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Even Stranger Things: Carl Neville On WW Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw
The Quietus , February 6th, 2021 09:09

In an exclusive extract from the new Repeater Book of the Occult, published this week, author Carl Neville introduces WW Jacobs' classic short story, 'The Monkey's Paw'

I first read ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ when I was a child, and prior to re-reading it for this volume I had only read it once. Barrow-in-Furness, where I was born in 1970 and grew up, is a shipyard town in the north-west of England. Barrow Island, where we lived, is on the opposite side of the Yard from the town itself, a series of terraced streets and pre-war flats built as accommodation for the workers.

I don’t know the exact age at which I read it, but it was before I was eleven when we still lived in the first house I ever lived in, 13 St Andrews Street. The street ran down into a vast green area of allotments, occasional factories, abandoned houses, disused reservoirs, artificial lakes, and ponds with decaying wooden jetties and shoals of fish, mysterious fenced-off areas belonging to the shipyard, burnt-out cars, abandoned JCBs, acres of dumped concrete plinths. This was the wild, mysterious topography we explored as children and that ringed the massive docks that allowed the ships and submarines made in the shipyard to pass out to the Irish Sea. I am certain that we still lived in that house, number 13, because the scenario that plays out in ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ took on a vivid and immediate life due to my surroundings.

It was impossible for me not to imagine that the family in the story were my own, not merely because I was a child and my experience was limited, but also because certain features of the story were evident in my daily life. The bareness and narrowness of the domestic scene, the

occasional visitor from outside who has seen something of the world and returned with tales of adventure, the sense of relative isolation, the lack of money and the disavowal of any need for or interest in it, the focus on the child, the son, as the locus of the parent’s hopes. The story’s world and my own overlapped in ways I couldn’t fully articulate at that age but understood in the implicit way a child grasps things. The process of that implicit understanding progressively becoming explicit, shifting and recomposing the world around them, making the familiar strange, renders the world the child inhabits, no matter how dismal or threadbare, numinous with the uncanny. And so I was doubly susceptible to the story’s particular power.

‘The Monkey’s Paw’ isn’t only a story about class, but class is an inescapable, central element to the story’s horror and pathos. Industrial accidents weren’t common in my hometown in the 1970s, but they weren’t unknown and there was always an underlying tension to the working day. Occasional deaths were reported, a friend’s father was hospitalised for months due to a fall from scaffolding, people lost fingers and toes, eyes. Would my own father one day not return punctually at 4:30, half an hour after the siren that could be heard all over the town and that signalled the parameters of a normal working day sounded?

The sense of inexorability in the story, of vast, uncontrollable forces and trajectories, derives partly from its being so short and compressed and because the dread and horror accelerate so quickly. There is no sense that either the protagonists or the reader have time or space to escape confronting the father’s awful moment of decision. But the sense of a relentless and unavoidable momentum was something I too felt pulling at me. The life described in the story, the dominance of industry and a life circumscribed by the inevitable and unavoidable route into the factory, also seemed true of the world I saw around me. I was on a path that led me and the overwhelming majority of my classmates into the Yard, a treadmill that my mother and father were trying in the limited ways they could to get me off. I had a fate they were trying to help me avoid.

Perhaps the death of a son in an industrial accident was my fate too. If not that exactly, for a bright, imaginative, working-class child, son of a bright and disillusioned working-class father, there would be something close to death, something that mangled and deformed. Years on the shop floor among huge and dangerous machines for little pay and mean surroundings, always dreaming of the larger, more expansive life that some great mechanism whose workings we could feel but not see had kept us from. The invisibility of the forces shaping and directing our lives, intangible yet as tightly binding as steel bands, manifested in us, avowed atheist, humanist, and rationalist though our household was, as a thick, sapping, and unacknowledged undercurrent of superstitious fear. Fear of the punishment that forces out there, beyond the small, knowable arenas of family, home, shipyard, town might inflict on us for attempting to have more, for not knowing our place, for unsettling the immutable and time-honoured order.

But as I say, the story isn’t only about class, it’s also a dramatisation, perhaps a concretisation of the underlying and unequal processes of attachment, relinquishment, and reorientation within the self and to the world that we conventionally term, in simple words that have to encapsulate the vast, unmappable domains of affect in which every individual is immersed: love, death, and loss.

