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Stories that inspired M.R. James

Twelve tales of terror recommended by the master of the genre!

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Episode 66 – The Monkey’s Paw

September 9, 2018 | Episodes | Comments (12)

This month Mike and Will throw caution to the wind and make an ill-fated wish on “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs.  Best known in his own time for gentle tales of the sea and other comic stories, Jacobs is now perhaps most famous for this classic cautionary tale of cursed taxidermy, family tragedy and pant-wetting zombie horror.  And following the show there’s a bonus fanboy smack-down between Mike and Will, as they try to emulate a listener’s M.R. James game show triumph on TV’s “Mastermind” in 1981. Come for the monkey, stay for the quiz!

Show notes:

  • Our amazing reader this month was singer and songwriter Patrick Walker of the band 40 Watt Sun.  We hope you enjoy his readings and that he’ll join us again in the future!
  • Our picture credit is to artist Noah Weaver.  You can find this picture and others at his gallery.
  • William Wymark Jacobs (1863–1943) lived through the same period as M.R. James, though we don’t think their paths ever crossed. His story is probably the most famous story we’re covering in this series and there is a wikipedia page dedicated to the many adaptations and spoofs of his plot, including the Simpsons episode Treehouse of Horror II in 1991.
  • We drew extensively from M. Grant Kellermeyer’s notes on the story in his excellent edited edition of W.W. Jacob’s stories (available from Oldstyle Tales Press) and the very useful SparkNotes for this story.
  • Will enjoyed tracking down the origins of the three wishes plot. Professor D. L. Ashliman’s website has a number of examples, including a NSFW version from ‘The Thousand and One Arabian Nights’ (hint: it’s probably big enough already) and a classic European folk tale of a man who transforms his wife’s nose into a sausage.
  • If you’d like to hear from a protagonist who deals with the consequences of being offered three wishes with slightly more sense and wisdom then check out ‘The Third Wish’, a rather touching story by ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’ author Joan Aiken.
  • You can hear ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ introduced by author David Mitchell (who calls it ‘one of the most perfect ghost stories ever written’) and then read by Ben Hicks. Mitchell says of the story, “It’s a puzzle, it’s a trap, it’s a dare, it’s a flippant joke from Edwardian England that gets bent out of shape by esoteric India.”
  • Head over to Friends of Count Magnus to find out more about the M.R. James conference that is taking place in York later this month – tickets may still be available!
  • Finally, listeners from outside of the UK might not know that Mastermind is a famous gameshow here, consisting of a general knowledge round and questions on a topic chosen by each contestant. The life and stories of M.R. James occasionally comes up as specialist subject, including as selected by listener Colin H in 1991 and most recently (we think) by comedian John Finnemore on Celebrity Mastermind in 2016.
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12 Comments

  1. David McGarry says:

    Thanks for this episode guys been looking forward to it for a long time.

    My dad used to read this to us when we were kids – and it’s has a lasting effect 🙂

    I listened to the podcast late at night when everyone was asleep and it still creeps me out!

    Great work and hope you will be putting more out towards Christmas.

    Cheers!
    David

  2. David McGarry says:

    P.S. great work on the music as usual Will..

  3. Nadia says:

    Welcome back! Just in time when I’m getting back to reading ghost stories.
    I think this is my favourite of all the stories that James liked. It’s both creepy and touching, I really enjoy when we get an elderly couple as the main characters, they add depth and heart to the horror. Far too many youngsters in horror stories.
    How cool that you mentioned the Simpsons episode! It’s one of their best Treehouse of Horror. Another series that was inspired by The Monkey’s Paw, was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The episode when Dawn tried to summon back their mother, Buffy has the same frantic reaction to the knocking at the door.

