W. W. Jacobs, at one time an extremely popular writer of short fiction, is remembered for only one tale, “The Monkey’s Paw.” His other stories and novels are entirely forgotten. Even the book in which “The Monkey’s Paw” appeared, The Lady of the Barge, and Other Tales (1902), has long been out of print.
No one questions Jacobs’s literary talent: His mystery and supernatural tales are brilliantly written. His stories of life on the docks and the waterways of England, despite some dated dialogue, remain witty and clever yarns. Even his dockside characters, Ginger Dick, Henry Walker, and Bob Pretty, are still attractive and enjoyable. Yet literary fashion has passed them by.
Jacobs was a master of the economical style. He never offers more than is necessary about the characters involved. V. S. Pritchett once called him “one of the supreme craftsmen of the short story.” This high praise is deserved; unfortunately, to the interested reader only “The Monkey’s Paw” is available for judgment. Nevertheless, in such a story as “The Interruption,” a tale of a hidden crime, his mastery of plot is clear; no time is wasted. Jacobs added quality to the telling of the mystery story and sharply defined the “well-made tale” from the hastily written pulp story.
Other Literary Forms
W. W. Jacobs’s novels include A Master of Craft (1900), At Sunwich Port (1902), Dialstone Lane (1904), Salthaven (1908), and The Castaways (1916). Seventeen of his stories have been dramatized, and “The Monkey’s Paw” has been adapted for opera, radio, film (1937), and audiocassette (1998).
W. W. Jacobs’s storytelling skill was admired by his contemporaries J. B. Priestley, Evelyn Waugh, G. K. Chesterton, V. S. Pritchett, Jerome K. Jerome, and P. G. Wodehouse. If his byline appeared on a story in Strand magazine, sales of the magazine increased to 500,000 copies. Jacobs’s humor has been compared to that of Aristophanes and Charles Dickens, his realistic use of language and river settings to those of Mark Twain, his “pastoral” tone to that of Jane Austen, and his supernatural horror stories to those of Edgar Allan Poe.
Adcock, Arthur St. John. The Glory That Was Grub Street: Impressions of Contemporary Authors. London: S. Low, Marston, 1928. Discussions of various writers associated with the bohemian literary scene of London’s Grub Street, including Jacobs.
Adrian, Jack, ed. Strange Tales from the Strand. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Analyses of Jacobs’s horror-fantasy “The Monkey’s Paw” and a novella of psychological realism, The Brown Man’s Servant.
Chesterton, G. K. “W. W. Jacobs.” In A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers , edited by Dorothy Collins. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1953. Compares Jacobs’s humor to that of Charles Dickens and...
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