I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death

Friday, October 30th, 2020

I finally got around to reading the horror classic The Monkey’s Paw, arguably the trope codifier of the admonition to be careful what you wish for. (Some of us learned this lesson the hard way after receiving a magical wish while playing Dungeons and Dragons.)

In the story, old Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son Herbert receive a visit from Sergeant-Major Morris, back from India after 21 years in the army:

“I’d like to go to India myself,” said the old man, just to look around a bit, you know.”

“Better where you are,” said the Sergeant-Major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass and sighning softly, shook it again.

“I should like to see those old temples and fakirs and jugglers,” said the old man. “what was that 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 off-handedly.

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 again.

“To look at,” said the Sergeant-Major, fumbling in his pocket, “it’s just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.”

He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. Mrs. White drew back with a grimace, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously.

“And what is there special about it?” inquired Mr. White as he took it from his son, and having examined it, placed it upon the table.

“It had a spell put on it by an old Fakir,” said the Sergeant-Major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”

His manners were so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter had jarred somewhat.

“Well, why don’t you have three, sir?” said Herbert White cleverly.

The soldier regarded him the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth.”I have,” he said quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.

“And did you really have the three wishes granted?” asked Mrs. White.

“I did,” said the sergeant-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.

“And has anybody else wished?” persisted the old lady.

“The first man had his three wishes. Yes,” was the reply, “I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That’s how I got the paw.”

Read the whole thing. It’s short.


  1. Borepatch says:

    It’s indeed short, and I think the creepiest thing I’ve ever read.

  2. Kirk says:

    I’m yet again aghast at discovering how another one of my long-held cultural assumptions turns out to be false… I could have sworn that everyone got put through reading this story in middle school. Or, at least, got exposed to it.

    Good grief, it’s included in about every single anthology collection of horror short stories I can remember encountering during the late 20th Century. How it would be possible to avoid encountering it is what boggles my mind–I don’t think it would be possible unless you consciously tried to avoid it deliberately.

  3. Buckethead says:

    I’ve been avoiding it for decades.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I think my first direct exposure to “The Monkey’s Paw” was The Simpsons‘ “Tree House of Horror II” — which added the visual detail of the monkey’s fingers counting down the four wishes it granted. I’m sure I encountered the trope in plenty of Twilight Zone episodes and other derivative works.

    I don’t recall reading any horror in school, except Poe — although “The Most Dangerous Game” comes close.

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