‘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

‘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)