William Wymark Jacobs (1863-1943) was born in London and spread his literary talent widely as a journalist, humourist, dramatist and novelist. He became popular with readers for a series of tales about the lives of seamen, but in 1902 wrote The Monkey’s Paw, a horror story which has been filmed, adapted for radio and television, and is probably one of the most anthologised stories in English literature. The story is based on the famous setup, in which three wishes are granted. In the story, the paw of a dead monkey is a talisman that grants its possessor three wishes, but they come with an enormous price for interfering with fate. The story has been adapted into other media many times, including a one-act play that was performed in 1907 at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. There were also film adaptations in the silent era, notably the infamous 1933 version directed by Ernest B Schoedsack, a lost film whose mysterious disappearance has been debated for decades. An updated version of the story was then featured in a 1965 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Most recently, director Ricky Lewis Jr. adapted the story into a partially animated horror short in 2011. What is it about The Monkey’s Paw that has made it so irresistible to adaptors in the century-plus since its publication?
W W Jacobs was born in Wapping, London; his father was wharf manager at the South Devon wharf at Lower East Smithfield. He was educated at a private school in London and later at Birkbeck College, University of London. As an author, the majority of Jacobs’ output was humorous in tone. His favourite subject was the life of seamen (perhaps as a natural result of his upbringing). Although his maritime tales earned him moderate success, Jacobs is now best remembered for his macabre tales The Monkey’s Paw (published in the 1902 collection of short stories The Lady of the Barge) and the equally good, though less famous, The Toll House (published in the 1909 collection of short stories Sailors’ Knots). The popularity of The Monkey’s Paw in particular has been extraordinarily long-lasting. The story has been included in approximately seventy collections, from horror and gothic anthologies to the New York Review of Books’ collection of classic fiction. The story has also been turned into a play, parodied on The Simpsons, and made into eight separate films. In perhaps the ultimate compliment to any horror story writer, Stephen King also wrote about The Monkey’s Paw in The Dead Zone (1979) and Apt Pupil (1982) and based his novel Pet Sematary (1983) on its themes.
Jacobs drew from a number of widely known literary sources in writing The Monkey’s Paw to make the story both familiar and unsettling. His most recognisable influence was the tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp. There are numerous variations to the Aladdin story but nearly all of them suggest that successful wishing is impossible because magic never works the way people want it to work. Jacobs also uses the same structural pattern in The Monkey’s Paw featured in most other “three wishes” stories: the first wish leads to unexpected and unsatisfying results, the hastily made second wish fails to reverse the first wish and only worsens the situation, and the third wish manages to undo the disastrous second wish. Jacobs’ less obvious sources of inspiration, however, include the Bible and stories of Faust, the German scholar who sells his soul in exchange for the Devil’s service. In the story Mr White recoils in horror after wishing on the monkey’s paw for the first time, insisting that the paw moved like a snake in his hand. This snake alludes to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve discovers that the seemingly delicious fruit brings only misery. Similarly, the Whites — whose surname suggests unsullied innocence — discover that the powerful monkey’s paw grants wishes with a heavy price. And just as in the Faust stories, the fulfillment of Mr and Mrs White’s wishes brings only pain and suffering to others and therefore fails to satisfy them. Other sources for The Monkey’s Paw include Indian and Chinese legends, a Victorian urban myth and a Northern European folk tale that has been passed down through countless generations. All of this suggests strongly that Jacobs was channelling a universal myth based on a kernel of truth rather than simply making up a work of complete fiction.
To see for yourself what all the fuss is about click here to read The Monkey’s Paw. In an interesting footnote, Jacobs died suddenly at Hornsey Lane, Islington, London one night in 1943. Reasons for his death were not specified.