The Four Fingers of Death

The Four Fingers of Death

by Rick Moody


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Montese Crandall is a downtrodden writer whose rare collection of baseball cards won't sustain him, financially or emotionally, through the grave illness of his wife. Luckily, he swindles himself a job churning out a novelization of the 2025 remake of a 1963 horror classic, The Crawling Hand. Crandall tells therein of the United States, in a bid to regain global eminence, launching at last its doomed manned mission to the desolation of Mars. Three space pods with nine Americans on board travel three months, expecting to spend three years as the planet's first colonists. When a secret mission to retrieve a flesh-eating bacterium for use in bio-warfare is uncovered, mayhem ensues.

Only a lonely human arm (missing its middle finger) returns to earth, crash-landing in the vast Sonoran Desert of Arizona. The arm may hold the secret to reanimation or it may simply be an infectious killing machine. In the ensuing days, it crawls through the heartbroken wasteland of a civilization at its breaking point, economically and culturally — a dystopia of lowlife, emigration from America, and laughable lifestyle alternatives.

The Four Fingers of Death is a stunningly inventive, sometimes hilarious, monumental novel. It will delight admirers of comic masterpieces like Slaughterhouse-Five, The Crying of Lot 49, and Catch-22.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316118934
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 07/13/2011
Pages: 725
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Rick Moody was born in New York City. He attended Brown and Columbia Universities. He is the author of four previous novels: The Four Fingers of DeathPurple AmericaThe Ice Storm, and Garden State, as well as an award-winning memoir and multiple collections of short fiction. Moody is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and his work has been anthologized in Best American StoriesBest American Essays, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


New York, NY

Date of Birth:

October 18, 1961


B.A., Brown University, 1983; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1986

Read an Excerpt

The Four Fingers of Death

A Novel
By Moody, Rick

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2010 Moody, Rick
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316118910


September 30, 2025

What does a man think about while he’s making history? A man thinks about his viscera. In the midst of the final countdown, on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, while Mission Control is counting back from the double to the single digits, he thinks about his bile, his adrenal glands, his hemoglobin, his pancreas, his bowels. Ignoble, I agree. You’d think that a guy like me, Colonel Jed Richards, would be thinking about the judgments of future generations or about the next phase of space exploration, the one in which we travel out beyond the solar system. Or perhaps I’d be thinking about the great religious questions, about who exactly stage-managed the Big Bang, from her loom casting off the whorl of dust and gas and stars, in turn spawning the tiny wisp of our universe, of which but one puny rock is Earth. But no. I was not thinking about interstellar space. As you probably know, the commonest inquiry of schoolchildren as regards space travel has to do with the disposal of human wastes. And since this is the inaugural day of my Martian blog, I am prepared to deal with the question of human wastes, with irritable bowel syndrome and related difficulties. Yes, IBS is just one of the idiosyncrasies I had to sweep under the rug during my long climb through the ranks of astronauts and technicians who peopled the Mars Mission Recruitment Initiative.

Mission Control reached “fifteen,” and “fourteen” quickly followed, and while I was thinking about using the suction device in the restroom that I would attach to my lower self, and how there would be no chance to do so for at least an hour, I was also whiling away some milliseconds considering the possibility of my own incineration. In case of launch mishap, temperatures would reach 3,000 degrees, owing to the nature of the solid fuel in the first stage. We would be cinders. As did the other members of my space confraternity, whom I’ll soon get around to introducing, I understood that the two parts of the voyage most likely to bring about our incineration were liftoff and landing. Of these, the more dangerous was the landing. On, for example, the surface of the Red Planet.

We’d already written letters to our loved ones, explaining that we knew of the numberless threats on this epic flight. Time slowed around “thirteen” and “twelve” as I reconsidered the text of my own video letter, hesitating over the irony thereof, upon which I will elaborate soon.

