Classic Horror Literature: The Monkey’s Paw

Last week on the Ash and Col podcast we were discussing the classic short story W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw.

“Monkey’s paw?” said Mrs. White curiously.
“Well, it’s just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps,” said the Sergeant-Major, without first stopping to think.
His three listeners leaned forward excitedly. Deep in thought, the visitor put his empty glass to his lips and then set it down again. Mr. White filled it for him again.
“To look at it,” said the Sergeant-Major, feeling about in his pocket, “it’s just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.”
He took something out of his pocket and held it out for them. Mrs. White drew back with a look of disgust, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously.
“And what is there special about it?” asked Mr. White as he took it from his son, and having examined it, placed it upon the table.
“It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,” said the Sergeant-Major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who tried to change it would be sorry. He put a spell on it so that three different men could each have three wishes from it.”
The way he told the story showed that he truly believed it and his listeners became aware that their light laughter was out of place and had hurt him a little.

This is a well-crafted piece of horror fiction that is exceptionally effective. We’re introduced to the monkey’s paw. It’s an Aladdin’s lamp arrangement in that the owner is granted three wishes. However, those three wishes end up coming at a terrible cost.
There are several things that make this so effective. The first is the realism of the story because the characters react in a very realistic way. We can see that in the passage above because they’re laughing at the idea of a wish-granting monkey’s paw. If someone offered me an enchanted monkey’s paw, I’d smile politely and figure I was dealing with crazies of some description.
The realism continues when Mr White gets the paw and decides there is nothing he wants to wish for. I know most of us would be there wanting millions of pounds, or a penis enlargement that takes it up to a full three inches, or an endless supply of chocolate cake…
But Mr White lacks that imagination. Eventually his wife talks him into wishing for £200 which should be enough to pay off the outstanding mortgage. Mr White makes this wish and then goes to bed.
The next day they have a visit from a representative of the factory owner where Mr White Junior (Herbert) works. There has been a terrible accident. Herbert was horrifically mutilated and killed. However, whilst the factory accept no responsibility, the representative wants to make a Mr and Mrs White are devastated by the news. Mrs White blames herself for suggesting the ill-fated wish but, later she has a moment’s inspiration.

“THE PAW!” she cried wildly. “THE MONKEY’S PAW!”
He started up in alarm. “Where? Where is it? What’s the matter?”
She almost fell as she came hurried across the room toward him. “I want it,” she said quietly. “You’ve not destroyed it?”
“It’s in the living room, on the shelf above the fireplace,” he replied. “Why?”
She cried and laughed together, and bending over, kissed his cheek. “I only just thought of it,” she said. “Why didn’t I think of it before? Why didn’t you think of it?”
“Think of what?” he questioned.
“The other two wishes,” she replied quickly. “We’ve only had one.”
“Was not that enough?” he demanded angrily.
“No,” she cried excitedly; “We’ll have one more. Go down and get it quickly, and wish our boy alive again.”

The clever thing about this story is that most of the monstrous activity takes place off screen. We don’t get to see Herbert’s mutilation. We don’t get to see Herbert being summoned from his eternal rest. All we get to experience is the mounting of terror of what Mr and Mrs White are experiencing.

Even though this story is 120 years old, I’ve got no intention of spoiling the conclusion but I will say, there is a reason why this story still remains a powerful inspiration for creative minds with a fascination for horror. It’s beautifully crafted, chilling and well worth dipping into.

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