Exploring Literature: The Monkey’s Paw

If we take a look at one of the most famous short stories ever written, W.W. Jacobs’ ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, we can see it is a great example of several horror favourite features.

Early on it is the ‘seen fatal mistake after it was too late’ of Mr White that gives us our major moment of foreshadowing. This moment that takes place during the chess game is later echoed in the events that Mr White unwittingly inflicts on his son.

We can see foreshadowing used in various movies/ TV programmes of all genres today, such as the comedy horror cult classic ‘Shaun of the Dead’. Nick Frost’s character, Ed, throughout the film makes various statements that later play out as actual events in the movie. The most obvious example of this is when he makes a pub crawl drinking plan in an effort to make Shaun, played by Simon Pegg, feel better about his break up with his girlfriend, Liz. In a monologue he gives sitting in The Winchester Pub as he describes the pub crawl he hints at events that later happen in the movie.

“Bloody Mary first thing, a bite at The King’s head, a couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and bang! Back at the bar for shots”.

The next day, Shaun and Ed first encounter a girl called Mary who is a zombie (Bloody Mary), they then go to collect Shaun’s mother only to see his step dad get bitten by another zombie (a bite at the King’s Head), they have to stagger in a zombie like fashion to The Winchester pub to avoid being mauled (stagger back here) and then end up using a gun to defend themselves in the bar (back at the bar for shots).

The location and time of day in which the majority of the story, ‘A Monkey’s Paw’ takes place use classic horror tropes. Things that happen at night are always scarier. The introduction of a ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ object also creates a mysterious feel.

Again, we can see the idea of the ‘exotic’ object being used in movies such as the 2001 film, ‘The Mummy’ or even the 1986 classic, ‘The Fly’. Jeff Goldblum’s character is transformed by a piece of machinery that we, the audience, know very little about. Messing with the unnatural object leads to a series of unforeseen events with disastrous consequences.

There is a moment of pathos in ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. Going from a happy night with joy and laughter to suddenly be brought back to a sobering sadness by the death of the son, engages the reader with the grieving parents. Everyone who has ever lost someone, be it a family member, a pet or even a celeb role model can instantly connect with the grief the parents go through and will have an emotional connection. It is the grief that the mother experiences that leads her to, in desperation, pursue a course of action regardless of what that may mean in the long run. The gain is more important than the cost could ever be.

This is used brilliantly in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ called ‘Be Right Back’. When the episode begins we see a happy young couple who are very much in love. Quite suddenly, the young woman is left devastated, alone and pregnant when her significant other is killed in a car crash. In her desperation and grief she uses technology to make her wish to have him returned to her come true. She is left to deal with the consequences of giving in to the temptation when it does not give her the same happiness that she had when her lover was alive.

The tension in ‘A Monkey’s Paw’ is well seeded right at the beginning. The sailor’s fear becomes our own fear and why? Because it is an unseen fear, the cause or the executioner cannot be seen. We don’t know how the retribution for the wish maker’s greed will be enacted or even where it will come from.

The Final Destination films are a masterclass in building tension using the unknown. Throughout the whole of franchise the viewer has no idea how death will tie up its loose ends. Even a glimpse of a sharp object puts the audience on edge.

The pace of this short story is great. It is the ramp at the beginning of a rollercoaster. It is the conflict between Mr. White’s growing fear and Mrs. White’s eagerness to see her son that make the climax of the story so good. We, the reader, want to know what is on the other side of that door making that knocking but we, the reader, are also scared of what grotesque horror might be standing there waiting.

An example of tension being built through conflict can be seen in an episode of ‘Inside no. 9’ called ‘The Bill’. Four men and one woman fight over who will pay the bill in a restaurant until the shocking climax. With each moment of conflict the pace increases until a few moments before the end of the episode. The tension becomes almost unbearable as the audience is left wondering how much further the cast will go to be the bill payer.

There is so much we can learn from examining horror short story classics. I have complied a list of short stories in an attachment for you to print off and read at your own pace. Most of the stories are available to download for free somewhere on the internet. Compare them to things that are being written and talked about now and engage in discussions about them. This will help you begin creating a solid literary foundation.

Happy Reading.

scary short story list

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