The best stories by Hector Hugh Munro – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The English short-story writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by his pen name Saki (a pen name he probably borrowed from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), is one of the wittiest and funniest writers of short fiction in all of English literature – arguably the not-so-missing link between Oscar Wilde and P. G. Wodehouse. Yet his work remains less widely read and appreciated than it deserves, in our view. The following ten stories represent, in our opinion, the perfect introduction to the witty and unsettling world of Saki’s short stories. We’ve left out his remarkable 1913 novel When William Came – set a few years in the future when German and Britain had been at war, and Germany had won – as we’ve limited ourselves to Saki’s short fiction here. And Saki’s short fiction is often very short – no more than four or five pages in many cases.
‘The Lumber-Room’. Possibly Saki’s best-known story, ‘The Lumber-Room’ is a classic short story about a child who is too clever for the adults. Specifically, it is about how one clever but mischievous boy, Nicholas, seeks to outwit his aunt so he can gain access to the lumber-room with its hidden treasures and curiosities. Nicholas’ clever use of his aunt’s own logic and morality to justify his refusal to rescue her from the rainwater-tank is one of the finest moments in Saki’s fiction.
‘The Open Window’. The shortest story on this list – and most of them are no more than a few pages anyway – ‘The Open Window’ contains a twist in the tale. It concerns a nervous man, newly arrived in town, who is told the tragic story of why the French windows in the house he visits are always kept open…
‘Sredni Vashtar’. This story contains many of the ingredients we find in Saki’s best fiction: it challenges the idea that children are innocent and free from designs or cunning (or, indeed, evil), it pricks the pomposity of adults and their conservative treatment of children, and it suggests a kinship between children and animals. The story also draws on the fairy-tale trope of the child having a wish granted – but here, with appalling results. The young Conradin lives with his cousin and guardian, but worships a ferret in the garden shed, and is best friends with a hen. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, what will?
‘Gabriel-Ernest’. This classic story fuses Gothic horror with Edwardian wit and more than a dash of homoeroticism. It’s about a teenage boy who transforms into a werewolf and preys on small children. Saki was writing at the height of his powers here, and every sentence is laced with fine wit.
‘Tobermory’. The cat is the perfect subject for a Saki story, and there is something catlike about many of his young protagonists: aloof, urbane, poised, louche, and yet underneath it all there is a feral streak. So it comes as little surprise that Saki wrote a wonderful cat story, ‘Tobermory’, about a cat that is taught to talk. The result is one of Saki’s best stories – and one of the funniest stories in the English language (as well as one of the best cat stories).
‘Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped’. This short masterpiece is not one of Saki’s best-known stories, but it’s a gloriously satirical take on the world of advertising, when this ‘art form of the twentieth century’ was still in its infancy, or at least its adolescence. A prospective son-in-law of a cereal magnate devises a new poster to advertise his new father-in-law’s product, a disgusting breakfast cereal. But although the product tastes foul, the advert compels people to buy it by guilt-tripping them if they refuse. Unfortunately, since then, a million advertising copywriters have taken Saki’s story as an instruction manual.
‘The Unrest-Cure’. One of Saki’s Clovis stories, and one in which Clovis plays a main part, convincing the inhabitants of an English country house that they are about to be attacked by an anti-Semitic bishop and his helpers … a bunch of Boy Scouts. As the Broad Street Review puts it, it’s probably ‘the only humorous rendering of a pogrom (albeit an entirely imaginary one) in all of literature’. As is the case with many of Saki’s best stories, the humour comes from the protagonist’s desire to make mischief, and the po-faced and sharp-witted manner in which he does so.
‘The Jesting of Arlington Stringham’. ‘Arlington Stringham made a joke in the House of Commons. It was a thin House, and a very thin joke; something about the Anglo-Saxon race having a great many angles. It is possible that it was unintentional, but a fellow-member, who did not wish it to be supposed that he was asleep because his eyes were shut, laughed. One or two of the papers noted “a laugh” in brackets, and another, which was notorious for the carelessness of its political news, mentioned “laughter.” Things often begin in that way.’ And this is how this delightfully funny story by Saki begins. As so often in Saki’s stories, the tale takes a dark turn, but to say more than this would be to risk spoilers…
‘The Music on the Hill’. If you go down to the woods today, you’re definitely sure of a big surprise if your name’s Sylvia (suitably wood-y given its Latin origin) and you’ve just got married and moved to the country. Saki’s tale of growing panic reminds us of the origin of that very word, in the pagan god Pan, haunting the woods and playing his seductive flute…
‘Laura’. A short tale about reincarnation, ‘Laura’ is about a woman who dies – only to come back, apparently, as an otter. ‘She’ proceeds to wreak havoc.
You can buy The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics) for a couple of quid, and possess most of his classic work (and all of the stories mentioned above). We strongly recommend it: his stories are guaranteed to raise a smile.
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.
Image (top): Hector Hugh Munro (1870–1916), better known as ‘Saki’. Photo from The War Illustrated 31 July 1915. Via Wikimedia Commons.