Mr Hands begins with a stranger walking into the Hangman’s Tavern. The proprietor of the tavern, Grant McCullers, begins to feel uneasy about the stranger’s presence. The guy smells and looks like he has just crawled out of a grave, but he pays for his drinks and food with a fifty dollar note and has many more of them in his pocket, so Grant’s initial theory that the guy is homeless goes straight out of the window. Money or not, there is something strange about the guy and Grant places a call to his friend Sheriff Ted Jackson.
When the Sheriff arrives he is accompanied by another of Grant’s friends The Reverend. The Reverend looks a little like Rasputin the mad monk, but his eerie looks are misleading because the Reverend is definitely one of the good guys. Looks are often misleading though, and once Grant and his two friends engage the stranger in conversation they discover that he has a story to tell and he is desperate to share it with someone, even though he realizes that it will make him sound crazy. The stranger’s worries are unfounded though, because the Hangman’s Tavern is just the place for strange stories.
So the stranger tells his tale. It is about a child killer known as Uncle Ronnie. The stranger tells them all about the things Ronnie did and why he did them. It seems impossible that the stranger could know so much about the killer unless he was talking about himself but as the story unfolds it becomes obvious that this in not the case and also that the real Uncle Ronnie’s motives were rather unusual and, believe it or not, it is easy for the reader to sympathize with the character. Sympathize with a child killer? It sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? But if you should decide to read the book you will soon see what I mean.
The stranger’s tale is not just about Uncle Ronnie though, it is also about a grieving mother named Lucy Thompson whose only child was abducted and murdered. Lucy is unable to deal with her pain and wants to strike out and at first the only things she hits is the bottle; later though, she discovers a better way of hitting back, through a child’s toy—a little piece of carved wood that her daughter called mister hands. In Lucy Thompson’s hands Mr Hands becomes a very dangerous toy and she has no intention of playing nice. She has a list of people who have hurt children, she has judged them, she has found them guilty and her new toy is just right to play executioner.
Mr Hands is 354 pages long, it is an unusual story, there is always plenty happening and the the reader is kept guessing about the stranger’s identity right until the end of the book. It is hard to say who the central character is though, because the story hops from one person and time frame to another. But I can tell you who my favourite characters are: Grant, Sheriff Jackson and The Reverend. They are great and give the impression that they know a lot of strange stories. In fact I was quite hoping that a few of their tales might have emerged before the end of the book. That never happened, but Mr Hands also contains a bonus story at the end of the book. It’s called Kiss of the Mudman and all three of the aforementioned characters make an appearance.
Braunbeck’s novella Kiss of the Mudman won an International Horror Guild Award in 2007 and is about a man who loves music but no longer dares listen to it. The real story here though is why he cannot listen to it. Kiss of the Mudman is an entertaining read and Sheriff Jackson and the Rev get to talk to the ghosts of quite a few dead rock stars including Curt Cobain and Billie Holiday. When they meet the demon called The Mudman though, he really rocks the house; in fact he nearly brings it down. Literally!