A reading of a classic short story
The 1911 short story ‘Sredni Vashtar’ 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, something we can also observe in Saki’s earlier story, ‘Gabriel-Ernest’. But ‘Sredni Vashtar’ might also be considered a darker version of the familiar trope found in children’s fiction: the idea of the child having a wish granted. It might also be viewed as a satirical take on religious practice and observance. The story is shot through with Saki’s celebrated wit, and deserves closer analysis. You can read the story here.
First, a brief summary of the plot of ‘Sredni Vashtar’. Conradin, a young boy of ten, has a deadly disease. He lives with his cousin and guardian, Mrs De Ropp, whom he dislikes. He likes to spend his time in the garden shed among the two living companions he likes: a hen and a ferret. The latter has become more than a pet: Conradin has made him the basis of his own personal religion, and he worships the ferret as a god, giving it the name ‘Sredni Vashtar’ and bringing it offerings of stolen nutmeg. The shed has become his own private church. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a chilling short story
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. 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. More of the wittiness of the story later. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic cat story
The cat is the perfect subject for a Saki story. 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 Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by his pen name ‘Saki’, wrote a wonderful cat story, ‘Tobermory’ (1911). Even better, it’s about a cat that is taught to talk. You can read ‘Tobermory’ here.
Talking cats go back a long way in English literature: one of the books we discuss in our whistle-stop tour of forgotten literary curiosities, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, is a sixteenth-century English novel which features talking cats. But Saki puts his own stamp on this small but rewarding genre of animal tales. In summary, a man named Cornelius Appin has managed to teach a cat, Tobermory, to talk. Tobermory belongs to his friends, the Blemleys, and it is at Mrs Blemley’s house party that Appin reveals that he has managed to teach Tobermory the power of speech. At first, the party guests are naturally incredulous, but when Sir Wilfred Blemley fetches Tobermory in from a neighbouring room, it soon becomes clear to everyone present that Tobermory has indeed learned to talk. Read the rest of this entry