Stephen King Short Story Project, #5: “The Moving Finger”

The story: “The Moving Finger,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1990. Wikipedia entry here. No relation, as far as I know, to the Miss Marple novel… although the mind reels at the possibility.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An ordinary, unremarkable man thinks he’s losing his mind when he notices a too-long, moving human finger poking up out of his bathroom sink drain. Things escalate as Howard Mitla wages a one-man war against the horror in his bathroom.

My thoughts: One of the simplest formulas for a horror or suspense story is to start with a thoroughly ordinary character, drop an unexpected threat into their life, and sit back and watch as they either fall apart or rise to the challenge. In “The Moving Finger,” poor protagonist Howard Mitla does a little bit of both.

Howard is a typical King everyman character, nice and a little dull and a lot like you or me. King might have chosen any number of traditional horror threats with which to menace him—ghosts, zombies, vampires, serial killers, etc.—but instead we’re plunged deep into “WTF?!” territory when Howard enters his bathroom to discover that a human finger is inexplicably poking out of the sink drain, feeling its way around. The fact that a) this makes no sense and b) the finger never appears when his wife is around initially convinces Howard that he’s hallucinating.

This is a familiar situation for horror-story protagonists to find themselves in; since I’ve been referencing The Twilight Zone so much in these write-ups, I’ll point you to “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which an airplane passenger’s sanity is called into question when he, but nobody else, notices a gremlin running around on the airplane’s wing. King lovingly details Howard’s efforts to deny and rationalize what he’s seen.

“The Moving Finger” takes place in a Queens apartment, no doubt to better capitalize on the old urban legend about monsters in the New York sewers. Add to that one of humanity’s less dignified fears, that something’s going to grab us while we’re in the shower or on the toilet, and you have the recipe for a story that can gross us out while making us laugh at its sheer ridiculousness.

Part of the fun is in King’s attention to the kinds of details that other writers would disregard. Unable to mentally cope with the grander implications of what he’s seeing, Howard focuses instead on a very practical problem with having a monster in your bathroom: where exactly are you going to “go”? Much of the story hilariously follows Howard’s efforts to overcome this logistical challenge, and his inability to find a long-term workable bathroom solution is what finally pushes him to deal with the finger in a more direct way: liquid drain cleaner and, when that fails, a pair of hedge trimmers.

While the first half of the story is at least mildly creepy, things tip into black comedy once Howard decides to employ violence to get rid of the finger, which is by now acting more aggressively (it’s grown several feet long and is probing around the apartment). As his sanity slips away, Howard’s dialogue fills up with very recognizeably Stephen King-style insane, comic banter. Howard finally achieves a gory victory over his impossible nemesis, but at the cost of his mind; and the story’s very funny closing sentences suggest that the war has not been won.

This story was so fun to read, and so packed with entertaining details, that’s it’s a struggle to not just gush praise for it. It’s King at his pulpy best: it’s gross, it’s funny, and it’s a little bit creepy. It’s got some more of the charmingly cantankerous married-couple banter we saw in “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band,” and it showcases King’s love of pop-culture references (Howard is obsessed with Jeopardy). There’s not a lot to take seriously here, although King does supply a by-now familiar, and somewhat out of place, bit on the Problem of Evil. Pardon me if I quote at length:

“What exactly happened in here, Mr. Mitla?” [police officer] O’Bannion asked. “And what have you stored in the toilet?”

“What happened? It was like… like…” Howard trailed off, and then began to smile. It was a relieved smile… but his eyes kept creeping back to the closed lid of the toilet. “It was like Jeopardy,” he said. “In fact, it was like Final Jeopardy. The category is The Inexplicable. The Final Jeopardy question is: ‘Because they can.’ Do you know what the Final Jeopardy question is, Officer?”

Fascinated, but unable to take his eyes from Howard’s, Officer O’Bannion shook his head.

“The Final Jeopardy question,” Howard said in a voice that was cracked and roughened from screaming, “is: ‘Why do terrible things sometimes happen to the nicest people?’ That’s the Final Jeopardy question. It’s all going to take a lot of thought. But I have plenty of time. As long as I stay away from the… the holes.”

Definitely the most fun story so far in my Stephen King short story project.

Next up: “The Raft,” from Skeleton Crew.

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