A cold, rainy night in February was apt for revisiting W. W. Jacobs’ 1902 short story, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, first published in the collection The Lady of the Barge. Set in imperial Britain, the story endures as a spine-chilling classic of genre fiction; one which explores the folly of dabbling with the supernatural, darkness in its many forms, and the threat of the outsider.
A non-commissioned officer, on leave from India, visits an elderly couple and their son. That evening he reveals what he claims is a magical talisman. His intrusion into the cosy suburban home of the Edwardian family grows increasingly unsettling as the story progresses. The sergeant-major is a grim, gnomic figure: he represents the reaches of colonialism and the mysteries it unearthed – the foreign, or ‘other’ – introducing worlds beyond their imagination. The story is a salutary reminder that, for many British people of the time, empire, too, was bound up with the far-off and the unknowable.
The sergeant-major’s gift to them, a shrivelled monkey’s paw which he claims bears three wishes, forms the central motif of the narrative. When introduced into the home, the exotic gift sets in motion an estrangement from the familiar. Now a classic trope in horror, his reluctance to engage the family’s curiosity only contributes to the growing suspense. Responding to their request that he reveal the paw’s magical properties, he says, ‘Better let it burn’. The sergeant-major hints that none of the previous owners of the magical talisman had come of any good. Nevertheless, the husband and wife persist in their desire to experience the enchantment, and the story unfolds with the inevitability and momentum of a fairy tale.
Essentially a supernatural morality tale, the narrative is, at its heart, about greed, fascination, and the dark possibilities of wish fulfilment. To this end, the author’s suspenseful invocation of mystery hinges on the frailty of the domestic space at the elements of the world beyond it: ‘Outside, the wind was higher than ever, and the old man started nervously at the sound of the door banging upstairs.’ Jacobs gives us enough of the usual trappings of the supernatural genre to test our curiosity. But his descent into the macabre, further developed by the rule of three sequence (a traditional formula of fairy tales and horror alike), begins starkly, with a dreadful revelation, following their first wish.
The old father’s pronouncement to the talisman that ‘I wish my son alive again’ elevates the story to question mortality and fate. In the midst of grief, he looks into the abyss of enchantment to subvert the natural order. I was reminded of the old Scottish word ‘wanchancy’: though not a term Jacobs uses in the story, it describes an act that should not be countenanced for fear of supernatural repercussions.
Jacobs positions his conclusion masterfully. The final horror of the knocking door at midnight, ‘the thing outside’, and the scramble to draw the bolts make the story a delicious example from the golden age of British ghost stories. ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ mixes Edwardian anxieties of Britain’s colonial power and new-age superstition provoked by the world beyond its borders.
Words by Vidhi Sood.
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