Reviewed by Scott A. Johnson
Written by Gary A. Braunbeck
Published by Leisure Books
A half-deserted bar in a small town in Pennsylvania becomes the backdrop for a bizarre and macabre tale in this latest offering by Stoker Award-winning novelist Gary A. Braunbeck. Seated at the end of a bar, a young transient orders a drink, his eyes ablaze with the type of story that the regulars at the Hangman Bar are all too familiar with. When he produces a small hand-carved doll with stubs for legs, enormous hands, and a grinning skull for a face, the story he tells is just the type best enjoyed in a dark smoky bar, where alcohol both dulls the senses and steadies the nerves. The doll, he says, is named Mr. Hands.
Tales of revenge taken through inanimate objects or avenging spirits litter horror literature. The theme is so common that it has become a staple, leading to the creation of creatures like Pumpkinhead and the Zuni fetish warrior doll. Braunbeck, however, tackles the subject with fresh vigor, weaving a tale that is guaranteed to disturb even the most jaded of horror fans. Beginning with an unlikely story of a serial killer, the tale takes an unexpected turn through the eyes of a woman whose daughter is abducted from a parking-lot carnival. It is her rage and hatred that drives her to study every child abuse case she comes across, and that same rage and hatred gives birth to the creature Mr. Hands. What follows are both vivid descriptions of the worst child abuse cases ever seen and harsh punishments for the people responsible.
Braunbeck makes it a point to introduce characters that are memorable and, more often than not, flawed in such a way that they become believable in the eyes of the reader. From the mysterious storyteller to the tortured serial killer and the grieving mother, each character is given his or her say, their points of view explored, giving the reader insight into each of their psyches and reasons for their actions. While the reasons might not always be the sorts of things that normal, well-adjusted people enact, normal well-adjusted people aren’t fun to read about. Nor are they the subjects of compelling literature. Braunbeck has once again demonstrated his ability to disturb through this tale that seems like a personal statement against abuse.
Also included in this release is Braunbeck’s Stoker Award-winning novella Kiss of the Mudman. While many authors tack a short story or two onto a book to fill space, Mudman seems to belong here. Taking a few characters from Mr. Hands, characters who seem intriguing and who deserve to have their stories told, Mudman takes place in a homeless shelter in the dead of winter. While out on “popsicle patrol,” a run to gather the homeless before they freeze to death, a priest and a volunteer are startled to watch Jim Morrison climb into their van. Other dead musicians show up, each headed to the shelter because of a dried-up 80’s glam-band star who has summoned not only them, but something that could bring an end to life through music. To be sure, Mudman is a strange story, but one told with lyrical beauty and with the same attention to characterization for which Braunbeck is known. It is a welcome addition to this volume.
On the whole, Mr. Hands is not for everyone. Some of the scenes contained in the story were almost too brutal, made all the more so in that such scenes are not fiction, but reality for anyone who works for Child Protective Services. Braunbeck’s novel seems something akin to a cry for justice for these children. Past the harsh reality is a classic tale of revenge fueled by loss and sorrow where those who hunt monsters can assuredly become one themselves.
4 out of 5
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