A reading of H. H. Munro’s miniature masterpiece
‘The Open Window’ is one of Saki’s shortest stories, and that’s saying something. Few of his perfectly crafted and deliciously written tales exceed four or five pages in length, but ‘The Open Window’, at barely three pages, outstrips even ‘The Lumber-Room’ or ‘Tobermory’ for verbal economy. It is so brief it has almost the air of a parable about it, except that it’s far from clear what the ‘moral’ of the story is, or even if there is one. Saki uses language so deftly and to such effect, that it is worth unpicking and analysing ‘The Open Window’ (which can be read in full here) a little.
Although on first glance it seems different from some of Saki’s better-known stories, such as his classic werewolf tale ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ and his story about a polecat worshipped as a god, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, ‘The Open Window’ follows the same essential setup as many of Saki’s other stories, in having an adolescent character whose supposed innocence (supposed by the adult character, that is) turns out to be guile, cunning, and the mischief in disguise. But whereas Nicholas in ‘The Lumber-Room’, Conradin in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, or Gabriel-Ernest actively seek to cause harm to their adult antagonists (or, in the case of Nicholas, to refuse to help an aunt who has got herself trapped in the water tank), Vera’s only weapon is her imagination. Yet this alone suggests that she shares some kinship with Conradin in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, whose cousin and guardian dislikes her ward’s imaginative streak. Read the rest of this entry
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