite. Dyson, in one of his bits of intuition, says it bears on Vivian’s death, and Phillipps takes it away to examine it more.
A week later, he brings it back, confessing he hasn’t been able to decipher it using his “thirty-seven rules for the solution of inscriptions”. However, there was a partial label on the back of the stone designating it as part of some collection.
Dyson looks out the window, he lives near the British Museum on Great Russell Street, and sees a chalk artist working in front of the museum.
The next section is “The Artist of the Pavement” and has Phillipps back in Dyson’s apartment.
Dyson now doesn’t think Vivian was murdered but sacrificed. Dyson is watching the chalk artist again outside his window and invites Phillipps to join him.
Dyson then expounds on how he works on the “theory of improbability”. Basically, he thinks if he watches for something long enough, he’ll find it. He thinks watching the window will lead him to the interpreter of that black tablet.
Phillipps leaves, but Dyson keeps up his vigil for several days. One evening a bearded man passes the chalk artist, sees one of the drawings, and starts quivering. The man runs off. Dyson pays the chalk artist some money telling him he doesn’t have to “draw that thing again”.
We next get the “Story of the Treasure House”. At Phillipps’ house, he and Dyson talk to a man, Selby, who tells them a story.
Selby grew up in a remote part of western England. The landscape, the occult books in his father’s library, and the local legends got him interested in the notion of a treasure, hoarded by an extinct race, hidden in the nearby hills. He found a carved rock with similar signs to the black tablet.
However, the locals dug in the area, so it didn’t seem probable it was a marker for any treasure. By chance, he saw some children out playing with a rock as he walked by. It also had, like the black tablet Dyson bought and the wall above Vivian’s body, a drawing of a hand on it. He bought the rock.
That was 20 years ago. It took him all that time to decipher the stone.
In the meantime, he had to leave the country and make a living in London. Sir Thomas Vivian was poor then too, and they shared the same garret and became friends. At that time, Vivian didn’t have enough money to go to medical school. (A onetime career considered by Machen but he flunked the entrance exam.)
He shows Vivian the tablet and promises, if he helps decipher it, Vivan will share whatever treasure they find. But, after a couple of weeks, Vivian loses interest especially since a relative’s death leaves him some money, and Vivian moved out.
Selby took to walking about London every evening. Then, one evening, after thinking about Thomas De Quincey and a nickname he had for a London street, Selby had a burst of inspiration and deciphered the tablet.
He visited the location with the supposed treasure.
To keep that old promise, he planned to contact Vivian so they can share any treasure found. However, the critical black stone was stolen by his drunken landlady. (It’s obviously what Dyson purchased).
He sent a note in a “quasi-cypher” derived from the stone to Vivian and asked him to write or call him. Vivian asks to meet him at a passage in Clerkenwell known to both of them.
While waiting for Vivian, Selby picked up some chalk left by a street artist.
Arriving on scene, Vivian bumped into Selby but doesn’t even recognize him at first. The now wealthy Vivian had some distaste at meeting his still poor ex-friend.
Vivian was frightened when Selby pulled out a stone knife he found at the treasure site. Selby drew the red hand on the wall while explaining its symbolic significance. Vivian, strangely, did not want to continue talking about it there, even striking Selby’s hand away from the wall. Vivian suggested they walk north. Selby refused, claiming an appointment in the area.
Selby and Vivian walked around and then returned to the drawing. Selby tells Vivian he can touch the original “mystical hand” if joins him at the treasure site.
As Selby bent over to see the drawing, he heard “a sharp hiss of breath” behind him. Vivian had a knife out with “death threatening in his eyes”. Selby struck out with the flint knife and killed Vivian.
Dyson doesn’t even entertain the idea of telling the police any of this. He just wanted to solve a mystery, and he goes on to explain the reasoning, pretty convincing, that led him to crack the case and find Selby.
Dyson and Phillipps want to know if Selby went back to where the treasure was.
Selby gets a little emotional when he describes what happened when he went back. His face starts twitching, his face growing yellow and sweating. He says he only brought back one thing “Because the keepers are still there”.
He shows the two men an object, a bit of gold work dubbed by Selby “the Pain of the Goat” (another Pan allusion from Machen). They find it hideous.
Selby said the beings he met are “little higher than the beasts”.
It’s an entertaining story, but I think it has a weakness in never explaining why Vivian tried to kill Selby. Perhaps it was for the stone and the money but, if that’s the case, he would have waited for Selby to give the location of the treasure. Perhaps the evil eye drawing made Vivian think Selby was in league with Italians, a group Vivian might have cause to fear given some past, scandalous dealings with them.
In the story’s final paragraph, Phillipps expresses his disbelief in Selby’s story. Dyson concludes, rather ambiguously, “I do not know that, after all, my blunders in this queer case were so very absurd.” Is he saying perhaps thinking of his early statement Vivian’s death was a “sacrifice” or that they would actually come across a primitive human in the shadows of a London night? Does he think, like the liars he met in The Three Impostors, Selby told him a half lie, half because he had the stone and bit of gold work? Did Vivian’s death really happen in the way Selby claimed.
Perhaps those unanswered questions are what caused Machen to call his story “inferior”.