Massive public and private fiscal outlay (consider the fuel costs, e.g.) had been spent by our rickety and fiscally strapped government in order to make a desperation wager on the Red Planet, the specifics dating back to a halfhearted boast by a less-than-mediocre president nearly a quarter century ago. Could we do it? Could we bring pride and dignity to a multiethnic post-industrial third-rate economy? Could we redeem a nation before it defaulted on certain kinds of government payments? With this launch did we not ask: Can we do anything right?

The knots in my lower intestines dated to my tour of duty in the Central Asian conflict of 2011. It’s possible that I caught some kind of genetically enhanced bug in that ill-begotten war, because, as you know, the bugs in that “police action” were often encased in warheads. They had exotic equatorial origins. Whatever the cause, in moments of great social stress, which have included but are not limited to my recent talk show appearances, an address to a joint subcommittee on funding space programs, and illegal espionage missions in desert landscapes, I have worn absorbent undergarments.

Occasionally, I vomit uncontrollably. Mercifully, my experience of IBS, which is widespread among military veterans, has not extended to zero-gravity simulations or piloting. I have been free from symptoms during crisis. Most of the time, anyway. Oddly, one pragmatic approach to dealing with my IBS involves proximity to household pets. Rabbits are good, as are guinea pigs. My cat, Havoc, sat in my lap just two nights ago, when I was last at the house. I was again committing to memory the manual that NASA had given us, the manual that was meant to cover each and every eventuality—in which the hull flakes off during our trip through the atmosphere, in which the oxygen fails due to an asteroid strike on the craft, in which fruits and vegetables fail to grow in the greenhouse on the Red Planet due to excessive ultraviolet radiation and insufficient atmospheric pressure and we slowly starve to death. Havoc sat in my lap, and he purred as I reread what NASA, that beleaguered agency, would suggest if, for example, one of the men in the Mars flotilla suddenly went insane. My bowels throbbed not even once.

Kids, did you know that for the Mars mission, we have brought along a special colony of bacteria that likes to eat human waste products? It’s true! Well, not all waste products. The kind of waste produced by human kidneys will be jettisoned from the capsule under pressure, into the vacuum of space. The other kind, the solid kind, will be eaten by this colony of bacteria, which will then excrete, amazingly, something close to phosphorus, which will in turn be amassed for use as fertilizer in the simple terraforming experiments we will undertake in our domed greenhouse on the planet Mars!

As I intimated earlier, one of the other personal conundrums of my life, the life of Colonel Jed Richards, that did not get disclosed to NASA before the launch had to do with marital status. At times like this, it is natural to speak of Colonel Jed Richards in the third person. And he admits, yes, that somewhere in the training period for the Mars mission, Colonel Jed Richards noted that his wife no longer seemed to be living at his address, and had, in fact, taken herself and their teenage daughter to a secure location nearby, namely the address of her brother, a Miami-based restaurateur. The stress of training in the Mars mission program, which was 24-7, did take its toll on families, and Colonel Jed Richards was not the first to plead with his wife to commit to a few cocktail parties and golf outings for the sake of appearances. When training for space, things happened, but in the rarefied realm of the interstellar, most of these things seemed irrelevant: Pan-Arabists of the Middle East fielding winning candidates in rigged elections across the region, Inuits beginning to firebomb the residences of ethnically European Greenlanders, Cambodian militias commencing reprisals in Vietnam, Australians invading East Timor, Americans adventuring in Turkmenistan (for the sake of a gas pipeline). Colonel Jed Richards did not pay attention to these international developments, nor to government defaults, nor double-digit unemployment. That was earthly crap.

It did get his attention, however, when the wife of Colonel Jed Richards, also known as Pogey Stark-Richards, absconded from their joint address. Maybe it was his training with fighter planes over the desert, maybe it was bombing raids over Indonesia and Syria, maybe it was coaching girls’ middle school soccer and taking them all the way to the statewide play-offs. Maybe it was his love of life and his desire to do good, maybe it was his belief in a state-sponsored divine entity, in whatever it was that caused the Big Bang, which in turn first caused the Milky Way and then this speck on which we live, but Colonel Jed Richards just didn’t see his mission as being limited to his wife. He loved his wife, he loved his country, he loved his planet, he loved his cat, Havoc, but most of all he loved the expanse of stars in the night sky, and it was there that he would do for history what he could do, no matter the cost.

