A Review in 100 Pieces: The Century’s Best Horror Fiction, 1902: W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw”
Recently, I purchased The Century’s Best Horror Fiction, a beautiful two-volume set of short horror stories, edited by John Pelan and published by Cemetery Dance Publications. I feel like something this epic deserves special treatment, and so I’m challenging myself to read one story a day for the next 100 days, posting reviews as I go. Tonight, I read a tale chosen from the year 1902: W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” …
Tonight was not my first time reading this classic short story, and I always want to like it more than I do. Yes, I respect the craft; the writing is decent enough, and I admire the little flourish of beginning with a chess game lost (chess being one of those games where it is important to think ahead, look before you leap, etc., etc.), which I think was lost on me the first few times I read this story. The prose is clean, the details evocative, and you have to at least give some points to any story where a character is described as being “armed with an antimacassar.”
Oh, domestic weapons!
But the truth is, I resent this story a little. The plot involves the hideous results of a family making three well-intentioned wishes on a shriveled monkey’s paw after being warned not to by the person who brings it into their house. It reminds me of the standard situational comedy model, where a TV show’s characters could concoct all sorts of crazy plans to better their lives, but the viewer always knew that nothing would ever work and that next week everyone would still be right where they started. Or, if not sitcoms, it reminds me of all the hundreds of clones of this story I read in the old EC Comics. Wishes never work out in fiction, and there are few tropes more irritating to the intellect; if I could have a wish, it would be that all characters who make wishes on monkeys’ paws could make smarter wishes. Instead of saying, “I wish for 200 pounds,” say, “I wish to find a forgotten sack of two hundred pounds on my front lawn and for no one to be hurt or harmed or emotionally scarred in the process.” But no. Every character wishes for things that are easily done in horrible ways.
But I guess the point is conveyed: be careful what you wish for, indeed!
Still, the events of the story seem overly manipulative to me in a way I don’t appreciate. The end is a foregone conclusion, and it’s more frustrating than fun to read about the failure of these characters to think just a little bit ahead.
I give this story 3/5 stars, with apologies for bringing my own personal baggage into a classic tale.