Futility Closet book ad

Handiwork

In a 1965 story on the accidental death of a local millworker, Charlotte News police reporter Joseph Flanders wrote, “It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.”

This struck Flanders’ fellow reporters as hilariously purple, and they founded the Order of the Occult Hand to immortalize him by sneaking the phrase into as many stories as possible. This has evolved into an in-joke among American journalists:

  • “It was as if an occult hand had somehow palmed the film.” — Deborah Caulfield, “Disney Pulls ‘Wolf’ From Mann in Dispute,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7, 1983.
  • “As the show wears on, your eyelids may slam shut, as if tugged by an occult hand.” — Jay Sharbutt, “FBI’s Untold Stories Told, James Earl Jones Seeks A Few Laughs,” Associated Press, Sept. 26, 1991.
  • “It was as if an occult hand was at work, or maybe a screenwriter for one of Mel Brooks’ slapstick comedies.” — Paul Greenberg, “Warren G. Clinton’s Bad Week,” Tulsa World, May 28, 1993.
  • “One morning last week, while pondering the daily question of khakis vs. jeans, it was as if an occult hand reached down and plucked the baggy green pants from the hanger and thrust them at me.” — Dennis Rogers, “Snug Fat Clothes and Other Realities of Pre-Boomers,” Raleigh News & Observer, Aug. 3, 1993.
  • “It was as if an occult hand had pointed you out to each other.” — Florence Shinkle, “Fated Attractions: How Our Minds (and Our Glands) Make Us Fall in Love,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 14, 1994.
  • “Nails, screws, small tools and thingamajigs accumulate and then relocate as if moved by an occult hand to some new hiding spot.” — M.R. Montgomery, “A Place for Everything,” Boston Globe, July 6, 1995.
  • “It was as if an occult hand had guided the black sphere down the narrow lane and into the triangle of pins.” — Linton Weeks, “Spares and Strikes,” Washington Post, June 5, 1997.
  • “It was as if an occult hand had reached down to throw beleaguered Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. a wee crumb on an otherwise bleak night.” — Sean Scully, “Barry vs. Plotkin,” Washington Times, Nov. 7, 1997.
  • “When he plays the blues, it is as if some occult hand is guiding his hand over the guitar, channeling the essence of the blues through Clapton.” — Eric Fidler, “Sound Bites: ‘Pilgrim’ (Reprise) – Eric Clapton,” Associated Press, March 23, 1998.
  • “We like to think we have earned success, after all, and discount the occult hand of fate.” — David Mehegan, “The Story of E,” Boston Globe, May 14, 2000.
  • “It was as if an occult hand had taken Chuck Klosterman’s radio, tuned away from the Top 40 ear candy of Duran Duran and the Stray Cats, and tuned into the satanic debauchery of Motley Crue.” — Eric Hanson, “These Books Rock: ‘Fargo Rock City’ Lauds Metal as Refuge for Teens,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 15, 2001.
  • “It is as if an occult hand placed Calvino in our country so we could appreciate our own eccentricities,” John Skoyles, “The ‘Hermit’ Emerges in Calvino’s Writings,” Associated Press, April 21, 2003.

“It’s a phrase that has that sense of journalese about it, sort of a campy phrase,” Greenberg told James Janega of the Chicago Tribune in 2004. He holds a Pulitzer and has used the phrase at least six times, “just to keep my standing in good order.”

But Montgomery told Janega that in the modern era the occult hand might be coming to an end. “There’s so much bad writing and so much pretentious writing,” he said, “I’m afraid it would get lost.”