William Wymark Jacobs was born on September 8, 1863 in London, England. An author, humorist and dramatist, Jacobs is best remembered for the enduring classic tale of horror called “The Monkey’s Paw”.
As a youth, Jacobs grew up near the Wapping docks in London, where his father was a wharf manager. The docklands setting would show up frequently in his later literary output. Jacobs the wharf rat and his three siblings lost their mother when they were all still young children. Their father, William Gage Jacobs, remarried and fathered a further seven children with his erstwhile housekeeper Ellen Florey. Although he grew up surrounded by poverty, Jacobs himself received a formal education in London, first at a private prep school and later at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institute (now part of the University of London and known as Birkbeck College).
Jacobs’ adult working life began with a clerical position at the Post Office Savings Bank. The job was not a stimulating one and Jacobs started writing short stories, sketches and articles, many of which appeared in the Post Office house publication “Blackfriars Magazine.” Although Jacobs did receive his fair share of rejection slips at the beginning of his career, many works written during this period of clerical employment appeared in the “Idler” and “Today” magazines, both edited by noted humorist Jerome K. Jerome, who had taken a liking to Jacobs’ stories. From 1898, Jacobs also published stories in “The Strand”, a monthly fiction and general interest magazine. The arrangement stayed in place for most of his life and many of the works in Jacobs’ subsequent collections – including the nautical serialization A Master of Craft (1899-1900) -- appeared here first.
Jacobs’ first volume of collected works was published in 1896. Many Cargoes, a selection of sea-faring yarns, established Jacobs as a popular writer and humorist with a penchant for authentic dialogue and trick endings (critics of the day referred to him as the “O. Henry of the Waterfront”). He then published a novelette, The Skipper’s Wooing, in 1897 and another collection of short stories titled Sea Urchins in 1898. These works painted vivid, if farcical, pictures of dockland and seafaring London with colourful characters (such as “The Night Watchman”, Ginger Dick) that now seem archetypal.
Many of Jacobs’ periodical publications and first editions were illustrated with woodcuts and ink drawings, as was still the custom at the turn of the 20th century. The author worked regularly with artists such as E.W. Kemble, who had illustrated Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and his good friend Will Owen, who eventually became a household name on the strength of his iconic Bisto Kids, Bovril and Lux Soap advertising posters.
By 1899, Jacobs was able to quit the post office and finally begin making a living as a full-time writer. He married noted suffragist Agnes Eleanor Williams (who had been jailed for her protest activities) the next year, 1900. They set up a household in Loughton, Essex as well as living part of the year in central London. The couple went on to have five children together though their marriage was considered an unhappy one.
The publication of two short novels: At Sunwich Port (a romantic tale of rival sea captains in the fictional seaside community of Sunwich standing in for the actual East England community of Sandwich, Kent) and Dialstone Lane (another small town romance involving intrigue and buried treasure), in 1902 and 1904 respectively, cemented Jacobs’ reputation as one of the leading British authors of the new century. These were followed by a string of successful publications, including Captain’s All (1905), Night Watches (1914), The Castaways (1916), and Sea Whispers (1926). Jacobs published eighteen books in all during his lifetime, thirteen collections and five novels.
As a storyteller, Jacobs is perhaps better remembered for a handful of brief tales of the supernatural than for his popular nautical-themed works. The most famous of these, The Monkey’s Paw, originally appeared as part of the 1902 short story collection The Lady of the Barge. It is an economically written story about a shriveled talisman, a monkey’s paw that brings grief and horror in the wake of all too literal wish granting. The story has been adapted for other media repeatedly, starting with a one-act play performed at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1903. There have been multiple film adaptations of the story in the modern era; some of us are familiar with its appearance in an episode of the popular animated series, The Simpsons.
Another macabre gem, The Toll-House, was published as part of the collection Sailor’s Knots in 1909. It economically tells the story of a group of men who spend the night in a famously haunted house on a dare (a noticeably similar narrative concept was put to use in the much earlier play The Ghost of Jerry Bundler, which had launched Jacobs’ parallel career as a dramatist back in 1899 when it was produced at the St. James Theatre in London). Innovative at the time of writing, these spare ghost stories are now familiar classics of the supernatural genre.
Though prolific in his younger years, Jacobs’ productivity dropped dramatically after the start of World War 1. Yet even in self-imposed semi-retirement Jacobs was still recognized as a leading humorist, ranked alongside such writers as P. G. Wodehouse and George Birmingham. He enjoyed continuing influence and elevated status among his fellow writers as evidenced by these comments attributed to his colleague Henry James:
“Mr. Jacobs, I envy you. You are popular! Your admirable work is appreciated by a wide circle of readers; it has achieved popularity. Mine never goes into a second edition.”
James’ literary fortunes would, of course, change, but his back-handedly complimentary admiration is evidence of Jacobs’ reputation as a writer and humourist.
Though Jacobs would create little in the way of new work after 1911, he was still writing. In these later years, seemingly burnt out creatively, Jacobs concentrated more on writing dramatizations and adaptations of his existing stories, including Beauty and the Barge (a film version starring Margaret Rutherford was also released in 1937) and In the Dark (a one act play that is often bundled with The Monkey’s Paw adaptation).
Though admired by loyal readers throughout his lifetime, Jacobs has been almost completely forgotten since. Critics are at a loss to name a single reason why -- Jacobs is universally considered to be a fine and imaginative literary craftsman. But, as critic John Wain suggested in a 1960 essay, perhaps Jacobs’ humour may have been too gentle to persist into the cruel and sarcastic modern era, his dry pokes at proletariat hardship no longer suiting the times. Nonetheless, Jacobs’ legacy remains solid: he continued Dickens’ (a writer with whom he is also often compared) tradition for sharing working class stories in authentic vernacular. And polished narratives such as The Monkey’s Paw set a standard for the clever use of horror in fiction and popular culture that endures to this day.
Jacobs died in a North London nursing home on September 1, 1943 a week prior to his 80th birthday.