Tag Archives: W W Jacobs

The Mozart of the English Ghost Story

12 Jul

How does William Wymark Jacobs earn the title “The Mozart of the English Short Story”? Because his prose is exquisite and translucent, and his plots – like Mozart/Da Ponte operas – are full of fun and mischief, as anti-romantic as they are romantic. Just as in the last act of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, if you blink you risk missing a sublime, or a sublimely comic moment, if your attention lapses when reading a Jacobs story, you risk missing sly irony, wry innuendo or a mordant remark – more often than not about marriage! In fact, the simple pleasure of reading Jacobs’s perfectly paced prose – in Evelyn Waugh’s words, his “exquisite precision of narrative” – is often more enjoyable than following the actual plots of his stories, which are often intricate and sometimes seem only to hang by a thread, which require the reader’s alertness, if not participation, and which are often not resolved until the very last word, sometimes leaving the reader vexed, or even disappointed, however charmed by the telling of the story itself. An example of this is the delectable The Bequest, from Ship’s Company, about late-middle-age second marriage and – inevitably with Jacobs – money. Even the end of The Monkey’s Paw requires some reader participation. The fact is that Jacobs’s invisible craft of narration often cannot be matched even by the ingenuity of his plots. That the lasting satisfaction of a Jacobs story lies less in its plot than its telling means that, like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Jacobs is infinitely re-readable. His sentences always have buoyancy and air. Knowing the plot of a Jacobs story – but not perhaps fully understanding its denouement – does not spoil the pleasure of reading and re-reading him. Open any Jacobs story and you will receive a lesson in how to write English prose and dialogue. Jacobs sustained this prose style, seemingly entirely natural to him – but he always worked hard and slowly – over some 150 stories and six novels. This means that making a selection from his stories is extremely difficult, because they almost all offer the same degree of pleasure.

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The Monkey’s Paw

30 Sep

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?

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