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.
1. ‘The Lumber-Room’.
There was an unusual sense of luxury in being able to talk to an aunt as though one was talking to the Evil One, but Nicholas knew, with childish discernment, that such luxuries were not to be over-indulged in.
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.
2. ‘The Open Window’.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window, they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders.
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…
3. ‘Sredni Vashtar’.
The Houdan hen was never drawn into the cult of Sredni Vashtar. Conradin had long ago settled that she was an Anabaptist. He did not pretend to have the remotest knowledge of what an Anabaptist was, but he privately hoped that it was dashing and not very respectable.
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?
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.
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.
‘One does not usually discuss these matters in public,’ said Tobermory frigidly. ‘From a slight observation of your ways since you’ve been in this house I should imagine you’d find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation to your own little affairs.’
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).
No one would have eaten Filboid Studge as a pleasure, but the grim austerity of its advertisement drove housewives in shoals to the grocers’ shops to clamour for an immediate supply. In small kitchens solemn pig-tailed daughters helped depressed mothers to perform the primitive ritual of its preparation. On the breakfast-tables of cheerless parlours it was partaken of in silence. Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds.
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. We have analysed this story here.
7. ‘The Unrest-Cure’.
It was at this point in the conversation that Clovis became galvanized into alert attention. After all, his two days’ visit to an elderly relative at Slowborough did not promise much excitement. Before the train had stopped he had decorated his sinister shirt-cuff with the inscription, ‘J. P. Huddle, The Warren, Tilfield, near Slowborough.’
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.
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…
9. ‘The Music on the Hill’.
In an instant her pity for the hunted animal was changed to wild terror at her own danger; the thick heather roots mocked her scrambling efforts at flight, and she looked frantically downward for a glimpse of oncoming hounds. The huge antler spikes were within a few yards of her, and in a flash of numbing fear she remembered Mortimer’s warning, to beware of horned beasts on the farm. And then with a quick throb of joy she saw that she was not alone; a human figure stood a few paces aside, knee-deep in the whortle bushes.
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…
‘I never said I was going to die. I am presumably going to leave off being Laura, but I shall go on being something. An animal of some kind, I suppose. You see, when one hasn’t been very good in the life one has just lived, one reincarnates in some lower organism. And I haven’t been very good, when one comes to think of it. I’ve been petty and mean and vindictive and all that sort of thing when circumstances have seemed to warrant it.’
A short tale about reincarnation, ‘Laura’ is about a woman who, by her own admission, has always been mean and petty. And now she is about to die – only to come back, she hopes, as an otter. ‘She’ proceeds to wreak havoc, especially upon the chickens belonging to Egbert, the husband of her friend Amanda …
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.