Today I want to talk to you about the short story The Monkeys Paw.
I cannot imagine that you will not have seen, or heard of, one of the parodies of this story. Someone finds a severed monkey hand that grants wishes that all turn out to produce hopelessly ironic consequences. The adaptations and parodies cross almost all mediums from television to plays, films, comics and even cartoons. The Simpsons did a Halloween episode of the story, the turkey’s a little dry!
That aside, the original short story was penned by W.W Jacobs in 1902 and was published in the collection titled The Lady of the Barge.
The short story centres around the White family, two parents and their adult son, Herbert. They have an army friend over for dinner and shows them a mummified monkey’s paw and a story to go with it, the story being that the paw is cursed and will grant the bearer three wishes. The friend also explains that by making the wishes you are tampering with fate and this results in terrible punishments. The friend then proceeds to hurl the paw into the fireplace, due to its malicious nature. However, Mr White retrieves it.
Initially Mr White believes himself content, that he has everything he could desire and does not know what to wish for. At Herbert’s urging, he wishes for £200 to clear his mortgage. When the wish is made the paw moves frightening Mr White.
The following day Herbert heads off to work at the local factory and dies in a terrible workplace accident. The company gives Mr White £200 in compensation for his son’s life.
Mrs White who is mad with grief begs her husband to use the paw to wish Herbert back to life, which he begrudgingly does. He has fears that his son will come back as a zombie. The cemetery is a few miles away, and approximately an hour later (the length of time it would take to walk to the cemetery) there is a knock at the door. Mr White has not gotten himself so worked up at the idea that his sons reanimated zombie body will be on the other side of the door that he makes his third wish and when his wife opens the door no one is there.
First off, I like this story, the whole concept and the way Jacobs builds tension around Herbert’s long walk home is fantastic.
I think one of the reasons that this story has prevailed for as long as it has, and I suspect will continue to do so, is because of its simplistic moral message. Don’t wish for what you do not have. It has an almost religious feel to it, thou shall not covet etc.
The story reads like an extended and better-developed morality tale and the stories which last the longest and resonate the hardest with audiences are often deceptively simple.
The horror element of this story comes from desire, man’s desire to have more and to obtain it with no effort. There is also the fact that the story spells out that the dire consequences come from tampering with fate, a concept not unique to this story or the horror genre. The idea that things are predestined, that you cannot change your fate and any attempt to do so will result in a worse fate.
Jacobs strongly pays into the idea that tampering with fate is wrong, his main characters are content, and it is not until they wish for more simply because the opportunity presents itself, that they start to suffer. I’ve seen other stories take a different approach, where characters who rally against an unjust fate are heralded as heroes, but that is not the path Jacobs walks in this story.
The atmosphere of the story is expertly crafted, again in part due to its simple nature. White’s tumultuous wait for his son’s return is an amazing bit of tension development and atmosphere development.
Overall this story is short, hard-hitting and well worth your time.