By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Saki, real name Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), was a master of the very short story, and as well as penning dozens of witty Edwardian short stories consisting of just a few pages, he also left us several short horror fiction masterpieces, of which ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ (1909) is probably the most famous and widely studied. The story, about a teenage boy who transforms into a werewolf and preys on small children, manages to appal and unsettle in just five pages of masterly storytelling. You can read ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ here.
As we revealed in our analysis of Saki’s ‘The Lumber-Room’, much of Saki’s fiction reads like a direct challenge to the Victorian notion that children are paragons of innocence. ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ is worthy of closer analysis because it explores a similar idea, but using Gothic horror fiction as its vehicle. But the story is still shot through with Saki’s characteristic wit and irony.
It’s as if Oscar Wilde had been crossed with M. R. James or Bram Stoker. (The second half of the name ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ even recalls Wilde’s characters, Jack and Algernon, who use the name Ernest as an alias in the Wilde play, The Importance of Being Earnest.)
Indeed, Van Cheele, the owner of the woods in which Gabriel-Ernest hunts for his prey, is like a protagonist of an M. R. James ghost story in his refusal to believe the youth when he openly admits he feeds on children’s flesh. We will say more about the wittiness of the story later.
First, a brief summary of the plot of ‘Gabriel-Ernest’. Cunningham, an artist-friend who has been visiting his friend Van Cheele, the owner of some woodland, tells him that there is a wild beast living there. Van Cheele dismisses this idea, but shortly after his friend has left he encounters a boy of sixteen sunning himself naked by a pool in the forest.
He asks what the boy is doing there, and the boy tells Van Cheele that he lives in the woods and that he feeds on animal flesh – and on the flesh of children, when he can get his hands on it, though he hasn’t tasted any for two months.
Van Cheele initially dismisses the youth as a prankster, but on his walk home he remembers that the miller’s wife had lost a child – reportedly swept away by the millrace – several months ago, and Van Cheele connects this with the remark made by the mysterious youth.
The next day, he resolves to go and visit Cunningham and ask his friend what he had seen to prompt his remark about a ‘wild beast’ living in the woods. But before he can do so, Van Cheele walks into his morning-room for a cigarette and finds the mysterious youth (still without any clothes on) reclining on the ottoman, perfectly relaxed.
Van Cheele challenges him – how dare he come into his house? – and the boy, much like Nicholas in ‘The Lumber Room’, turns the adult’s instructions back on the adult, responding, ‘You told me I was not to stay in the woods.’ Worried that his aunt will walk in and see the naked youth, Van Cheele sets about covering the boy with newspapers – then his aunt walks in. Taking pity on the boy as a stray, she resolves to help him, finding him some clothes and christening him ‘Gabriel-Ernest’.
Van Cheele goes to visit Cunningham, who tells him what he had seen to prompt his ‘wild beast’ remarks: a naked boy by a pool in the forest, whose description fits that of Gabriel-Ernest, had transformed at sunset into a wolf. Armed with this horrifying information that appears to confirm Van Cheele’s worst suspicions about the youth, Van Cheele rushes back home, trying to get there before dusk when Gabriel-Ernest will turn into a werewolf again.
But he’s too late: his aunt says that Gabriel-Ernest has walked a young boy home, one of the Tupp children from a neighbouring home, as it was getting too late to let the boy go alone. Van Cheele runs after them, but, again, is just too late: from a distance he sees the two children disappear. The two children are never found, but the clothes Van Cheele’s aunt gave to Gabriel-Ernest are found discarded.
It’s assumed by everyone that the Tupp child fell in the water and that Gabriel-Ernest took off his clothes and dived in to save the child, and, thinking that the youth gave his life to try to save another, Van Cheele’s aunt erects a memorial to Gabriel-Ernest. But Van Cheele refuses to honour such a memorial, believing in his heart that Gabriel-Ernest took, rather than saved, the Tupp boy’s life.
What is remarkable about ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ is that it manages to be both a chilling horror tale and genuinely funny. Wilde managed to offer a comic take on the ghost story with ‘The Canterville Ghost’, but the story hardly sends a chill down the spine. Saki’s writing style is a delight. Consider this deliciously ironic description of Van Cheele near the beginning of the story:
He had a stuffed bittern in his study, and knew the names of quite a number of wild flowers, so his aunt had possibly some justification in describing him as a great naturalist. At any rate, he was a great walker. It was his custom to take mental notes of everything he saw during his walks, not so much for the purpose of assisting contemporary science as to provide topics for conversation afterwards. When the bluebells began to show themselves in flower he made a point of informing every one of the fact; the season of the year might have warned his hearers of the likelihood of such an occurrence, but at least they felt that he was being absolutely frank with them.
In a few wry sentences, we feel we have got the measure of Van Cheele. He’s arrogant enough to think that owning one stuffed bird and being able to identify a few flowers (but he lives in the woods, so he should be able to!) makes him ‘a great naturalist’, and his aunt’s flattering description has gone to his head.
He takes an interest in nature not to provide any real benefit for other people but rather out of a desire to sound clever and impress his friends. He’s the sort of bore who will state the obvious – about the bluebells being in bloom in spring (there’s a surprise!) – but genuinely thinks he is bestowing a favour upon those whom he so honours with this information. But the mockery is affectionate – after all, Van Cheele is our focaliser for the story, and it is through his eyes that we will encounter Gabriel-Ernest and see the events of the story unfold.
One unavoidable element of the story is the suggestion of homoeroticism (though really it’s stronger than a suggestion) in Saki’s description of the naked title character. Cunningham, Van Cheele’s friend, likens his appearance to that of a Faun from pagan mythology – a common trope in homoerotic literature.
Curiously, one of Wilde’s fairy tales for children, ‘The Young King’, features a boy of sixteen whom we first encounter reclining on cushions, ‘wild-eyed and open-mouthed, like a brown woodland Faun’. It may be that Saki was recalling Wilde’s description in his depiction of Gabriel-Ernest, but the trope was not exclusive to Wilde’s tale. Thus Saki deftly blends erotic fascination, horror at child-murder, and sardonic wit to create an unsettling but also amusing story.
We can speculate about the supposedly unmarried Van Cheele, his friendship with a male artist (whose first reaction when he sees Gabriel-Ernest naked in the woods is to approach him and ask if he’ll pose for a painting), and his worry over being discovered with the naked Gabriel-Ernest in the morning-room by his aunt (aunts are another recurring feature of Saki’s stories, as in Wilde). But it’s enough for Saki to suggest these things, just as he merely suggests the ultimate fates of Gabriel-Ernest and the Tupp child.
Like the best horror stories, ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ invites analysis and discussion because its conclusion remains slightly ambiguous. Although we may be tempted to side with Van Cheele in his assessment of what happened to Gabriel-Ernest and his companion, part of the power lies in the lack of hard evidence either way. The result is a masterly piece of storytelling which raises a smile even as it seeks to raise the hairs on the backs of our necks. If you go down to the woods today…
You can pick up The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics) for just a few pounds, and we’d strongly recommend it if you’re yet to discover the joys of his witty and entertaining writing. You have a real treat ahead of you. You can learn more about Saki with our pick of his best stories, our analysis of his funny cat story, and our discussion of his ‘Sredni Vashtar’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.