  4. RogerBW says:

    All wish-granting stories, as you point out, are some variant of “this kind of power is not for humans” – but I think one can break them down into “greed will out” (or perhaps “absolute power corrupts absolutely”), and the sort we see here, which is basically “no matter how good your motivations, you still can’t win”. After all, not using the Paw would leave them wondering forever what might have been…

    So I’d say that all the careful phrasing in the world wouldn’t have helped, because the author is determined to make his Point. It’s not reasonable to expect that “give me £200” will be accompanied by “slaughter my son in a horrible way” – though if Morris had been open about what happened to him, they might have had some idea of what they were up against. Some friend!

    That said, players of Dungeons and Dragons have been getting their characters to make long and complicated wishes (with lots of clauses and provisions) for years.

  5. MarkB says:

    Great story, and a great episode! A few thoughts:
    1. No story remains perfect when you put it under a microscope, but in this case it doesn’t make much sense that the nice old soldier would pass on the wishes – and the curse – to a friend. He did throw the paw in the fire, but why even tempt them with it? Now compare Casting the Runes, written several years later. In CtR, the curse is passed on in anger, but can be returned to the originator. So there’s a logic to it. So perhaps Monty took the idea of a curse and tightened up the logic of the story?
    2. When one sells one’s soul to the Devil, it is rarely possible – outside of comedy – of avoiding the payoff. Isn’t there a Monty story in which a woman tries to avoid giving her sould to the Devil by not showing up? In the same way, there’s no way of wording a wish to avoid the curse of the paw – it’s cursed by definition, and no legalese will save you.
    3.Speculation alert! – perhaps the curse is that one loses what one most cares about. So the first owner wanted to die, and the second didn’t seem to suffer any great harm – the curse is subjective.

  6. Mark Williamson says:

    My first wish? You shorten the time gaps between podcasts!

  7. Richard Johnson says:

    Great podcast, I love this story. The build up to the climax/anticlimax at the doorway is perfect writing.

    My impression was always that Sgt Major Morris wanted rid of the paw (possibly for money) but decided he couldn’t go through with it, so he chucks it on the fire – and if Mr White chooses to grab it out then it almost absolves Morris of any responsibility for passing it on. Of course, the main reason he gets rid of it is so the story can happen, so I’m content not to analyse it overmuch…

    • MarkB says:

      ” Of course, the main reason he gets rid of it is so the story can happen …”

      Yes, that’s it. When it comes down to it, if it’s not in the text, it’s not there.

  8. Ken Mann says:

    One hopes the father wished his son dead, and not just “back in his grave”.

  9. Michael Choi says:

    A correction:

    The URL of the link to Joan Aiken’s short story cited in the show notes is misspelled: “Doownloads” in the address should be “Downloads”.

    Glad to see the latest episode up at last. I stumbled upon the Podcast not too long ago while reading the Oxford edition of the Collected Ghost Stories. I did a Google Images search to see what the horrid, hairy creature in “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” might look like and found Alisdair Wood’s stark work from the story page here. A listener to other horror- and literature-oriented podcasts, I was expecting only dramatic readings, but soon came to thoroughly enjoy the in-depth but unpretentious analyses. Arriving on the scene late has allowed me to “binge-listen” for immediate gratification, but now that I’m nearly completely caught up, it means I’ve had to wait patiently like everyone else for this new installment.

    I’d heard of James long before, but had doubted that a late Victorian could produce scares enough to engage my somewhat jaded tastes. (I was well-versed in Lovecraft’s body of work, whose eldritch “cosmic horror” I’ve found compelling, especially when I was younger, but also sometimes off-putting in its often overly fussy language and tiresome in its paranoia and fear of biological/psychological/racial contamination.) So I was pleasantly surprised to find James a master of suspense and chills, using his very reticence concerning explicit violence and gore to great advantage, letting the reader’s imagination “fill in the blanks” so that, in a way, one scares *oneself*. I thoroughly regret that his fictional oeuvre is, relatively speaking, so small.

    Keep up the excellent work, whatever your plans may be, and I sincerely hope another episode gets posted not too, too long in the future!

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