NOTE: This is the twelfth in a series of 31 reviews of scary short stories and novels. As part of All Hallow’s Read, I will be sharing all the scary stories that I think you should consider giving to someone for Halloween. Because this is a tradition intended for people of all ages, some of these titles will be for children and young adults, while others are meant strictly for adults. Happy Reading.
“Do you like to read?” a guy I used to work with asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, strapping on my hairnet. We worked in the kitchen of the Broome County Public Safety Facility (The Slammer) and were revving up to get the dishes going. Only during cleanup does anyone ever get chatty at that job. The rest of the time you’re struggling not to take a chunk out of the inside of your cheek to dull the pain of monotony.
“Well, you gotta read this book – I think it’s called The Monkey’s Hand,” he said. “I don’t know who wrote it. Probably Stephen King.”
As far as I knew Stephen King had never written a book called The Monkey’s Hand. But I didn’t correct him. Mostly because I didn’t care enough about anything he was saying.
He went on, “There’s five stories. One for each finger on the monkey’s hand. There was this one about this guy who starts his day by fighting with his wife. Then like some other guy shows up with a little machine, or something. There’s a button on it. He tells them that if they press the button they’ll get something close to a million dollars. But someone in the world they don’t know will die.”
By this time we would have both been scraping the leftover slop off of inmate trays. Nothing stimulates intellectual conversations like cleaning up after criminals.
“The couple fight about what to do,” he tells me with complete disregard for the common curtsey of a SPOILER WARNING. “They husband goes to work and the wife is like ‘fuck it. I wand a million bucks!’ She presses the button. She gets a call later that her husband got hit by a car and his life insurance is being issued to her. It’s for a million dollars! She gets another phone call. It’s the guy who gave them the box. She freaks out, ‘I thought you said I wouldn’t know the person!’”
I clearly remember him setting down the tray he’d been scraping, looking at me and delivering the story’s clincher, “The man says to her, ‘Madam, do you really think you knew her husband!’ I was like, OH NO!”
We both laughed. He won me over. I started having no interest in whatever he was going to babble on about, and actually got a little caught up in it.
It was nothing he did. That was the simple brilliance of Richard Matheson. He was talking about his short story Button, Button. I don’t know what book it was he thought he’d read it in, but I came across the story several years later. And you know what? I could not have summarized it better myself. And his reaction? Spot on.
Button, Button is a perfect story. Top to bottom. Left to right. Perfect. Every word, every line, everything about the story is as it should be. Not a misstep to be found. I’ve read it more than a dozen times and am still floored by it. I literally tried taking it apart to figure out how it worked so well. The best I could do (and this is a cop out)is figure that it operate subliminally. Not a misstep to be found. The story is so simple as to be misleading. The ironic twist is more chilling than it should be because of its implications.
Ignore the two adaptations that exist of it (especially the abomination with Cameron Diaz) and read the story. Even if I spoiled it. Go read it. It’ll take five minutes. Well, ten, because you’ll want to read it again.