The most wonderful thing just happened.
I realized, a short way into reading this story, that I’d seen a play adapted from it in middle school. I loved that play, and have often thought back to it (the best stories stay with us that way), but I had, of course, conveniently forgotten the most important detail: that the talisman the family used to make their wishes was a monkey’s paw, which, of course, is the eponymous title of the story. Now, unexpectedly, I have found it. It is as if I’ve discovered an old letter from a childhood friend…
Two-thirds through my 30-day short story challenge, I present it to you. Enjoy.
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
“To look at,” said the sergeant-major, fumbling in his pocket, “it’s just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.”
He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. Mrs. White drew back with a grimace, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously.
“And what is there special about it?” inquired Mr. White, as he took it from his son and, having examined it, placed it upon the table.
“It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,” said the sergeant-major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”
A father and son, the Whites, sit playing chess during a cold, wet, and windy night in Laburnam Villa. They are expecting company.
Herbert, the son, defeats his father and then cheers, “There he is!” Mr. White admits and introduces Sergeant-Major Morris to his wife and son. All hurry to warm him by the fire (he has made a long journey; this Villa is remote, and the weather regrettable) and give him whiskey, and by the third glass he is telling the family (all eagerly listening) of faraway scenes and wars and plagues and peoples. Mr. White and the sergeant-major knew one another in youth; the latter has been gone these last twenty-one years, surveying the world.
Mr. White says he’d love to make it out to India. The sergeant-major assures him he’s better where he is. But the old man continues daydreaming: he should like to see the temples, and the fakirs, and the jugglers, and oh yes—what was it Morris said about a monkey’s paw the other day?
“Nothing,” Morris hastily replies.
But with all the family eagerly listening, he elaborates: you might call it magic, he says. It looks like nothing more than a mummified paw (here he produces a package to show his listeners), but it had a spell put on it by an old fakir: a very holy man. This holy man wanted to show that fate rules people’s lives, and that to attempt to tamper with it is folly. He spelled it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.
Mr. White pipes, “Well, why don’t you have three, sir?”
His company gravely replies that he has. And they came true.
Mrs. White asks whether anyone else has wished. The soldier responds in the affirmative; the first man made three wishes—the final one being for death—and that was how he came to possess the paw. Thoughtful, Mr. White asks why the soldier keeps the paw. Morris can offer no good reason. When asked if, given the option, he could have another three wishes would he take them, he replies that he doesn’t know.
Then, without warning, he throws the paw in the fireplace.
Mr. White, with a cry, snatches it out. His friend tells him to let it burn, but Mr. White insists on keeping it. The soldier warns and discourages him from using the paw, telling him there are consequences, but Mr. White does not heed him; finally, desperate, Morris grabs his friend’s arm and demands that if he must wish that he wish for something sensible.
When the soldier leaves, the family discuss the paw together. Mr. White seems more reserved now; hesitant or perhaps having second thoughts as he relays that Morris pressed him again to throw the thing away. Herbert scoffs. Why should they—why would they throw it away when they could use it to be wealthy and famous and happy? Wish to be an emperor, he advises his father.
Mr. White admits that he doesn’t know what to wish for; he is content. Herbert suggests paying off the house—two hundred pounds ought to do it.
“I wish for two hundred pounds,” says Mr. White.
The dried paw writhes in his hand. He cries aloud.
But no money appears. When, at length, nothing happens, Mrs. White assures her husband that he imagined the movement and the couple goes to bed. Herbert lingers a bit longer, staring idly at the fire; when the fire begins to take a simian likeness he laughs, shakes himself, and dashes water the fireplace before going to bed himself.
The next morning the paw remains on the floor, and the family laugh at themselves for believing in such nonsense. Herbert jokes the money might yet fall from the sky; Mr. White says, according to Morris, the wishes were granted in such a natural way that they might be called coincidence.
Herbert leaves (presumably for work) and Mrs. White assures a stubborn Mr. that he must have imagined the paw moving.
Then, shortly after Herbert’s departure, a well-dressed stranger is seen wandering in front of their house. He is hesitating whether or not to visit. The Whites usher him in.
The visitor, looking uncomfortable, says he was asked to call from Maw and Meggins. This is presumably Herbert’s place of work (a factory, by the sound of it), for the Mrs. immediately inquires whether anything has happened to her son. Is he hurt?
“Badly hurt,” the visitor assents. “But not in any pain.”
It takes a moment for his meaning to sink in. When it does, the visitor explains that Herbert was caught in the machinery. Maw and Meggins disclaim all responsibility, he continues, but wish to offer a compensatory sum.
“How much?” asks Mr. White.
“Two hundred pounds,” is the reply.
The Whites bury their son and mourn. The days pass. One night, unable to sleep, the wife has a sudden revelation: the paw! Why not use one of the other two wishes to wish Herbert alive again?
“You’re mad!” says her husband. Herbert has been dead for ten days; he would be a terrible apparition now. The wife rebukes him: would she fear the child that she herself raised?
Reluctantly, the husband retrieves the paw from downstairs and, at his wife’s command, make’s the second wish: “I wish my son alive again.”
They wait. Nothing appears to happen. The wife raises the bedroom blind and looks out the window; the candle burns and burns and blows out; they lie in bed and wait in the darkness, listening. Finally, when the husband can stand the darkness no more, he goes downstairs to retrieve another candle.
His match falters and goes out at the bottom of the stair. Then, before he can strike another, there comes a soft knocking at the door. He pauses. The knock comes again. And again.
“What’s that?” says his wife.
“A rat,” he replies.
The knock sounds again. Loudly.
“Herbert!” she screams. “It’s Herbert!”
She runs down the stairs, past her husband, and goes to the front door. Her husband grabs her by the arm, barring her from letting whoever it is in.
“It’s Herbert,” she repeats, insisting that there is nothing to fear. The knocking continues, and, against her husband’s pleas, she begins undoing the locks. Mr. White flees from the room, groping upstairs in the dark for the paw. The door is stuck; Mrs. White can’t reach the bolt. She calls for him as the knocking continues, thunderous. She fetches a chair to stand on and undoes the bolt just as her husband finds the paw and frantically whispers his last wish.
The knocking stops and she opens the door. She lets out a great wail, and her husband runs back to her, looking outside and all around: the lit street is quiet and empty.
I find little new and compelling in the way of craft here—everything is clean and simple (the story shows, doesn’t tell; dialogue is tight and concise; minimal character description given, etc.). The only remark of value I feel I can add is that this is a case where the story itself is strong; the pithy presentation lets it do the talking.
But there were a few new words!
placid: not easily upset or excited; peaceful
rubicund: having a ruddy (healthy red) complexion
doughty: steadfastly courageous
fakir: a Muslim or Hindu religious idealist who lives solely on alms
henpeck: (of a woman) to criticize/order (a husband) around. This word is perfect for Madame Kushin of yesterday’s story!
antimacassar: a piece of cloth put over a chair to protect it from grease or dirt
bibulous: excessively fond of drinking alcohol
fusillade: a series of shots fired in rapid succession
20 stories down, another 10 to go! À demain!