Real Time Reads: “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
Posted February 17, 2012on:
It’s been marking season, blending into the new teaching semester at the various universities in and out of whose payroll I flit, leaving this blog short of even the single hand it normally occupies. If I had three wishes, it would be for a few extra days each week to remember the life that one’s work is meant to support and supplement. However, the story I’ve been using for teaching purposes this week has taught me to be wary of wishes.
W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 macabre masterpiece, The Monkey’s Paw, was Hammer horror back when cinema was old enough only for the PGs. That it’s an object lesson in how to while away a cold, dark night, when a fearsome wind is gathering, is evident by the adaptations, copycat narratives and Simpsons Halloween hommages it has inspired over the years. Jacobs, a whimsical Londoner whose stock-in-trade as a writer was humour, had a light enough touch to issue stagey winks to the gallery while ratcheting up the terror:
Mr. White took the paw from his pocket and eyed it dubiously. “I don’t know what to wish for, and that’s a fact,” he said slowly. “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.”
“If you only cleared the house, you’d be quite happy, wouldn’t you?” said Herbert, with his hand on his shoulder. “Well, wish for two hundred pounds, then; that’ll just do it.”
His father, smiling shamefacedly at his own credulity, held up the talisman, as his son, with a solemn face somewhat marred by a wink at his mother, sat down at the piano and struck a few impressive chords.
“I wish for two hundred pounds,” said the old man distinctly.
A fine crash from the piano greeted the words, interrupted by a shuddering cry from the old man. His wife and son ran toward him.
“It moved, he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor. “As I wished it twisted in my hands like a snake.”
“Well, I don’t see the money,” said his son, as he picked it up and placed it on the table, “and I bet I never shall.”
It’s the stuff of spoof sketch shows, when Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Psycho plays while a young woman takes a shower: as the music builds, so does her anxiety until with a shriek she pulls back the curtain…to reveal a sheepish string quartet. Herbert White’s ironic piano tells us that this is no primitive discovery of the spine chiller but a knowing piece of writing, whose three-act structure enables the hermetic space of the small parlour in Laburnam Villa to waver and warp like the minds of poor Mr and Mrs White after Sergeant-Major Morris offers them a furry fist-pound.
The story’s three acts work in the manner of a stage illusion. We have the pledge in act one, locating us in the type of story this is, with enough eye-catching vagary to stop us looking too hard: the ghostly ambience (but what part really does the foul weather and remote location play in the events that follow?); the traumatised visitor with the harrowing tale relating to his mysterious gift (why has he not burned it himself? why does he give it to them? what happened to him?); the first, modest wish for two hundred pounds, the equivalent of the sort of money that, on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? would do very nicely, Chris, to pay off the debts and maybe get a little holiday. The third act, the prestige, tells us what the illusionist has done: in this case, have the Whites – or the readers, or all – believing in magic monkey paws engineering freak fatal workplace accidents and bringing mutilated zombies out of the ground to bang on front doors, but answering no questions as to what actually has taken place.
It’s the middle act, the turn, that deserves more attention for its writing sleight-of-hand. In narrative terms, the point of this section is to show us that, when the Whites wish on the monkey’s paw for two hundred pounds, the consequences were that their son, Herbert, was tragically and horrifically killed (“Caught in the machinery” of both factory and plot – a zeugma so satisfying, Jacobs makes sure it’s repeated in the dialogue), the compensation amounting to the very sum for which they wished. It’s a development that could have been reported in a couple of sentences but instead Jacobs gives a bravura display of dramatic irony, heightening every moment as the contentment built over a shared lifetime is cut away from the Whites like the paw from the monkey’s arm, and shredded like Herbert on the Maw and Meggins’ factory floor.
We’ve bolted down the jovial family breakfast, laughing off the silliness of the previous evening before Herbert takes his comedy routine off to work with him, but when, later, Mrs White is distracted by a strange, well-dressed young man at the front gate, Fate shudders to a halt and turns, slowly, gravely, to set off on its new direction:
His wife made no reply. She was watching the mysterious movements of a man outside, who, peering in an undecided fashion at the house, appeared to be trying to make up his mind to enter. In mental connection with the two hundred pounds, she noticed that the stranger was well dressed and wore a silk hat of glossy newness. Three times he paused at the gate, and then walked on again. The fourth time he stood with his hand upon it, and then with sudden resolution flung it open and walked up the path. Mrs. White at the same moment placed her hands behind her, and hurriedly unfastening the strings of her apron, put that useful article of apparel beneath the cushion of her chair.
There are so many joys in this paragraph. We’ve earlier learned that only two houses on the road are let so why paying a visit to one of them should be the cause of such uncertainty is beyond me. Of course, the reason for the young man’s dithering is to stoke Mrs White’s anticipation – she senses money in the young man’s dress – and foreboding. Note how the phrases are stretched out like pizza dough: “a silk hat of glossy newness” rather than a new silk hat; the absurd but brilliant aside about the apron – “that useful article of apparel” – as its strings are unfastened (ever tried doing that in a hurry behind your back?) and it’s shoved behind a cushion because you don’t receive visitors looking like you’re in the middle of the housework. Even when he’s inside, the visitor is given a quick inventory of everything in the house that’s not as spick and span as it ought to be, and when he starts to tell them about Herbert, he stammers, hesitates, and throws in a really bloody helpful riddle, about how Herbert is not in any pain, before getting round to the terrible news. Mr White’s reaction is beautiful:
He sat staring blankly out at the window, and taking his wife’s hand between his own, pressed it as he had been wont to do in their old courting days nearly forty years before.
In this instant, the two of them revert to a time when they were filled with hope for the future, that has since come and is now gone; they are back to when it was just the two of them, as it will be again from now on; and they are reminded of being the age Herbert was until the machinery got hold of him. It’s immaculate use of a detail whose humanity would be stunning to encounter in any story, let alone one with generic supernatural trappings. The subject of compensation comes up and Mr White’s reaction is again one to cherish, a true ‘is this your card?’ moment as he recognises the trick that Fate has played on his family and
His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”
When you see the naked simplicity of that phrase – no artificial guesstimate of what his face might be doing or what particular omens the tone of his voice might carry; no he asked, worriedly, he asked with an anguished grimace, he asked but knew the answer already – and realise that the fussiness of the “silk hat of glossy newness” phrase was not archaic over-writing but a deliberate and mischievous effect, you should recognise why Jacobs’ story endures. The grand illusion of the monkey’s paw is a durable narrative, no doubt, but – especially in the second act, there is close-up magic in the writing.