W. W. Jacobs: “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) “The Monkey’s Paw” is one of the scariest stories ever written, a classic of the subgenre of tales of wishes gone wrong. Who wouldn’t want to see a son one never expected to see again, to welcome him home? What if you had just buried him?
Mr. and Mrs. White host a military man who has recently returned from colonial India. While there, he acquired a mummified monkey’s paw, which he shows his hosts, telling them that it will grant its owner three wishes. Thinking this a marvelous find, the Whites are enthusiastic. But the military man warns them that he intends to dispose of it. He got it from a colleague who had all three wishes come true, and his third wish was for death. The military man spells out the lesson that the Whites will learn, if they should choose to use the paw. “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 that those who interfered with it did it to their own sorrow.” He hurls the paw into the open fireplace, but Mr. White retrieves it, ignoring the man’s warnings.
Part of the pleasure of this foreboding and rather heavy-handed opening is that it provides its own warning—the Whites will surely be lured, as we might be, by the seductive idea of wish-fulfillment. But there always seems to be a catch in these stories, whether the wish-granter is a genie emerging from Aladdin’s lamp (Arabian Nights), a magic talking fish (Indian folktale), an elf living in a fallen tree (Grimm fairytale), or a wrinkled monkey’s paw. From the very start, we know that the wishes will lead to trouble. We read on with the appealing sense of dread, while a part of us wonders what we would wish for, trying to contrive wishes that could not possibly turn against us.
Why three wishes? In fairy tales, and in rhetoric, all things tend to come in threes. We have Cicero to thank for the way we construct arguments. He codified the idea that a good debate argument or essay should begin with an introduction, go on to make three arguments in support of the thesis, and conclude by reiterating the introduction and concluding. It always seems to be three wishes, just like it’s three little pigs, three blind mice, and three billy-goats gruff. Jokes almost always feature a punch-line on the third repetition of a situation (the first time he did this, the second time he did this, but the third time…) Two feels too few, four too many. I wonder if humans are wired that way, with three being this magic number, or whether, from the time of Cicero forward, we have grown accustomed to three as a magic number? Either way, it is always three wishes, and it is always the third that wreaks havoc. In this case, it is the second wish that the Whites will come to regret, and the third will save them.
For the Whites, wish number one comes out fairly well. The sum of £200 would cover the remaining payment for their home, and the Whites wish for this cash as a sort of test, to see if the paw works. It does but, as we might have expected, not in the way the Whites hoped for. Whoever or whatever is the God of Wish-Granting is an evil, vengeful type of Old Testament Yahweh, granting something but with a devilish angle that makes the wisher regret the request. For the Whites learn that their son, Herbert, has been killed, falling into the machinery at a factory, and in compensation they receive from the company for damages a check for . . . £200.
Distraught with grief, the couple tries desperately to undo what they’ve done. They can’t take back the wish, so they wish Herbert back to life with wish number two. Mr. White is reluctant to do so—he recognizes that horror accompanied the granting of the first wish. But Mrs. White convinces him. After all, what else have they to lose? After the wish is made, there is a long pause and it appears that nothing has happened. Then comes a knock at the door.
Mr. White realizes how the wish-giver, with his macabre sense of humor, could bend the wording of the wish into yet another horror. The delay between the wish and the knock at the door is because their son was buried at a cemetery some distance from their home. He has broken out of his tomb and slowly walked home, and is now banging on the door. Mrs. White is distraught, and rushes downstairs to open the door. Mr. White is torn—he loves his son, but the “thing” at the door is not their son, but his freshly-buried, maimed corpse. Before his wife can open the door, in a breathless flurry, he makes the third wish, and the walking corpse of their son disappears.
The suspense in this thriller is intense. From the moment of the second wish to the rectifying third wish the reader is sitting on a hot poker. But what sells these evil little story with its folk-tale trappings, is the character-study at its heart. There is palpable grief at the loss of the son, combined with the guilty recognition that it was greed and the foolish act of tempting fate that led to that loss. Then there is the overwhelming desire to undo a recent catastrophic accident, to turn back time, and to see again the mourned son, thought lost forever. This feeling sends Mrs. White down those stairs, seeing in her mind’s eye only the son she loves. But, because this is a horror story, we are also forced to imagine, with Mr. White, what they will find if they open that door. Something much worse than grief at what must be.
Such very real emotions, channeled through a supernatural story, are what make the plot so powerful, and make “The Monkey’s Paw” one of the most indelibly chilling stories ever. Once you read it, you won’t forget it.
Be careful what you wish for.