I was so preoccupied with my thoughts and with the contractions in my lower intestine that I almost missed it when Mission Control called “ten.” Before I had time to register that we were finally in the single digits, we were on or about seven, a prime number and “the key to almost all things,” according to Cicero, whom I read at the academy.

Then there was the roar all around me, infernal and eternal, as of the very forces that made space and time and all the secrets, and then there were the g-forces, which immediately pressed me into the most comfortable position in which to survive g-forces, the recumbent position. What must the Big Bang have sounded like? Well, kids, you’re probably correct if you answered that the Big Bang had no sound! Because there was no atmosphere in which it took place! And no time in which it began! As our rocket lifted off, however, I looked over at Captain James Rose, my companion in the front of the capsule, and we attempted to nod, or at least blink at each other. Perhaps there was not even a trace of this, and yet there was intent. We had attended to the various screens, where the computer was making decisions about temperatures, regenerative cooling, levels of cosmic radiation, and so forth. We had been given the option of shutting off the video feed of our liftoff, and I’d done exactly that on the screens nearest me. I would rather live this moment than watch the web coverage.

Part of our fuel assembly involved antimatter, the fuel of the stars, the fuel of creation, and it was incredible to think that back there in stage one, particles and their antimatter daughters were crashing together in order to generate the reactive force that would drive us into space, and I was near to saying something historical about this to Captain James Rose, but we were busy being fused to our recumbent workstations, and anyway he was a man of few words. All of this was happening so fast that the clouds of vapor and burned waste and radioactive material were already billowing away behind us. The launch assembly had fallen away, as in some kind of building collapse, and the intense trembling of the craft at the tail assembly, with its fins, moved us a millimeter from the launch pad. I could see across the capsule on Jim’s monitor the faces of the families on the viewing platform, the president’s wife, who was holding an umbrella to shield her pale skin from the harsh rays of the sun, Jim’s wife, his children. Then I averted my gaze. In the process, I suppose I missed the cheerleaders and marching bands, all wearing appliquéd depictions of the Red Planet.

In twelve minutes, we lost the first stage of the rocket assembly, which would incinerate in the atmosphere. We had, happily, already passed the moment in which two V-2 rockets, two space shuttles, three Thor missions, and one of the prior Mars shots had exploded over the Gulf of Mexico, causing loss of life for twenty-two or three Americans, two chickens, three dogs, one rhesus monkey, and so it was likely, kids, that we were going to make it, at least, to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. I am a praying man, because you couldn’t get a seat on this craft if you weren’t. And I was therefore willing to perform any petitionary ritual that might enable this rocket to achieve third-stage ignition (two million pounds of thrust). I would pray, I would dance (though I am a poor dancer), I would recite poetry backward, whatever it took.

Staring back at the Earth, at first, is like staring into the retina of a gigantic human eye. There were auroras flashing around us now, bright red auroras, as though this were the origin of the color red—which must come from somewhere, after all. Auroras just as they have been reported by the other astronauts. They were luminous, beautiful, arresting in a way that exceeds the capacity of your blogger to describe. Likewise, the oceans looked like the surface of a dime-store marble. And the clouds were a succession of veils. No nation, on this camera feed, resembled a nation. There were no borders from up here. The differences were simple, between land and sea, between the things that lived on the one or swam in the other. The clouds swept across each ineffectually. The storms harrowed the coasts, and at either end of our little dime-store superball was the ice. Like at the summit of an ice cream cone.

