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Cold Reads: The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs
Gather around, everyone. I have a tale to tell you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. But fear not, my dear readers. We have the safety of the crackling fire and the roof over our heads to protect us from the night's terrible wrath. You may have heard this story before. Perhaps from a family member or a friend of a friend. For those of you who have yet to hear this little shocker, you may wish you never had...
The Whites are enjoying an evening in their quaint country home as a storm rages outside, father and son playing chess while mother knits. The night becomes merrier as their guest Sergeant-Major Morris arrives and entertains the family with his accounts of strange lands and peoples. At the bequest of Mr. White, Morris shows his hosts a small, mummified monkey's paw he received during his travels. The appendage is said to have been blessed by a magic fakir who wanted to demonstrate that Fate held sway over the fortunes of humans. The holder of the paw is given three wishes that are instantly granted. When the paw comes into the possession of the family, they soon learn that even the most innocent of desires can lead to the most horrible of tragedies...
The story of "The Monkey's Paw" has been revised, remade, and duplicated so many times that it seems nearly impossible for one not to have heard of the premise at least once in their lifetime. The fact that the story has been redone on countless occasions, from Tales from the Crypt to Are You Afraid of the Dark?, is a testament to the timelessness that the tale holds. It is in the vein of the traditional ghost story, the type of yarn that is swapped during sleepovers, camping trips, windy autumn nights, and cold winter evenings.
The narrative combines the atmosphere of the horror story, with its dreary mood steeped in death and black magic, with the same motifs found in ancient legends. The old couple comes upon a magic talisman that can make their wildest dreams come true. It's the best thing to ever happen to them! Or is it? Like Adam and Eve tasting the forbidden fruit, the family finds out that there are some things that are better left undisturbed. The Whites' intentions are pure and innocent enough and undeserving of the terrible repercussions that follow. But Fate has other designs for this family and will not allow them to interfere with its master plans. The same lessons in morality demonstrated in fables are apparent in this story as well, giving it the ageless feel of the world's oldest myths and tall tales.
Jacobs builds profound suspense during the story's final moments as Mr. White desperately tries to make his final wish before the unspeakable abomination at the door can make its way into the house. Your heart will beat at each echoing knock and the breath you held for so long will gush out as the door swings open and the cold wind blows through the house. The goose bumps will most likely remain on your skin even after that last fleeting image of the deserted street fades in your mind. It is a scene that one remembers for ages on end, the remnants floating around the corners of your worst nightmares. You cannot help but wonder, with equal parts revulsion and curiosity, just what it was that was lurking on the threshold...
"The Monkey's Paw" is considered by many to be one of the greatest horror stories ever written, and I would wholeheartedly agree with this statement. It is a great tale to introduce a newcomer to the terror genre with, a story that will enrapture the reader with its spooky ambiance and fable-esque presentation. Despite being over a hundred years old, the tale is easy to read and moves at a beautifully smooth and brisk pace. It either can be read in the seclusion of a dark bedroom or told aloud amongst comrades in a warmly lit parlor.
The terror of the story will creep into the hearts of the listeners regardless of the surroundings. So invite the family over for food, drink, and merriment. Bring them into the dusky living room to recite a tale to them that they shall in turn recite to their children. And, most importantly of all, let the story remind you of the mysteries of the dark and of wishes best left ungranted.