Publish Date: February 15, 2015
Source: Smashwords. You can download it for free here.
Length: 28,070 words
Synopsis: A fine study of Civil War squalor and carnage, The Finger People spotlights the Union attack on the Confederate stronghold Fort Henry, where a timid rebel cook discovers something even grislier than the usual horrors of war: the Finger People.
Short Version: The most heartwarming short story about murderous bug-eyed freaks you will ever read in your life.
Longer Version: Well, maybe my “short version” put brevity above strict accuracy. This story (originally available as part of an anthology, Gothic Shift) is about a lot of things, including the murderous bug-eyed freaks. Mostly, though, it’s a study in the character development of one of the most engaging, sympathetic protagonists I’ve read recently, Frank Billinghouse, known to his mom as Francis.
He may not be big and brave like the boys [Confederate soldiers], like Jimmy, but he could make a difference. Jimmy said so, anyway.
There ya go, that’s on the second page and sums it all up. Frank, a cook with the Confederate Army, plagued with the fear of his older brother Randy and fuelled by his love for Jimmy Gambauer, finds himself caught up in the siege of Fort Henry. A series of events lead him on the trail of his beloved idol Jimmy, a man who once saved his life and who Frank must save from the Union troops and, more urgently, from The Finger People.
It’s hard to discuss this book without spoiling it.
Frank is a pathetic character, in both senses of the word. He’s a grown man, but he acts like a child, vacillating between wide-eyed wonder, restless energy and fawning on anyone he looks up to. He is a cook, not a soldier; in fact, he can’t even swim. During a moment of high danger, for example, he gets wildly excited because he finally understands why the Rebel army called the Union boats “turtles.” But for all that I did spend some of the book wanting to slap him and order him to behave like a grown-up, he can also be incredibly endearing. The danger he finds himself in is real and immediate, and he responds with everything ranging from cunning to stupidity. It makes for gripping reading.
Bruns’ style is easy to read without being simple, and his attention to detail and research is a delight (this is the second book I’ve read in a month that at least mentions the American Civil War, and I learned loads of interesting things.) At one point, Frank picks up a gun, expecting to know how to fire it immediately; it’s a model he’s never used before, and he hasn’t the faintest clue. It’s little things like that that really catch me as a reader. I’m not interested in reading about a hero who can pick up an 1860s rifle and just shoot the nearest bad guy in the face with it at 200 yards. The structure of this short(ish) story is also incredibly tight, including a plot device that not only serves as Chekhov’s gun (an object introduced earlier must be relevant later) but as character development for three different people. Brilliant.
Bruns also uses a lovely little conceit in his writing, where he blatantly signals when something interesting is about to happen, like this, serving for the end of a chapter:
Then happened the most shocking thing of all – certainly the strangest.
Strange and shocking, say you? Oh, I’m definitely reading on. I did this until 2am – I couldn’t stop. (Non-spoiler: yes, the signalled event was both strange and shocking.)
So let’s talk about The Finger People themselves. The way Bruns describes them is deliciously creepy – their claw-like long fingers, huge, perfectly round eyes, and their… strange eating habits. Yet most of this horror is extremely subdued, a great example of less-is-more. In fact at one point, they are described as behaving like “prey” themselves – leaving a beautifully unasked question of exactly what kind of a creature calls them dinner.
If Bruns wants to write that story too, I’ll be all over it.