‘The Lumber Room’ by Saki

Several of Saki’s stories feature mischievous children rebelling against disagreeable, strait-laced guardians. ‘The Lumber Room’ is a prime example of this, as young Nicholas must remain at home while the rest of the children in the family are treated to a day out. It is his punishment for an earlier misdemeanour at the breakfast table, one involving a frog and a basin of ‘wholesome bread-and-milk’. At an early stage in the story, Saki paints a revealing portrait of Nicholas’s rather draconian aunt, the woman in charge of the household – in reality, however, she is only the boy’s ‘aunt-by-assertion’. Convinced that young Nicholas will try to sneak off to the prized gooseberry patch while his cousins and brother are away, the aunt maintains a close watch on the garden in an attempt to spoil the boy’s fun. However, unbeknownst to the aunt, Nicholas has other plans for the day – he wishes to gain entry to the mysterious lumber room, a place generally kept under strict lock and key, only to be accessed by the most privileged members of the household. This is a very effective story in which the knowing child enjoys a moment of triumph over his loathsome guardian.

First published in the Morning Post. Collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts, John Lane 1914, and Complete Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000. Available variously online, including here

‘The Schartz-Metterklume Method’ by Saki

‘Seconds after telling a fellow soldier to Put that bloody cigarette out,” Munro was shot through the head by an enemy sniper aiming for the lit cigarette.’ Every single one of H. H. Munro’s short stories is a study in how to handle delight, frailty, cruelty and absurdity with gorgeous lucid prose. ‘The Schartz-Metterklume Method’ is an unskittish but nose-thumbing, joyful sketch that covers trust, power, a fraudulent governess and merely THE WAYS BY WHICH OUR ENGAGEMENT WITH HISTORY CAN UNRAVEL.

As a side-note: the writer and composer Timothy Thornton has mentioned a couple of times that he would like to make an opera based on Saki’s short stories and sometimes I think I live only to see this happen.

‘Sredni Vashtar’, by Saki

If my first two stories were classic literary fiction, replete with the tropes and trappings of the genre, then this is different: short story as ritual incantation. It’s a dark little parcel of viciousness dressed up in the scantest narrative and characterisation. There is no weight to the set-up (sickly boy, living with his strict female older cousin, worships a pet polecat he keeps in the garden shed), no moral strength to the pay-off beyond its own pleasure in destruction. Another story I loved as a child was Kipling’s ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ (brave mongoose saves human child) and this is its evil – and better – twin, a fever dream of violence and revenge.

(read in an old hardback Saki given me by my grandmother. Available in any number of editions and anthologies, and online, including here)