I was made better by seeing this. All the Apollo astronauts are dead, you know, and NASA has been underfunded for a good long while, and there just aren’t that many people who have seen what I have now seen. Jim and I are part of an elite group to whom this view has been given, the view of the superball Earth that is always on the brink of destroying itself. It was along these lines that I made my first remark into the intercom: “How do they manage to pack so much horseshit into such a small space?” and Rose nodded, in his sage way, and didn’t say anything at all. Mission Control came on, after a suitable delay, to remind me that we still had a ways to go until we were beyond orbit, and would I remember to leave the communications apparatus free for emergencies.

The second stage launched, detached, and then the third, and our inexorable progress was in the direction of the blackness between us and the next planet. This is perhaps the moment to remind you, kids, that we are embarked on what much of the world imagines is a fruitless endeavor. A spectacle of infotainment. Until we, the sojourners, can get our spacecrafts closer to the speed of light, until, e.g., we have a way of launching a self-sustaining ecosystem at Alpha Centauri or one of the other nearer stars, what is the point of this journey? This is the question asked by the naysayers and disbelievers. No stockholder is enriched by Richards and Rose, et al., going to Mars. No intractable human problem is resolved by it. We are the bottom-feeders of transnational astrophysics, but did we care? We didn’t care then, because gravity had given way to zero g’s, and I was floating against my restraining straps, and the splashy red lights of the auroras had come and gone, and the boosters expended themselves, and soon there would be silence, as during the Big Bang, just silence, because the sound of space was no sound, nothing. There was some onboard nausea, like you have probably heard, and that was kind of rough at first, almost as bad as the roiling of my bowels, which was only now subsiding.

It was just a speck, the Red Planet, one we couldn’t really even see, when Mission Control finally indicated, through the computer, that it was okay for us to unshackle ourselves. Jim called over: “In one piece?”

“Never felt better.”

“José, all right down there?”

Kids, this is perhaps the time to indicate that the third member of our crew was a late addition. Every jury has a few alternates in case one of those serving has been tampered with by an organized-crime figure or by members of the Russian secret service. Well, it’s just the same with your Mars shot. We had among us a young, vivacious woman by the name of Roseanne Kim, who studied astrophysics at UCLA, and who was also incredibly good at designing her own crossword puzzles. Roseanne was irrepressible about her role in the Mars mission, she was her own cheerleading squad, at least until she went to buy a quart of milk just a week ago, at which point she was the victim of a serious vehicular accident. The perpetrator, an intoxicated gentleman, had run a common red light. Kids, did you know that more than 50 percent of car accidents involve the running of red lights? Or something like that. Roseanne Kim fractured her collarbone, because of the severe jolt of the air bag in her Toyota Extreme-Mini. Because of the fracture, she was instantly scratched from the mission.

At which point we got José. José Rodrigues was our new science officer, and he was going to be doing a lot of the rock collecting and geological experiments on the Red Planet, particularly at the Martian poles, where we are bound to have, we believe, a supply of water at our disposal. José was going to be leading the charge. He was short, stocky, officious, superficially unpleasant, and seemed to feel like he had something to prove all the time, and I don’t mind saying so. Now that we’re in the air, all NASA can do is censor my remarks, but they can’t make me believe what I don’t believe. Therefore, let’s be clear: José had been in contact with some of the military types on the ground, the secretive types who were always orbiting around the Mars mission like vampire bats, and for these reasons we didn’t feel like we knew him very well. He never ate vegetables, and as a young man he was a minor figure in Mexican wrestling.

“That’s a roger,” José called from down below. “It’s a good thing I didn’t eat a big breakfast.”

Jim replied, “I should have had bacon; I just realized it. Why didn’t I have bacon? When will I have bacon again?”

“Ah, the conversations favored by the condemned,” I said. “I think we get freeze-dried pork for one of the holidays.”

“Huevos rancheros,” José offered. “Cap’n Crunch. I would have surely liked some Cap’n Crunch.”

