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January 2002
 
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Fingers of Fear by J.U. Nicolson (1937)

Ruined in the stock market crash of 1929, Selden Seaverns gratefully accepts a job from rich school chum Ormes Ormesby to catalog books in the Ormesby estate library. Selden's trials following his arrival at the House of Ormesby are more than even the most desperate employee should have to endure: He is noshed on by Ormes's vampire sister, trapped in the subterranean lime pit where family skeletons are interred, and set upon by Ormesby himself, who has a penchant for turning feral and who, it seems, is in cahoots with Selden's estranged ex-wife to frame him for a ghastly crime.

J.U. Nicolson's novel is crude shudder fiction, yet it achieved hardcover publication at a time when works of similar scope were relegated to the pulp magazines. Doubtless, its author's track record as a translator of Francois Villon and "interpreter" of Chaucer had much to do with this. But, possibly, so did the story's undercurrent of social commentary. At a time when much popular fiction was intended to distract readers from the national misery, here was a book that confronted them with a none-too-subtle portrait of the rich preying upon the poor. Selden repeatedly expresses his belief that prosperity is "just around the corner," but at every turn finds just another form of victimization by his wealthy patron.

Fingers of Fear appears to have been Nicolson's only effort in the weird vein, but its clever use of horror imagery to limn the curse of the starving class demonstrates how sometimes the more intriguing contributions to a genre are penned by those outside it.

—Stefan Dziemianowicz

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