Since that first reading, forty-plus years ago, I have lost a parent, the father I identified with the father in the story. He died in 2013, and I went through my first experience of grief and mourning. There is a theory that the dead need, in some sense, to die twice: first, they really, physically die; secondly, they die symbolically. There are certain public and private rituals that ensure that the death is appropriately recorded and memorialised so that a passage through mourning can be enacted and so that they can be truly laid to rest. But there is also a third stage suggested by ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, if one is to truly avoid being haunted by the dead. For mourning to be complete, perhaps a capacity for cruelty, for self-interest, is needed, and the ambivalence that has resided in a dark crevice at the heart of even the most deeply felt attachment becomes a resource to be drawn on. You must, in some sense, in mourning, kill the dead again in the imagination, reach the point where not only would you not wish to have them back, for your sake or for theirs, but where you would actively resist their return. You must possess the capacity to kill them when they rise again in your mind and kill them repeatedly. ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ perhaps abreacts this unconscious process into one moment of intensely compressed figurative drama. It is necessary for the dead, the story suggests, to die three times to truly die, and we mourners are implicated in that third death, necessary for us if we are to truly survive them. They are gone, we miss them, but then also, more and more, we are freeing ourselves of them.

Or perhaps the story refigures a loss that’s more prosaic and benign than that: the child must grow and leave you. If – like the parents in ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ and my own – social life outside the home and visitors are infrequent, that separation can be hard. Perhaps the son merely leaves to pursue the adventures the father has never known and yearns for, he has caught the truth of his own father’s restlessness and has determined to live that life for him, he will be outside his influence, transformed, perhaps unrecognisable, perhaps he will look with pity on the father and his limitations, and yet the father must will the child out into the world beyond them and quash his own desire to call him home. The game of chess at the start of the story in which the father tries to hide his discomposure at losing and the affectionate, knowing glance that passes between mother and son suggests the struggle of the son to surpass the father without wounding him, the father to accept his diminished authority.


Since that first reading I have also become a parent, a father myself, late in life by anyone’s standards, having waited long enough, perhaps, to finally believe I had outrun whatever currents might drag me back into the life I had avoided, and on reading it this time it has been the mother’s role that has stayed with me. One obvious reading of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, which will render it problematic for some, is the implication that the mother is a hysteric who cannot accept the death of or loss to the world of her son. Correspondingly it is then the father, as a heroic male rationalist in his role as the figure of the law, who intervenes and forces apart the mother-child dyad.

And yet, of course, the text also opens itself up to a quite different reading. Rather than the father having to intervene in the hysterical mother’s grief, perhaps the mother sees that it is the father who cannot let go and who forces him to pass fully through the process of mourning, provoking him into wishing his son alive and returned, confronting him with his fear of that wish and forcing him to wish the child dead or gone again. It is the mother’s role to bring her husband back from his own half-life, perhaps readjusting the imbalance in the relationship between husband and wife now the child has gone. The father is, after all, returned to some degree of vigour and manliness, brought out of his “apathy” only on hearing his wife’s pain at the absence on the other side of the door, it is the “long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife” that gives him “the courage to run down to her side”.

In a sense the story’s central drama puts two types of love under pressure, the maternal and paternal. The mother has a double rebuke for the father for whom the child has become, or perhaps become again, an “it”, a “thing”. As her husband implores her not to answer the knock at the door and fumbles for the means to wish their child dead again, the mother tells him, “you are afraid of your own son”, and asks him, “do you think I fear the child I have nursed?” There is a strange doubling here too, as perhaps the child that has returned has in a sense been reborn, delivered up again from the underworld the mother, in her labour, has plumbed and with whom she has journeyed back through the hinterland that grades slowly into the father’s world of logic, language and law, that realm of very early infancy, abutting the Real, that Julia Kristeva terms the chora. One must be born twice just as one must die twice. For the father the boy has become a thing again, pure materiality and drive without a recognisable face, something to be feared, but for the mother, with her deeper and more primal bodily attachments, any form the child takes can elicit love, be nursed, fed, and consoled. Nor can anything truly break that bond.

In ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ it is not the mother who is blind and cannot understand that her child has become a thing, but the father, caught staring at his own image in the dark glass and unable to see past it, through into that world in which the mother-child relationship has formed. What perhaps might offer a sense of transcendence in the story rather than just an uneasy relief is if the father could follow his wife down those narrow stairs and join her in sliding back the heavy bolts that bar both access and ingress. But it is impossible for them to take that journey together; the dimensions they inhabit with regard to the child are incommensurable, there is an outside the father cannot enter, nor can he invite his own transfigured child, its emissary, in across the threshold. Perhaps he understands that he cannot himself encounter these things and survive without an equivalent transfiguration to the one his child has undergone. Out of necessity, then, he wishes it away and is left again with what he has always had: the cold gust, the empty street, the courage to at least get as far as the gate.

The Repeater Book of the Occult is published by Repeater Books