Monday, 20 May 2013

The Man Behind 'The Monkey's Paw'

 I have often been asked to name the story that first got me hooked on horror. The answer lies in a sinister short story written by an English author called William Wymark Jacobs, and his chilling story is: The Monkey's Paw.

The story is a ticking time bomb and an illustration of the old saying, 'Be careful what you wish for...'

The atmosphere is set from the opening paragraph:
"WITHOUT, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly. Father and son were at chess, the former, who possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes, putting his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment from the white-haired old lady knitting placidly by the fire." 

We discover that the father and the old lady are Mr and Mrs White, and the son is Herbert. On this momentous night, they are visited by a friend who has been part of the British Armed Forces in India. He possesses a shrivelled up paw of a monkey which he says has been given the power to grant three wishes by an old fakir. He throws it on the fire, but Mr White retrieves it and, despite his friend's warnings, makes his first wish. This is granted but at the expense of his son's life. Ten days after the funeral, driven mad with grief, Mrs White insists her husband wish for their son to live again. Reluctantly, he does so. The paw squirms in his hand. There is a delay.

Then they hear a knock at the door...

No, I'm not telling you any more. You'll have to read it for yourself (links later), or watch one of the film versions (cue for another link later)

So, who was this short-story author who managed to make such an impact with a 7600 words story published in 1902?

W.W. Jacobs was born on 8th September 1863 in Wapping, London. His father was a wharf manager and the young Jacobs was privately educated, before attending Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution (now Birkbeck College, part of the University of London).

He began work as a clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank, had his first short story published by 1885 and was earning enough from his writing to be able to leave the Civil Service in 1899.

Strangely enough for someone best known for an iconic horror story, the majority of his work was humorous, concentrating on marine stories with titles such as Many Cargoes, The Skipper's Wooing, Sea Urchins, Captains All and Night Watches. His literary style earned him the respect of authors such as P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome and, from October 1898, Jacobs's stories were published in the illustrious  Strand magazine, where Sherlock Holmes's latest exploits could also be found.

In 1902, The Monkey's Paw appeared as part of a collection of stories, published as The Lady of The Barge.

Jacobs married Agnes Eleanor Williams in 1900 and took up residence in Buckhurst Hill, Essex where, in 1901, his daughter was born. With his ardent suffragette wife, he seems to have moved around a fair bit, and at various times lived in Park Hill, Goldings Hill and Regent's Park. 

His first stage play, The Ghost of Jerry Bundler was performed in London in 1899 and then revived in 1902.

Following the First World War, he switched his attention from writing short stories to adapting his existing stories into theatre and screenplays. The Monkey's Paw has been adapted and retold many times over the years. A stage play opened at the Haymarket Theatre, London, in 1902, and the first of a number of film versions appeared in 1933.

 W.W, Jacobs died in Islington, London on 1st September 1943, but his best known story lives on. Over the ensuing years, the theme of the story has cropped up many times in such diverse shows as The Twilight Zone, The Monkees and even The Simpsons!

Here's a version, from 1965, from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Yes, OK, it's not the most faithful retelling!:

And finally, if you want to track down the story itself, try here:


  1. Replies
    1. ...preferably on a cold night, with a roaring wood fire and a bottle of Margaux.

  2. I've never read it but mother told it to me as a bed time story when I was ten. If we had had Childline then I'd've rung it! Absolutely terrifying.

    1. I first read it at school at a similar age, Elin. It was in a book of short stories, essays and poems. I bet they don't give it to kids of that age now!

  3. The Monkey's Paw is one of my favourite short stories, along with All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury.

    1. I'll have to read 'All Summer In A Day'. Thanks A.F.!

  4. Oh, yeah. It's a great story, one that made one of my college lit classes more tolerable. Thanks for reminding me!

  5. always love your choices for posts Cat. The bottle of Margaux sounds good. In the old days it was a coal fire and a bag of rock!