“One Hand in the Coffin” by Justin C. Key (2021 Ignyte Awards)

“One Hand in the Coffin” can be read online at Strange Horizons.

Corey, sharing a ninth birthday with his twin sister Alisha, makes a wish as he blows out the candles: he wishes for his dead brother Michael to be back. With Michael gone, he has had nobody to defend him from bullies, as even his best friend Patrick fails to stick up for him. The party concludes with Corey taking his therapy puppet – procured by his doctor, who “made him talk about Michael and bathtubs and redness” while operating the doll – and using it to put on an impromptu puppet show:

The puppet turned to the audience. “Hey, Fat-trick, get off the phone. McDonald’s doesn’t deliver.” The crackling stopped. “Your friends are making you soft, Corey.”
“Michael,” Corey whispered. The puppet looked at him. “I’m telling Mom.”
“Tell her and I’ll shave Alisha’s hair off. And you’ll watch, you weak little shit.”
“Awww,” the carrotcake-stuffing, name-calling kid said. “He said a bad word! Ma! Corey said a bad word!”
The Carrotcake Kid ran around the corner towards the roaring grown-up laughter. His tattletale wails soon drifted up and over. Mom said something Corey couldn’t make out. Patrick was already to the front door. Corey swallowed. His tongue tickled the roof of his mouth. He rubbed his puppet-bound fingers together. His scalp itched. Someone’s watch kept ticking. In between breaths, Corey’s stomach thrummed with the beat of his heart.

Once the party is over, the awkward conversation between Corey and his mother reveals an intricate web of family relations – a web that now has a gaping hole left by Michael’s death. Strife between the two brothers led to Corey wishing that Michael was dead, and so he is left with the guilt of his wish apparently having come true. Alisha – a special-needs girl who seems to struggle with talking about anything other than her toy dinosaurs – shows her grief in a more subtle manner (“Corey had only seen Alisha look one person in the eye, and that was their older brother”). The children’s father walked out before Michael’s death, with the single mother is left with a full plate and a drinking habit.

The story’s fantasy aspect involves the puppet, which has come to symbolise both Michael and the absence of Michael. Corey becomes convinced that he has seen it move by itself, a sight so disturbing that he finds it hard to concentrate in school (a task that his dyslexia makes hard enough: “his weakest subjects at school are anything where words could break apart on the page and swim around each other”). In one scene Corey looks into Michael’s old bedroom, smells cigarette smoke, sees the TV turned on to Michael’s favourite show, and even hears Michael’s laughter – yet nobody is there besides the puppet. While all of this is happening, the story delves into more of the family’s past, particularly the cruel streak developed by Michael after their father moved out:

He thought of the catch-the-mousetrap game. Once, Corey had refused to play, so Alisha took his place. Although she’d won, she hadn’t cried. She walked around the apartment for the next week, hitting her fingers on the edges of things, over and over and over, until they were raw red. Michael’s laughter was short-lived. He wore rather the look of a worried child who has likely broken his favorite toy. Corey had slept with Dad’s switchblade after that.

The poltergeist-like phenomena surrounding the puppet begin to manifest a similar cruelty, even locking Alisha in the bathroom.

The creepy puppet is a common enough motif in horror, yet a hard one to put to good use: once the uncanny valley factor is played out, it almost inevitably becomes silly rather than scary. “One Hand in the Coffin”, however, knows exactly how to use its central image. Corey manipulates the puppet to articulate his feelings about Michael; the story does the same, using the eerie goings-on to bring the family’s trauma to the surface. The scenes of the puppet sitting around watching South Park are not particularly scary in themselves, but they are intended less as the stuff of horror and more as a surreal opening to the real meat of the story: this is evident when we flash back to the exact circumstances of Michael’s death and the source of Corey’s guilt.

One of the story’s biggest strengths is how it convincingly captures a child’s-eye view of trauma. There are many examples of this, ranging from throwaway asides (“Therapy was the opposite of math. It made no sense”) to harrowingly-detailed anecdotes:

Corey had spied Michael carving lines into his own arm once and tried it himself, but he must have done it wrong because it hurt and the result made Mom scream. Michael kept carving and carving after that; Corey never got the courage to try again. Soon Michael could only wear long sleeves because short sleeves made Mom cry. Even worse, she thought Michael got the idea from Corey.

The adult world is bewildering to Corey, and come the story’s climax he and his friend Patrick must tackle the situation on their own terms. They decide to do away with the troublesome puppet (or Mr. Wiggles, as they name it) in a daring plan complete with schoolkids-in-treehouse codewords.

The narrative’s claim to the fantastic rests upon it being a ghost story about a haunted puppet, yet only on the most superficial level is it such. This is a tale that reaches deep into the symbolic aspects of the ghost story – where the restless spirit is a manifestation of painful memories or repressed trauma – and pulls out every implication to use as its raw material. This is daring, as the exposure of red, bleeding subtext risks killing the story altogether. “One Hand in the Coffin” succeeds, however, as it is vitalised by the sheer life and humanity of Corey and his family – right down to the departed Michael.

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