W. W. (William Wymark) Jacobs was born in 1863 in London, England, to an impoverished family. His mother, Sophia, died when Jacobs was a young boy. His father, William Jacobs, managed a wharf in South Devon. After receiving his degree from Birkbeck College, the satirical magazines the Idler and Today published some of his stories in the early 1890s. Jacobs’s first short-story collection, Many Cargoes (1896), won popular acclaim, prompting him to quit working as a clerk and begin writing full-time. Jacobs wed Agnes Eleanor, a prominent suffragette, in 1900, and they had five children together.
The success of Jacobs’s fiction enabled him to escape his scrappy, hard-luck childhood and dull life as a civil servant. His early experiences benefited him greatly, however. He had spent a lot of time hanging around the wharves in London, and many of his short stories and novels concern seamen’s lives and adventures. Jacobs’s works include The Skipper’s Wooing (1897), Sea Urchins (1898), Light Freights (1901), Captains’ All (1902), Sailors’ Knots (1909), and Night Watches (1914). All told, Jacobs published thirteen collections of short stories, five novels, and a novella, many of which sold tens of thousands of copies. He also wrote a number of one-act plays. His financial security was further solidified by the popular Strand magazine, which began publishing Jacobs’s short stories in 1898 and continued to do so throughout much of his life. Jacobs died in 1943.
While modern readers associate Jacobs primarily with his suspenseful and frequently anthologized short story “The Monkey’s Paw” and, to a lesser degree, with his short story “The Toll House,” his contemporaries primarily knew him as a comic writer. Like many comic writers of the day, Jacobs explored the lives of the lower and middle classes and published many of his stories in magazines directed at this audience. The novellas At Sunwich Port (1902) and Dialstone Lane (1904) exemplify his ability to create humorous scenarios with vivid characters. Jerome K. Jerome, a popular comic novelist of the day, was a great fan of Jacobs’s and praised his strong work ethic and painstaking approach. He said that Jacobs would often rewrite just one sentence for hours at a stretch. Many luminaries of literature have praised Jacob’s work, including G. K. Chesterton, Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, and Mark Twain.
“The Monkey’s Paw” was published in Jacobs’s short-story collection The Lady of the Barge (1902), and the story’s popularity has been extraordinarily long-lasting. The story has been included in approximately seventy collections, from horror and gothic anthologies to the New York Review of Books’ collection of classic fiction. The story has also been turned into a play, parodied on The Simpsons, and made into eight separate movies. Stephen King wrote about “The Monkey’s Paw” in The Dead Zone (1979) and Apt Pupil (1982) and based his novel Pet Sematary (1983) on its themes. The spare but colorful characterization of the White family, fascination with wishing and wishing gone awry, and story’s mix of humor and terror have made “The Monkey’s Paw” popular with generations of readers.