When Stephen King first published this story in the November 1980 issue of skin mag, Gallery, I was four years old. The version that appears in his anthology, Skeleton Crew, in 1985, is “significantly revised.” I have never seen the Gallery version but I would like to know what revisions were made.
As a teenager, I couldn’t get enough of the set pieces in this shocker. I thought: “My God, monkey is indestructible. How on Earth will it be contained? I was certain that it was more than just a messenger of doom because of the inner dialogue Hal has with it. Malevolent. Vicious. Seemingly indestructible with a clear flaw. It is inanimate after all. Like every classic horror monster, it follows a rigid set of rules. When it claps its cymbals, people or creatures close to it die. The fun is imagining ways of stopping it. You see, if you get rid of it, like Droopy it comes back, in the same Ralston-Purina carton. And nothing can block its cymbals. This conundrum is the reason I recommended this story to friends again, and again, and again. And again.
When I re-read it in the horror anthology, The Dark Descent, a year ago, it was like meeting an old friend who you thought you knew. So much had changed. Not all of it good.
A: The monkey
The monkey itself, for instance, is variously described in the story as:
Old familiar grin. Hal hates its grin because its all teeth. Uncle Will once said “that monkey grins just like a nigger”. Lips writhe and teeth get bigger like vampire teeth. Ageless, toothy grin. Idiot glee. Splayed lips. Glazed eyes. Glassy Hazel eyes. Soft brown nappy fur, worn bald in spots. Mangy fake fur. Balding, mangy patches. A dead Pygmy. Made in Hong Kong. Yellow light. Dirty yellowish teeth. The monkey would leap from its box and scurry beetlelike toward him.
Hal is convinced that something had happened to the monkey but an explanation isn’t necessary because the description does everything. The monkey is a monster because it comes from foreign shores, because it’s not a toy in the box but a dead thing rotting (like the little dog in the urban legend that is actually an enormous rat), because it is stupid and clever, because it is like a vampire, because it always returns in the same state of neglect, because of imagery based on uncomfortable stereotypes. It’s a monster because it’s other. That’s why when Hal gets rid of the monkey it’s in the deepest part of Crystal Lake where he went fishing with his grandfather as a boy. He returns to the “homeplace” to exorcise what is strange. He goes to the place that is the opposite of the monkey, a place of comfort and warmth and familiarity.
Like the creature, the monkey´s origin is fantastic. Hal discovers the monkey in the back closet by going through “a down-the-rabbit-hole-sort of door.” The monkey is just one of the wonders in this room that Hal’s father, a merchant mariner, brought back with him on one of his journeys. It is suggested the monkey had something to do with his disappearance. That back closet becomes the source of wonder in the story and helps the author convince us that the monkey is more than a toy. It has come from another realm.
B: Two stories in one
This conundrum story appears to me now like a weld job.
There is the section where Hal and his family struggle. The appearance of the monkey bring their problems to the fore. Then there is the section where Hal overcomes his fear to uncover repressed memories that have made him a victim of the vindictive toy. I’ve set out the diagram in two parts because that was how I instinctively read this story when I returned to it after so many years.
Hal Shelborn has problems. He’s lost his big-paying job. To make matters worse, his wife is dependent on Valium, and his son, Dennis, is smoking reefer. The only person in the family who doesn’t have problems is Petey.
Hal’s nervy reaction to the monkey leads to conflict within the family, and then the situation explodes, culminating with Hal slamming his son, Dennis, against a door. Hal and Dennis reconcile. Hal confronts his wife with her addiction. The situation remains more or less the same but the characters have confronted an issue in their lives, and gone some way to resolving it. Hal thinks after the fight:
“Got to take him camping in the spring, just the two of us. Do some fishing, like Uncle Will used to do with Bill and Me. Got to get close to him. Got to try,”
This is a conclusion to part 1 for me. The character of Dennis and his mother will disappear in part 2 which is all about Hal’s attempt to confront his past and defeat the fearsome childhood toy.
Hal lapses into a series of flashbacks he was threatening to do at the beginning of the story. We discover that many of the most important people in his life have been killed by the monkey. His father, a merchant sailor, who may have bought the toy ashore, disappeared mysteriously when Hal was a child. His mother died of a brain embolism because Hal wound the toy up. His bestfriend fell from a treehouse. His brother’s friend was run over by a drunk driver. His babysitter was killed in a shooting. His dog, Daisy, died of an explosive brain hemorrhage. The list goes on. With each new tragedy, the connection between the clapping of the cymbals and death is strengthened. The flashbacks gives credibility to the idea that the monkey is otherworldly and dangerous. It’s so terrible that the reader is not surprised that Hal struggles not to suppress his childhood memories of it. The story concludes with the act of rowing a boat into the middle of Crystal Lake to cast the monkey into the deep, and the news article about the deaths of the fishes that indicates the possibility of it returning. You could say the image of fishing and the sea links the two parts. All the complexities of Hal and his family, however, are lost in this second part. Petey watches Hal’s journey in his boat to the deepest part of the river divorced from the action. I would have liked to have seen the family triumph together against the monkey. The potential story of Hal taking his son, Dennis, onto the lake and them overcoming their differences and the monkey as the end of part 1 suggests is not fulfilled. But then readers are difficult to please.
The Monkey uses many of the tricks of horror fiction. It may not be Stephen King’s best story, but I think it’s a great story for analysis and a fun read.
By the way, thanks for reading through all that, and don’t forget if you are a King fan, the sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep is being released on September 24. Click on the picture to find out more.