‘Sredni Vashtar’ by ‘Saki’ (H. H. Munro)

And Conradin fervently breathed his prayer for the last time. But he knew as he prayed that he did not believe. He knew that the Woman would come out presently with that pursed smile he loathed so well on her face, and that in an hour or two the gardener would carry away his wonderful god, a god no longer, but a simple brown ferret in a hutch. And he knew that the Woman would triumph always as she triumphed now, and that he would grow ever more sickly under her pestering and domineering and superior wisdom, till one day nothing would matter much more with him, and the doctor would be proved right. And in the sting and misery of his defeat, he began to chant loudly and defiantly the hymn of his threatened idol:

Sredni Vashtar went forth,
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.   
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.   
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.

God is a ferret and the ferret is death. Conradin, a sickly ten-year-old boy, worships the creature and fears the ‘sharp-fanged beast’ Sredni Vashtar in equal measure. But he conjures that fear into substance (as my Mary Shelley conjured up her demon in the screenplay for Ken Russell’s Gothic) and it becomes a weapon against Mrs De Ropp, his domineering cousin and nemesis. Whether she deserves her fate is for us to say. Who has the greater capacity for evil – her, or the boy, who creates, with his imagination, a perversely divine being to whom he prays for revenge? We are told Mrs De Ropp ‘indulged in religion once a week at a church’ while little Conradin engages in rituals to something ungodly. Thus the story taps into the British Empire’s fear of non-Christian deities unknown and unknowable.  Potent also is its use of a child as hero/victim/villain, upturning the Victorian-created belief in childhood as unsullied innocence – instead reflecting the dubious inner lives of the young, their ambiguous motivation so magnificently echoed in Henry James’s spectral masterpiece The Turn of the Screw. The childlike rhyme quoted above inverts the given ‘spiritual’ or ‘improving’ nature of poetry to convey its reverse; profane malevolence. The threat can easily be seen as a heathen force, a pagan god-animal, baring its teeth at the hubris of parents and all authority figures, and we, like children ourselves listening to a fable, enjoy every ounce of its nastiness. 

First published in The Chronicles of Clovis 1912; collected in Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do on TV, Max Reinhardt Ltd 1957; Pan Books 1960. It can be read here

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