Old Masters of Horror: W.W. Jacobsposted by
[The following is a reprint of columns which originally appeared in Hellnotes on May 27 and May 28, 2006.]
Best known for the much-anthologized short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” W.W. Jacobs had a prolific career writing satirical, humorous, and nautical fiction. His horror output, though memorable, was small, consisting of approximately 20 stories.
William Wymark Jacobs was born on September 8, 1863, in London, England, to William Gage Jacobs and Sophia Wymark, who died when Jacobs was very young. The elder Jacobs was the manager of South Devon Wharf on the River Thames in the Wapping section of London. The large family was poor, their life generally dreary. Jacobs, who was shy and quiet, and his siblings spent much time at the docks, watching the comings and goings of ships and hanging out with dockworkers. His time on the docks at Wapping inspired much of his fiction. Occasionally, the family would spend a holiday at a cottage near Sevenoaks, Kent, or visit relatives in the countryside of rural East Anglia in eastern England. The visits to East Anglia also provided inspiration for his writing, particularly his Claybury stories.
Jacobs attended private school in London and then studied at Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution (now Birkbeck College of the University of London). In 1879, he became a clerk in the civil service in the Post Office Savings Bank.
Around 1885, Jacobs started submitting anonymous sketches to Blackfriars. In the early 1890s, he had some of his stories published in the illustrated satirical magazines The Idler and Today. “A Black Affair,” a humorous ghost story, appeared in the April 1896 issue of The Idler. The Strand magazine also published his stories. These early works showed promise and received praise from Henry James, G. K. Chesterton, and Christopher Morley.
Jacobs published his first book in 1896, a collection of short stories entitled Many Cargoes. The book included “The Rival Beauties,” a humorous tale of a sea serpent. Punch magazine said his favorite subjects in this collection were “men who go down to the sea in ships of moderate tonnage.” This book was followed in 1897 by a novelette, The Skipper’s Wooing, and in 1898 by another collection, Sea Urchins (also known as More Cargoes).
One of his most enduring characters is a night-watchman on the docks in Wapping, who recounted the adventures of three hapless sailors of his acquaintance who would fall prey to dockside denizens determined to relieve them of their pay. Jacobs’ works demonstrated his penchant for creating memorable characters and satirical situations. Many of his stories depicted the British underclass and contained surprise endings. His deft handling of the rough East End dialect attracted the respect of other writers, such as P.G. Wodehouse, who mentioned Jacobs in his autobiography.
By 1899, Jacobs was financially secure enough to resign from the civil service in order to write full-time. In 1900, he married Agnes Eleanor Williams, a militant suffragette, with whom he would have two sons and three daughters. They lived in Loughton, Essex, where they had two houses, the Outlook in Park Hill and Feltham House in Goldings Hill.
The collection Light Freights (1901) contained the ghost story “Jerry Bundler,” in which an actor dresses up as a ghost to pull a prank on a man who is afraid of ghosts, and the actor pays dearly for his deed. This story first appeared in the Christmas 1897 issue of Windsor Magazine, and Jacobs adapted it for the stage as The Ghost of Jerry Bundler. The play was performed in London in 1899, revived in 1902 with a happier ending, and published in 1908 (with the revised ending).
He next published two novelettes, which are said to be among his best work: the nautical At Sunwich Port (1902) and the humorous Dialstone Lane (1904). These books showed his talent for well-drawn characters and satirical situations.
Also published during this period was his collection The Lady of the Barge (1902), which listed in its table of contents “The Monkey’s Paw,” the classic cautionary tale illustrating that you must be careful what you wish for. (This story first appeared in Harper’s Monthly that same year.) Everett Bleiler, in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, calls this story “one of the most powerful in English literature.” The collection also included “The Well,” which tells of the ghost of a murder victim.
His collection Sailors’ Knots (1909) contained “The Toll-house,” which is about four men staying overnight in a supposedly haunted house. They drink whiskey, play cards, and tease one another until one of them receives a real fright. Also included is “Keeping Up Appearances,” a humorous tale of a ghost impersonator. Along a similar vein, “The Three Sisters,” in The Night Watches (1914), tells of the impersonation of a ghost in a gloomy haunted house. The comic “Sam’s Ghost” appeared in Deep Waters (1919).
After World War I, Jacobs’ short story output declined. Instead, he concentrated on adapting his stories for the stage. The collection Sea Whispers was published in 1926 and relatively few copies were printed due to the decline in his popularity, making this book harder to find than his others. Included were two supernatural tales: “His Brother’s Keeper” and “The Interruption.”
“The Monkey’s Paw” was adapted several times for stage, film, and television. Many of his other stories were filmed in the early twentieth century.
Jacobs died at Hornsey Lane, Islington, London, on September 1, 1943.
Jacobs’ weird tales are gathered in a modern collection, The Monkey’s Paw and Other Tales of Mystery and the Macabre (1998). The 18 stories include a few never before collected and a few that are not supernatural, while missing a couple of weird tales that should have been included. Several of Jacobs’ books are available from Wildside Press. W.W. Jacobs: A Biography, by Anthony James, was published in 1999 by Able.