“I’d like to go to India myself,” said the old man, “just to look round a bit, you know.”
“Better where you are,” said the sergeant-major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass, and sighing softly, shook it again.
“I should like to see those old temples and fakirs and jugglers,” said the old man. “What was that you started telling me the other day about a monkey’s paw or something, Morris?”
“Nothing,” said the soldier, hastily. “Leastways nothing worth hearing.”
“Monkey’s paw?” said Mrs. White, curiously.
“Well, it’s just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps,” said the sergeant-major, offhandedly.
His three listeners leaned forward eagerly. The visitor absent-mindedly put his empty glass to his lips and then set it down again. His host filled it for him.
Like Ambrose Bierce’s ‘The Occurrence at Own Creek Bridge’, Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’, Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’, and Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is, in a way that eradicates naysayers, simply a perfect story. However there is nothing simple about it. It contains multitudes. My friend the writer Steve Lockley does a talk to students about its many layers, and tells me it easily lasts two hours, sometimes three, as discussion can spin off in so many different directions, from fairy tales to numerology, from possessed objects to Darwin, from Freud’s return of the repressed, to Tales from the Crypt. The story’s plot is well known. Deceptively anecdotal. The three wishes format sits solidly its core, the magical paw a symbol of desire and greed, appealing to our human compulsion to selfishly grasp what is unattainable, what is wrong in the natural order, and the consequence therein. It could be a Biblical parable, and would not be out of place set in the Holy Land. The genius is that Lazarus, mangled, unspeakable, voiceless, remains out of shot, making it the most cinematic of short stories, and one of the most contained. It begins on a dark and stormy night with that supremely rational pastime, a game of chess. But after a tale of far off lands takes grip by the fireside, reversals from elation to shock, hope to desolation, keep us on our toes. Nothing is more brutal than the phrase ‘Caught in the machinery’. And, according to William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist, nothing more scary than ‘a slow tracking shot towards a closed door’ – which this classic story, in fictional terms, proves, to a tee.
First published in The Lady of the Barge 1902; collected in Antologia de la Literatura Fantástica, ed. Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Argentina 1940, English edition revised and expanded as The Book of Fantasy, published in Great Britain by Xanadu Publications Ltd 1988. It can be read online here