Saturday, April 19, 2014

Roots of Horror: The Monkey's Paw

Illustration by Walt Sturrock
~by Marie Robinson

Englishman W. W. Jacobs’ literary work was mainly comedic, but he is now known nearly exclusively for his supernatural short story, “The Monkey’s Paw”. Originally published in September of 1902, it has been republished in horror anthologies, adapted for film and stage, and provided inspiration for dozens of other forms of media.

In his classic tale, the White family—which includes Mr., Mrs. and grown son, Herbert—are visited by a friend, military man, Sergeant-Major Morris. He tells the Whites of a mysterious talisman that will grant three wishes, but at a terrible expense. Sergeant-Major Morris throws the talisman, a dried monkey’s paw, into the fire, but Mr. White retrieves it before it is burned, and despite Morris’ warnings, decides to keep it and use it anyway.

Brett Simmons' 2013 film
The story is simple enough, but Jacobs’ dark and haunting delivery had rendered it timeless. Admiration for the tale was instant, and the first adaptation of the tale was in the form of a one-act play staged in London, 1903. The first film version of “The Monkey’s Paw” appeared in 1923, and since then there have been nine more films directly adapting the story—the most recent released by Chiller last year. The story has been the inspiration for a handful of television plots on popular shows such as The X-Files, Buffy, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and The Twilight Zone which have all used the motif of a wish-granting cursed talisman.

This motif has been incorporated in a number of other films, television shows, books, video games, and comics, but perhaps my favorite version of “The Monkey’s Paw” is living legend Christopher Lee’s 2004 recording of the tale, which was done as part of the BBC’s radio series Christopher Lee’s Fireside Tales. Read the full text here (, or listen below… if you dare.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Thanks for sharing about the newish movie version. I'll have to check that out. Your analysis of the motif's history is great. "Be careful what you wish for" comes up time and again. I remember in school when my teacher introduced "The Monkey's Paw." I was so excited to read it! Should have known then that the genre had a hold on me...