31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 17: “The Moving Finger” by Stephen King

May 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Nightmares & Dreamscapes

Nightmares_and_Dreamscapes_Stephen_KingIn the introduction to his 1985 story collection Skeleton Crew, Stephen King compares the novel to “a long and satisfying affair,” while the short story is like “a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” The critic Kathleen Margaret Lant has penned some interesting commentary on the sexualized nature of King’s posture as literary seducer here, although it is probably possible to push this line of inquiry too far – after all, what author of fiction does not attempt to seduce his (or her) readers in one way or another? What is more interesting about King’s comment is its emphasis on danger and surprise: stories do not contain the same built-in safety mechanisms as novels, which, no matter how difficult or esoteric, cannot help but become familiar over the course of several hundred pages. In their brevity and tight focus, stories have the power to blindside a reader.

Sometimes, a reader is blindsided by a story’s lack of resolution or explication; the close focus on a particular incident or thought or instant in time precludes the kind of panoramic field of vision that might supply tidy context or meaning. The writer Rebecca Rosenblum has suggested that short stories provide a glimpse of what happened in a given moment, but don’t offer the before or after, and, significantly, withhold the why. Or, as King writes in a note at the end of Nightmares & Dreamscapes, “My favorite sort of short story has always been the kind where things happen just because they happen.”

“The Moving Finger” is such a story. The central phenomenon – a human finger inexplicably extruding from the drain in the protagonist’s bathroom sink – is never explained in any rational way. The story’s central character, Howard Mitla, hears a strange scratching emanating from his bathroom one evening while he is watching Jeopardy and, upon investigating, discovers the rogue digit poking out of the basin drain:

For a moment it froze, as if aware it had been discovered. Then it began to move again, feeling its wormlike way around the pink porcelain. It reached the white rubber plug, felt its way over it, then descended to the porcelain again. The scratching noise hadn’t been made by the tiny claws of a mouse after all. It was the nail on the end of that finger, tapping the porcelain as it circled and circled.

Howard, “one of New York’s lesser known certified public accountants,” is an intelligent man – at least to the extent that he is able to best all the contestants on Jeopardy – but he is unable to comprehend the appearance of the malevolent finger in his bathroom, and is alternately comforted and aggravated by the fact that his wife does not also see the intruder. Howard initially believes he is hallucinating as a result of undiagnosed epilepsy or a brain tumour, but becomes increasingly unhinged as the finger from the drain appears to grow in size, poking over the rim of the basin and adding joints each time it manifests itself.

The accountant’s attempts to deal with the problem likewise become more and more outrageous, beginning with him refusing to enter the bathroom (he urinates in the alleyway outside his apartment and in his kitchen sink), and continuing through a frenzied trip to the local hardware store, where he purchases a bottle of industrial strength drain cleaner and a pair of electric garden shears.

King’s premise is patently absurd, but it is this very absurdity that paradoxically lends the story its energy. The bizarre situation builds in intensity until the climactic showdown between Howard and the finger, now grown to gargantuan proportions; this confrontation scene is presented as gleeful Grand Guignol, complete with flesh burnt by corrosive drain cleaner, vomit-covered hair, and fountains of blood.

In his notes at the back of the collection, King attempts to position this story as a kind of existential fable about horrible things happening to essentially decent people, though this may be gilding the lily; at its core the story is a brisk, sick, twisted vignette about an ordinary man attempting to deal with a patently ridiculous situation. (Freudians will have a field day with the phallic nature of the villain in this piece.) But it is this very ridiculousness that allows King to get away with his extravagances and exaggerations here. One of the pervasive elements in “The Moving Finger” is humour: something that crops up in a lot of King’s work, but is often not commented upon, except in a highly dismissive and perfunctory manner. The absurdity of the situation is precisely the point here: the reader accepts the premise as a given in the context of the story, even as Howard is literally driven insane by the unwanted presence in his pissoir.

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