Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 40: The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs

Jacobs, W. W. "The Monkey's Paw." Harper's Monthly Magazine, September 1902.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.75/10
My Rating:        9/10

Art by Walt Sturrock
"Outside, the night was cold and wet, but in the small living room the curtains were closed and the
fire burned brightly.

On a dark and stormy night, Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son Herbert are visited by an old acquaintance of the father's, Sergeant-Major Morris. Unlike the homely Whites, Morris is a man of the world, a travel with vast experience who had been stationed in India and has returned with many tales. Among these is the tale of the monkey's paw, a talisman that bestows upon its owner three wishes, yet with the warning that the wishes are granted via malicious means. Morris was the last person to own the monkey's paw, and tosses the wretched object into the fire, from where it is quickly rescued by Mr. White. Sure enough, later that night the White's decide to make a wish, partly in jest, and ask for two hundred pounds to clear their mortgage.

“Well, I don’t see the money,” said his son, [...] and I bet I never shall.”

Ominous words indeed.

Because I read this story at the young and impressionable age of ten or eleven, it has stayed closely with me, and I enjoy it with every re-read (which has been numerous). Aside from nostalgia, it is well constructed, remaining simple yet tight, and contains an impressive layer of emotions for a story so short, from the tight-nit family with their playful understanding of one another, to the mother's affecting grief and the father's anxieties over the ominous paw. That last sequence, wonderfully illustrated by Walt Sturrock, alone contains more contrasting emotions than many a novel. There are some great phrases, terrific mood, and the story's enclosed space and oppressive weather create the perfect atmosphere. To contrast all this darkness, that instance of the streetlight at the end gives a tiny glow of relief amid such horrible circumstances.

The story is readily available throughout the web, and I urge anyone who has not yet experienced the story outside that The Simpsons episode, to do so. Once read, you can read the following paragraph.

For many years following its initial publication in Harper's Monthly, "The Monkey's Paw" was a staple in ghost story anthologies, a practice that continues but in a lessened form. Interestingly, the story is not a ghost story, but an example of an early zombie, or living dead tale. Mr. White's wish to make his son alive again presumably brings the animated corpse of the boy to come rapping at their front door, and not the spirit of the boy. While subgenres at the time were not as defined as they are today, so that many terror tales or stories with a supernatural element were relegated to the popular ghost story form, this misclassifying can lead to a transformation or misreading of the text. As a ghost, there would be a formless spirit somehow managing to tap on the door, yet the understanding that it is the walking corpse of their child brings with it a powerful element of horror that would be deprived from a reader with a ghost in mind. Jacobs makes it clear that Herbert was killed by falling into "some machinery," and Mr. White reminds his wife that he was only able to recognize the boy because of his clothes (as he was evidently horribly mangled). It is this shredded and bloodied figure Jacobs expects us to imagine standing behind the door, the image Mr. White so desperately wants to spare his wife from seeing, and not a translucent image of a boy nor a bedsheet blowing in the wind.

Wonderful stuff.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


Todd Mason said...

I think you might overestimating the seriousness with which most people throw around terms such as "ghost story" or "horror story" (which this one is), and it's not even a "zombie story" in the earliest sense of that term, though it's certainly a "revenant story" with a magic akin to vodu involved. I note that the first two anthologists cited by ISFDB to snap it up for "genre" anthologies had it right: Ghosts and Marvels: A Selection of Uncanny Tales from Daniel Defoe to Algernon Blackwood edited by V. H Collins, and Dorothy Sayers's (natch) Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror...it took till such sloppier labelers as Bennett Cerf to lump it in entirely with ghosts. I first read it in Kathleen Lines's THE HOUSE OF THE NIGHTMARE AND OTHER STORIES, one of the key volumes of my youthful reading, when I was 8yo.

It is a lovely story, and it's notable that Jacobs was mostly known as a humorist during most of his career. Robert Bloch certainly liked to write/speak of the relation that humor and horror have, and not he alone...

Todd Mason said...

Or, "might overstimate"...

Todd Mason said...

And, I take, the Sturnock illustration was in the original appearance in HARPER'S?

Todd Mason said...

Bleary eyes...Sturrock, that was meant to be.

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