Invisible ink no 262: William Wymark Jacobs

Although Jacobs enjoyed huge popularity during his long life, later books show signs of weariness, and most of his work vanished, leaving behind the sinister, shrivelled simian paw

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The Independent Culture

It’s an odd thing, but many writers of the past seemed drawn to opposing styles.

We remember E F Benson not only for his charming Mapp and Lucia novels, but also for his oblique, eerie ghost stories. Barry Pain is loved for his Pooterish “Eliza Stories”, but wrote dark tales such as “The Undying Thing”. William Wymark Jacobs followed a similar path; born to a large, poor family in Wapping, east London, in 1863, he became a successful humorous writer, but is really only remembered for his most macabre story.

Jacobs’s father was a wharf manager, and the boy grew up among the steamers, their crews and cargoes. This exotic backdrop cast a long shadow on his work. First, though, he became a clerk in the Civil Service. A careful saver, he wrote short sketches while raising cash and eventually had enough set aside to turn to full-time writing. Punch and Strand magazines eagerly took his comic pieces, while G K Chesterton and Henry James offered critical approval. Jacobs preferred short-form prose, and his first collection, Many Cargoes, reflected his childhood excitements. He followed this with a novella, The Skipper’s Wooing, and another short story collection, Sea Urchins.

At 27, he married a suffragette and they had five children. His now-forgotten works, Dialstone Lane and At Sunwich Port, were reckoned to be his best. Like his contemporary H H “Saki” Monroe, he placed memorable characters in awkward, exotic, and satirical situations, writing to a very specific length (the stories usually took about 15 minutes to read), often giving them surprise endings. Unlike Saki, he drew on a working-class background for his stories.

In 1902, The Lady of the Barge was published. In this collection was the tale for which he is still remembered, “The Monkey’s Paw”. As in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp”, its moral is “Be careful what you wish for”. The titular item, given to a sergeant major by a fakir, grants three wishes that come with a price outweighing the gift. The first brings money but takes a life, the second grants a return from the dead, and the third returns the dead to the grave, restoring equilibrium. The plot struck a chord with readers and led to many variations in plays, films, and television adaptations.

Although Jacobs enjoyed huge popularity during his long life, later books show signs of weariness, and most of his work vanished, leaving behind the sinister, shrivelled simian paw.

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