Monday, October 1, 2007

“The Monkey’s Paw” (W.W. Jacobs, 1902)

I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve read “The Monkey’s Paw,” W.W. Jacobs’ brilliant and chilling short story, but I can tell you how often it’s cast a dark spell over me—every time.

Originally published in 1902 (and available now online at, among other places), TMP is the essence of the classic horror story—unhappy people bring more misery upon themselves, and their attempts to escape their fate opens the way for things best left alone.

Mr. and Mrs. White live with their adult son Herbert in Laburnam Villa on a quiet and deserted road. The old couple apparently does no work, leaving the breadwinning to Herbert, who is employed at a mill.One night they are visited by an old friend of Mr. White’s, Sergeant-Major Morris, who is coaxed into telling them the story behind an odd talisman he carries in his pocket, “what you might call magic, perhaps,” “an ordinary little [monkey’s] paw, dried to a mummy."

The weird object had had a spell put on it by an Indian fakir. For three owners, the paw would grant three wishes each. Morris admits to having made three wishes himself, but he grows nervous and doesn’t tell what he wished for. When asked how the first owner used the charm, the sergeant-major replies, "The first man had his three wishes. . . I don't know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That's how I got the paw."

Morris tosses the thing into the fireplace but it is retrieved by White who asks if he can retain it as an odd keepsake. Mrs. White playfully wishes she had four arms so her house work would be easier for her, and Morris hastily warns her that if the Whites are going to do any wishing, they better be sensible about it.

After Morris leaves, the Whites wish for 200 pounds to pay off their mortgage, and everything begins going downhill from there.

Jacobs’ yarn is a variation of the old tale story about trying to outsmart the devil with your wishes, but his take on the basic story has become the dominant one for over 100 years. “The Monkey’s Paw” has been dramatized for stage and screen, radio and comic books—you name the medium and it’s a good bet some version of TMP can be found there.

So familiar has the story become, even if you’ve never read it before you’re likely to get a feeling of literary déjà vu. Ignore it and read to the end. You’ll never find a better evocation of unseen horror than you will from “The Monkey’s Paw.”

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