In a discussion with friend Wayne at trivia last week, a mention was made about a wager between two men that one of them would not talk for a year. That story, an episode of The Twilight Zone, was based on Anton Chekov’s short story The Bet. More of that next week.
That story brought to mind another from many years ago, from long before the works of Stephen King (although King wrote about “The Monkey’s Paw” in The Dead Zone (1979) and Apt Pupil (1982) and based his novel Pet Sematary (1983) on its themes), a story which still retains its understated creepiness and horror.
The short story is called The Monkey’s Paw, published in 1902 as one of a collection of short stories by W W Jacobs in a book called The Lady of the Barge and Others.
For those who would like to read the story, click on:
The following is a summary:
Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son, Herbert, live in a simple but comfortable home. Sergeant-Major Morris, a friend of the Whites who has been part of the British Army in India, introduces them to the monkey's paw, telling of its mysterious powers to grant three wishes.
He explains that the monkey's paw has had a spell cast on it by an Indian holy man who wanted to illustrate that those who interfere with fate do so to their sorrow. The spell would allow three men each to have three wishes from it. When Herbert asks him why he does not take three wishes himself, the sergeant-major responds soberly that he has. He adds that the first man had had his wishes as well, that the third was for death, and the paw thus had passed on to him. Sergeant-Major Morris, having had a bad experience upon using the paw, throws the monkey's paw into the fire but White quickly retrieves it. Morris warns White, but White, thinking about what the paw could be used for, ignores him.
Mr. White wishes for £200 to be used as the final payment on his house. The next day his son Herbert leaves for work at a local factory. Later that day, word comes to the White home that Herbert has been killed in a machinery accident. Although the employer disclaims tortious responsibility for the incident, the firm makes a goodwill payment to heirs of the deceased. The payment is £200.
Ten days after the funeral, Mrs. White, almost mad with grief, asks her husband to use the paw to wish Herbert back to life.
"I only just thought of it," she said, hysterically. "Why didn't I think of it before? Why didn't you think of it?"
"Think of what?" he questioned.
"The other two wishes," she replied, rapidly. "We've only had one."
"Was not that enough?" he demanded, fiercely.
"No," she cried, triumphantly; "we'll have one more. Go down and get it quickly, and wish our boy alive again."
The man sat up in bed and flung the bedclothes from his quaking limbs. "Good God, you are mad!" he cried, aghast.
"Get it," she panted; "get it quickly, and wish—Oh, my boy, my boy!"
Her husband struck a match and lit the candle. "Get back to bed," he said, unsteadily. "You don't know what you are saying."
"We had the first wish granted," said the old woman, feverishly; "why not the second?"
"A coincidence," stammered the old man.
"Go and get it and wish," cried his wife, quivering with excitement.
The old man turned and regarded her, and his voice shook. "He has been dead ten days, and besides he—I would not tell you else, but—I could only recognize him by his clothing. If he was too terrible for you to see then, how now?"
"Bring him back," cried the old woman, and dragged him toward the door. "Do you think I fear the child I have nursed?"
Reluctantly, he does so. Shortly afterwards there is a knock at the door. Mrs. White fumbles at the locks in an attempt to open the door. Mr. White knows, however, that he cannot allow their revived son in, as his appearance will be too hideous. Mr. White was required to identify the body, which had been mutilated by the accident. It has now been buried for more than a week.
There was another knock, and another. The old woman with a sudden wrench broke free and ran from the room. Her husband followed to the landing, and called after her appealingly as she hurried downstairs. He heard the chain rattle back and the bottom bolt drawn slowly and stiffly from the socket. Then the old woman's voice, strained and panting.
"The bolt," she cried, loudly. "Come down. I can't reach it."
But her husband was on his hands and knees groping wildly on the floor in search of the paw. If he could only find it before the thing outside got in. A perfect fusillade of knocks reverberated through the house, and he heard the scraping of a chair as his wife put it down in the passage against the door. He heard the creaking of the bolt as it came slowly back, and at the same moment he found the monkey's paw, and frantically breathed his third and last wish.
The knocking ceased suddenly, although the echoes of it were still in the house. He heard the chair drawn back, and the door opened. A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and then to the gate beyond. The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.
As the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for, you just may get it.