There are certain horror stories that capture the imagination; ones that once out in the world work their way into people’s minds and get under their skins. They inspire other stories, other creators, and create a legacy that becomes bigger than they ever were. And perhaps none has ever managed to do it more successfully than 1902 short story The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, a story barely more than thirty pages in length that has become one of the most iconic concepts in horror.
Some spoilers for a very famous 120 year old story now: The Monkey’s Paw tells the story of Mr and Mrs White, and their adult son Herbert, and the night they meet up for dinner with family friend Sergeant-Major Morris, who tells them about a cursed monkey’s paw he purchased whilst stationed abroad. The paw is said to grant three wishes to whoever holds it, but the wishes also bring great misfortune to those who use it. He tells them that it has brought him misery, and throws it into their fire.
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However, the Whites retrieve it. Whilst Mr White has no wish to use it, his son takes the paw and uses it to wish for £200 to pay off his mortgage (those were the days huh?). The next day Mr and Mrs White receive news that Herbert was killed at work, and that his body was horrifically mangled in one of the machines. The company takes no responsibility for the incident, but gives the Whites payment of £200 as a form of goodwill. After the funeral a distraught Mrs White convinces her husband to wish Herbert back to life. As they wait to see what happens, Mr White’s mind is filled with thoughts of his son’s mutilated, rotten corpse, afraid of what the paw might give them. When the knocking begins at the door and Mrs White tries to open it, believing her son is home, Mr White is convinced that his son has returned a monster, and uses the final wish. The knocking stops, and when the door is opened, no one is there.
Now if this story sounds familiar to you it could be because it’s been used dozens of times over the last twelve decades, and has been the basis for a number of adaptations, parodies, and the inspiration for some well known stories. The story was an instant hit, and the very first adaptation appeared only a month after release, with a one act play opening in London’s Haymarket Theatre. A more fleshed out stage adaptation would premiere a few years later in 1907, and starred actor John Lawson, who would also go on to appear in the first ever filmed version of The Monkey’s Paw in 1915. Unfortunately, this version was lost, and no known footage of it exists today.
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The basic plot of The Monkey’s Paw has been used so many times over the years that the entire concept of a magical monkey hand that grants cursed wishes has become something that people probably don’t even associate with one singular story. Despite having no real basis in folklore, as with vampires or werewolves, it has entered the same realm of horror archetypes that they inhabit, where even if someone has never seen a story about it they seem to understand the basic concept.
It helps that the original story is dripping in atmosphere, taking place on dark and stormy nights, with the genuine conviction and fear in Sergeant-Major Morris’ words when he tells the Whites about it, the wish having a twisted result, and the slow horror as the elderly Whites wait for their son to return home and the unknown about what he might be, all help to create a narrative that may not last for long, but lingers in the mind. And it definitely lingered in the minds of a lot of creators.
The Monkey’s Paw appeared in the second Simpsons ‘Treehouse of Horrors’ episode, wherein all the wishes the Simpsons make go wrong. The fifth season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Forever’, saw the characters performing a spell to bring a loved one back but breaking it just before they could return home in fear of what they might have become. An episode of The X-Files features a genie who grants wishes that have bad consequences, and a body that returns to life in an awful state. Monkeys’ paws that grant twisted wishes have also appeared in Are You Afraid of the Dark, The Monkees, Rick and Morty, Creepshow, and even Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales special, where it was a wookie paw. Perhaps the most famous retelling, however, is the Stephen King novel Pet Semetary.
With the lasting cultural impact that came from a thirty page short story written over a hundred years ago, it could be argued that W.W. Jacobs is one of the most influential horror writers of all time, having forever changed the landscape of horror in what would be a single chapter of most books. That’s a hell of an achievement by any standard.
The Monkey’s Paw was originally published in September 1902 by Alan Rodgers Books.