Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs

One evening last year my daughter's former English teacher asked if i'd ever read The Monkey's Paw. I forget the trigger event, though it may have been discussing The Nonsense Room, a story from my book Unremembered Histories, short stories with a supernatural twist. I'd read it perhaps half a century ago when I was in school, but remembered nothing about it. After revisiting this story I now recommend it here to you.

The Monkey's Paw is essentially a variation of the traditional genie in a bottle genre in which a person can get three wishes. But it's three wishes from the dark side. Not only do the wishes come true, when they do they have unanticipated shocking consequences. The manner in which the tale is told is what grips you. As with all good stories, the reader plunges forward because he or she is eager to see what will happen next.

It begins on a dark, dreary night as the White family waits for a visitor to their out of the way home.  The father and son are playing chess in the parlor while white-haired Mrs. White sits knitting by the fireplace.

The second paragraph, a single sentence, foreshadows the sum total of the story: "Hark at the wind," said Mr. White, who, having seen a fatal mistake after it was too late, was amiably desirous of preventing his son from seeing it.

Chess provides a great variety of life lessons. Decisions must be made all throughout. Consequences of decisions aren't always readily recognizable. All too often they are made with unnecessary haste and dire consequences.

Thus we are conveyed into the story as the White's visitor arrives, a sergeant-major who has spent 21 years abroad in what the Whites believe to be exotic and adventurous places. As they talk, and splash down a few drinks, the topic turns to a monkey's paw that the visitor had mentioned to Mr. White a few days earlier.

The soldier attempts to divert the conversation, though against his better judgment he acknowledges that there is something magical in the matter. He is actually carrying the thing on him at that very moment, but in an effort to be done with it he throws it on the fire.

Mr. White takes fast action and rescues it. The grim visitor is solemn and says, "Better let it burn."

White's impulsiveness becomes the stories turning point, cementing the family's doom.

Like many such stories there's a moral: don't mess with fate. Stephen King's 1000-page 10/23/63 has essentially the same moral, except in a much more massive form. King's story is about a man who goes back in time in an effort to keep JFK from being assassinated.

Hollywood, of course, loves this kind of magical lore in films, in part because the public craving for it seems endless. I half wonder if the Robin Williams film Jumanji had some of its ideas stimulated by The Monkey's Paw. Kids find a magical game board and start to play, but soon learn that there are unexpected consequences to each move. Sound familiar? There is even a connection to India and other exotic places here.

If you go back to the beginning of the 20th century you can see lots of fascination with "exotic places," which must have been a portion of this story's appeal, in addition to the creepiness of its premise. Writers like Jack London and Joseph Conrad, among others, capitalized on this interest in all things foreign.

Meantime, as noted earlier, I encourage you to take a few minutes to read The Monkey's Paw. It's an unusual and very compelling story, and a good read.  

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