Jim unbuckled, swam across the cabin to check some gauges and digital readouts. In the course of this, he gave me that look that he had given me through the many months of training, even when there were no capsule assignments. The look said, Whatever it is you’re about to say, don’t say it. And what had I done to deserve this? I am a pleasant, charming man! Anyway, while Jim was calibrating whatever it was he was calibrating, I typed an assessment of the liftoff into the computer, which would be transmitted back to Mission Control. I told them—because I’m the first officer, and therefore the word slinger on the mission—that, as people, as citizens of Earth, we now had “one eye on the Great Beyond.”

October 7, 2025

It has been a week now that we’ve been in space, in a cramped, ill-decorated residence that would barely qualify as a studio apartment in the crowded housing markets of Kingman, AZ, or Devil’s Paintbrush, NV. Yes, readers, it’s true that the magnitude of creation is unthinkable, at least out the window it is. The planet Earth seemed to recede from us, to the tune of thousands and thousands of miles a day, but Mars scarcely appeared in our ken. However, we were much more consumed with our floating apartment. It was remarkably claustrophobic. And it smelled awful. You know how adult males get to working up a powerful funk, almost immediately? Well, we smelled bad. And there were three of us. And the shower, which was little more than a modification of the recirculating, filtrating shower that they used on Spacelab (nothing gets thrown away at NASA), barely helped. We’re allowed one shower a week, and today was the big day. After we were done with the shower, the water circulated into the regenerative thermal system, where its proximity to some of the nuclear technology superheated it under pressure, to kill the bacteria, after which, in this pressurized loop, it ran near to the hull, where it cooled significantly. The process of annealing sterilized the water, but that didn’t and doesn’t mean it’s not brackish and foul. I’ve brushed my teeth with it, because what is the alternative? What kinds of minerals were accumulating in there, and how long would this water be potable? There have been a lot of estimates on the subject, and that’s why we had a rather ample supply of water down in the cargo hold.

Most of the time we were in the capsule we were at an even 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and so we didn’t need much clothing. Under these circumstances, our imperfect ability to wash was that much more on display. Good hygiene, it turned out, occurred during a brief period in human history. The past, with its rotting teeth and syphilis, was our future.

To put it the obvious way: there just wasn’t that much to do up here. What, you might ask, did an astronaut do on a trip that would take months upon months, when there was nothing to look at but certain constellations that were not going to change position much in the whole of our journey, and also the planets that were not much closer than they look in your backyard telescope? The Hubble telescope had a better view than this! We were getting digests of all the major news sites e-mailed to us, and we had television and web broadcasts, although these broadcasts may not have been the ones I would have chosen. We had our own electronic messages and videos. There was an exercise bicycle downstairs, near the science officer’s station, but to visit it would mean interacting with José. We were meant to be on a diet of an hour a day on the exercise bicycle, which stationary bicycle had a jack for your personal digital device, and I could easily have plugged in and ignored José, but I would prefer in some other way to meet the minimal standards suggested by the American Medical Association: a half hour of space exercise three times a week. At night, which was not night, because everything was night, night was permanent, and the distant twinkling of the hydrogen fusion ball known as the sun did nothing to remediate the borderless night, we watched films, when we could agree. Surprise! José preferred action films! My arguments that all action films were about the reimposition of authoritarian regimes and the ratification of violence (politics through other means) were not taken seriously, but it is perhaps correct to say that I did not advance these perceptions in anything but a lighthearted vein. Captain Jim Rose nearly always selected romantic films. I found this out of character with his two-hundred-sit-ups-for-breakfast personal regimen, and with his past in military intelligence. And yet whenever we discussed movies, Jim lobbied for something where a tough-hearted guy or gal (always played by America’s sweetheart, whoever this was in any given age) wilted in the face of the one true thing. After the film, the cabin lights automatically dimmed. We can sleep standing up, kids, because there is no up in the cabin. This allows all three of us to strap in against the wall, which is not a wall, because a wall is something on the side. These prejudices evaporated quickly.


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