Tuesday, April 10, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #2: A review of "The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs
If you’ve spent any time breathing in the 20th Century (at least from 1902 and on), chances are, you’ve read this story. It is possibly the most imitated horror tale in history. Even if, by some strange set of circumstances, you haven’t read it, you at least know the point: be careful what you wish for.
Considering the ubiquitous nature of this story, it’s hard to know where to begin. In case you don’t know, it is the tale of the White family. When a friend comes visiting with a strange relic, a mummified monkey’s hand, and an even stranger tale (an Indian fakir—of course—cursed it so that three men can have three wishes each to show that fate rules over all, and if you tamper with it, you just make matters worse), Mr. White decides he must have it. He rescues it from the fireplace, where his friend has thrown it, and shortly thereafter makes his first wish, for two hundred pounds. He certainly gets what he wants in a horrible way; his son gets killed at work, and the White family’s compensation is, you guessed it, two hundred pounds.
One thing leads to another, and Mr. White wishes for his son to come back to life, except when he does, he realizes young Herbert will probably return as he’d looked just after his death. When a mysterious knocking comes to their door late at night, he is practically driven mad by the idea of the grim specter on the other side of the door, and he resorts to his final wish.
It’s certainly a horrifying story. There is definitely a reason why it has survived this long, and continues to go strong. It’s also interesting to see how Jacobs goes about his story. Back in those days, people liked to orally tell horror stories to one another, usually around Christmas time, so the stories usually had a frame structure in which a character tells the actual events of the story to another character (a little something to help listeners empathize with said characters). At first, it seems like this is going to be one of those narratives, except the Sergeant-Major (Mr. White’s friend) actually produces the monkey’s paw. The story he tells is just the beginning of what actually happens, so that when we find ourselves with Mr. White at the door with his dead son knocking on the other side, it has a sense of immediacy that a lot of stories from back then lacked. It’s pretty revolutionary stuff.
That said, here are a few things to think about: the fakir who set the curse on the monkey’s paw in the first place was a dick. First of all, why a monkey’s paw? Did he just want to gross people out? And what about why he cursed it? Why can’t he mind his own fucking business? Why does he want to hurt people? To be fair, the three men who had their wishes did, indeed, choose to have their wishes. Yet, why throw that kind of temptation at someone?
Also, when Mr. White acquires the monkey’s paw, he doesn’t know what to wish for. He even says, “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.” And then Herbert himself tells him to wish for two hundred pounds, which is pretty funny in and of itself. But still: why would he rescue a gristly relic from a fire to wish for something he doesn’t even want? When you think about it, such a concept kind of belongs in Chuck Palahniuk’s FIGHT CLUB.
Lastly, SPOILER ALERT (on the off-off-off-off chance you haven’t read this story): We never get to see Herbert on the other side of the door. We have no indication that he’s going to be as fucked up as Mr. White seems to think. He wishes his son back to the grave before Mrs. White manages to open the door on a spookily empty street. Granted, considering how much of a dick the fakir was, the chances were good that Herbert wouldn’t have looked too peachy, but still. This is a weakness, but it’s also kind of a strength, too. As with Pain’s Undying Thing, Herbert’s corpse remains off-stage. All we have to go on is our imagination, and fans of the grotesque are noted for their dark creativity. END OF SPOILERS.
So if you’re one of the rare people on this planet who speaks English and has not read this story, look it up. It’s impossible to not find online. And if you haven’t read it since you were a kid in school, throw an adult set of eyes on it. It’s a very simplistic tale, but it gets to the guts of something important in the nature of humanity. Think about it: how many times have you gotten something you wished desperately for and were subsequently let down?
[This story was first published in HARPER'S MONTHLY, and it can be read here.]