Sunday, October 16, 2011

Shaking "The Monkey's Paw"

illustration by Maurice Grieffenhagen from The Lady of the Barge (Dodd Mead, 1902)
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS:  This essay reveals much about the story.  If you are not familiar with "The Monkey's Paw" you should probably stop right now.

Decades ago I saw one of the most terrifying films of my teenage years. It was Tales from the Crypt. Nothing since has matched it in gore and gruesome imagery, wickedness punished in so macabre a fashion. For months afterwards several of the scenes haunted me while I slept. It was also the first time I heard of "The Monkey's Paw" One of the episodes in the film was an update of the W.W. Jacobs story of wishing for too much. Husband and wife receive an ancient statue that grants three wishes. "Just like the monkey's paw," the wife says. "You know the old story..." For weeks, maybe months, afterwards I spent way too much free time hunting down the story. Even with the trusty Encyclopedia Britannica and the Ridgefield [Connecticut] Library at my disposal finding the story proved very difficult. Probably because I hadn't a clue who wrote it. That would've been an immense help. Since I was a rookie in the world of literary research way back then compared to now I was pretty much stuck. Eventually I found it through utter serendipity. But enough traveling down memory lane and onto my impressions of this classic tale.

In its simplicity "The Monkey's Paw" still has the power to create chills and build suspense and, yes, even surprise the reader. I can't recall what my first impressions of the tale were when I read over forty years ago, but having pored over the story recently I was struck but why it is still a classic. It's practically a textbook case for anyone who is thinking of writing a suspense tale or a ghost story. Each element is introduced at the precisely the right time and there is no heavy handed repetition. There is no gratuitous gore that seems to be required these days. And, thankfully, there is no rational explanation offered at the end to ruin all the previous chills.

Herbert White meets up with an old war buddy and invites him to his home for an evening visit. The purpose is to complete a story he told of a monkey's paw and an old fakir. The sergeant-major has brought the paw with him and tells the story:
It had a spell put on it by an old fakir....a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives and those who interfered did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.
White, his wife and son soon learn that the soldier had his three wishes granted and would rather have the paw destroyed than pass it on to anyone else. When pressed for more details he tells his hosts that the first owner used his third wish to wish for death and that was how he came into possession of the paw. With that he tosses the paw into the fireplace, but White rushes to the hearth and retrieves it before it is completely destroyed. The soldier leaves and warns them to "wish for something sensible." At the son's urging the father wishes for some money £200. Nothing immediately happens and they turn in for the night. Of course, only trouble can follow.

The story is neatly divided in three sections and primarily deals with three characters -- Mr. White, his wife and their son. In the first section we are introduced to the wish motif and the family makes their first wish. In the second half they make their second wish. In the third and eeriest portion the husband ends their ordeal with a final wish -- the only wise wish the family ever makes. The old fairy tale motifs are all present and indeed Mrs. White at one point says, "Sounds like the Arabian Nights." There is some making fun of the whole idea and we get the idea that the family is not too believing of the powerful magic they have come into contact with. Jacobs describes the son as "frivolous" and he mocks the idea by telling his father to wish to be an emperor to escape his nagging wife, Mrs. White asks the husband to wish her to have four hands and they all laugh at the prospect of getting what one truly desires. The reader knows only too well that this family is doomed.

When Mr. and Mrs. White realize that in following the son's suggestion for money they have altered their lives in a horrible way they panic. The money comes to them as compensation for a gruesome accident at the factory where their son worked. He has died at the hands of the machinery. Mrs. White immediately wants to wish her son back to life and runs to find the paw. There is a struggle and an argument. The family is beginning to learn that there is strange magic at work that they truly can defy the laws of nature. The husband is reluctant but is powerless at the maniacal urging of his wife and when he refuses to make the wish she does so herself.

It is at this point that Jacobs uses the best tool of the writer of a ghost story -- the power of suggestion. We feel the terror of the husband and know the longing of the wife for her son. There is a terrible knocking at the door, the wife rushes downstairs and the reader remains upstairs with the husband who dare not move from his spot. While he envisions what must have happened to his son, remembering the accident, his wife frantically tries to open the door but has trouble with the bolt. The reader is wondering as well: Will she see her son? Or is it something else? What will happen to her? The husband at last makes the final and inevitable wish -- the only sensible wish made while the paw was theirs those brief fateful days.

And the story ends with an eerie image complete with a poignant sound effect that sends a final frisson up your spine:
A cold wind rushed up the staircase and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and to the gate beyond. The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.
It is certain that the echo of that misery-filled wail reached all the way to the cemetery where no doubt it settled like a mournful shroud on the still undisturbed grave of their hapless son.

This article is posted by request. (Thank you, Neer, for reminding me that I already had something on Jacob's masterful tale.) The essay in a slightly different form originally appeared at "The Weird Review" back in 2001. Devotees of the traditional ghost story are encouraged to investigate that website, owned by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, for a wide variety of reviews and essays on supernatural literature.

"The Monkey's Paw" was originally published in The Lady of the Barge (London: Harper & Brothers, 1902) and (New York: Dodd Mead, 1902). Copies are available via the usual used bookseller sources and are relatively cheap if you are wiling to settle for the Penguin reprint paperback rather than a first edition. The story is available to read for free at Gaslight and as a free download in audio format at Project Gutenberg. I'm sure it can be found other places in the digital airspace as well.

This is yet another of my contributions for Carl V's R.I.P. VI Challenge. For a change -- a post in the short story category.


  1. I have this ghostly impression that I read this one long ago and far away. But can't be sure. It sounds familiar and yet it doesn't. Thanks for bringing it to my attention again.

  2. Thank You John. As usual a masterly article (though I think you should put a spoiler alert at top) and one that brought back memories of another age. I read it in my school days and was mesmerized and terrified at the same time. Copied it word by word in a diary and then narrated it to my sisters. They found it as creepy as I did.

    Going thru your article was like experiencing that tingling sensation once again. The knocking during the final wish for the door to open...and yet not to open...

  3. Neer -

    I thought I edited it enough. But I now realize that the essay is about the entire story and that I retold it all, didn't I? Oops. I have now added a warning at the top of the post for those who don't want it spoiled.

    I think that's great how you copied the story out into a diary so that you could share it with you sisters. I also remember doing similar things when I was younger and impressed by certain writers.

    1. John, did a post on my favourite reads of this season and came back and read this again. What a story.

      Here's my post, if you are interested:

  4. I really like the picture that you used at the beginning of this post. Very atmospheric!