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March 30, 2011

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The Most Terrifying Short Story Ever Written?

by gfsnell3

"The Monkey's Foot" wouldn't have been as scary.

After 109 years, “The Monkey’s Paw” continues to produce scares – even for modern audiences.

“The Monkey’s Paw” was written by a humorist who enjoyed writing about adventures on the high seas.  Yet W.W. Jacobs is best remembered for giving us one of the most terrifying short stories in literature.

The story is a chilling morality play about the dangers of tempting fate.  The lesson is simple: Be careful what you wish for.

The story, written in 1902, opens on a cold, dank night in an English village on the edge of a desolate moor.  A rugged wind is buffeting the house, but within the closed quarters a family of three (father, mother, and grown son) huddle at the parlor fire.   Father and son play chess while the woman knits.

The father, Mr. White, is a noisy, emotional man.  He is the odd man out in the family.  Mrs. White is a devoted and doting mother to her son, Herbert.  Mother and son have a humorous rapport and often gently tease Mr. White.

One of the most effective devices in the story is the use of the setting.  The house and the outlying country become an integral part of the story, especially in setting the dark tone.  Here’s how Mr. White describes his home:

“That’s the worst of living so far out,” bawled Mr. White, with sudden and unlooked-for violence; “of all the beastly, slushy, out-of-the-way places to live in, this is the worst.  Pathway’s a bog, and the road’s a torrent.  I don’t know what people are thinking about.  I suppose because only two houses on the road are let, they think it doesn’t matter.”

On this bleak night, Sergeant Major Morris, a long-time family friend pays a visit.  Morris, a British officer, has returned from a long engagement in India.  They drink around the sputtering fire and listen to Morris tell tales of his Asian adventures.

Drunk on whiskey, Morris is goaded into telling the family the story of the monkey’s paw. He is reluctant, but his willpower has been weakened by the liquor, and once he opens up the story pours out of him faster than the whiskey poured in.

“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.”

His manner was so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter jarred somewhat

“Well, why don’t you have three, sir?” said Herbert White cleverly.

The soldier regarded him in the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth.  “I have,” he said quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.

And then the old soldier tells them that he has no idea what the first man did with his first two wishes – but the third wish was for death.  He tries to destroy the paw by tossing it into the fire, but Mr. White quickly retrieves it.  Before he leaves, Morris cautions the old man to make his wishes wisely.

Before the night is out, Mr. White, on a dare from his son, wishes for 200 pounds.  The paw twists grotesquely in his hand and in revulsion Mr. White tosses it aside.  No one much believes anything will happen.

But the next morning, after Herbert has gone to work, a strange man appears the door with terrible news.  Their son has been caught in machinery at the factory and has been killed.  The stranger, a mill representative, tells them they will be compensated.

Mr. White dropped his wife’s hand, and rising to his feet, gazed with a look of horror at his visitor.  His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”

“Two hundred pounds,” was the answer.

Unconscious of his wife’s shriek, the old man smiled faintly, put out his hands like a sightless man, and dropped, a senseless heap, to the floor.

The Whites fall into a state of mourning, especially Mrs. White, the devoted mother.  And then one night, two weeks later, she remembers the monkey’s paw and orders her husband to wish for their son to be alive.  Reluctantly, Mr. White does.

Then in the dead of night, there is a knock at the door and then a pounding.  Mr. White, picturing the shambling animated corpse of his son, hurries to find the monkey’s paw while he wife struggles to open the locks on the front door.

Mr. White makes a last wish – the door swings wide: to an empty yard.  His wife’s desperate scream pierces the night.

The lingering terror of “The Monkey’s Paw” is that we have no idea what the last wish was.   Clearly, Mr. White wished for his son to be gone – at least that’s what it appears he wished for.  But we don’t know for certain.  And even more chilling – what will be the consequence of the last wish?

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Read our essay on Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story “Indian Camp”

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