I do not know how popular Saki (Hector Hugh Munro) is nowadays. During my college days, short stories by him and O. Henry were mandatory in almost all college textbooks. I think “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry and “The Open Window” by Saki might be two of the most anthologised stories. The difference between the two authors is that while O. Henry directly appeals to our emotions and the twist at the end strikes with the power of a jack-hammer, Saki is more subtle and his stories appeal to our intellect. Saki’s stories are more enjoyable in retrospect, the mull over; whereas O. Henry can become jaded after a while.
I had been on the lookout for a collection of Saki’s short stories, and stumbled upon this cheap edition quite serendipitously. I believe it contains all of his work; I had read quite a few of them in my teens and twenties, and savouring them again along with many which were fresh to me was a rare treat. I took this book very slowly, relishing the taste, like a single-malt whisky on a rainy evening: you get a pleasant high which stays with you for a long time.
Saki writes humorously; but he does not write humour, like P. G. Wodehouse whom he influenced. Bizarre would be a more fitting word. In this, he is akin to Roald Dahl, as his stories move from the funny to the bizarre to the uncanny to the truly horrific. Saki could be classified as a writer of black comedy, but he would not have recognised himself as such, because the term was coined almost twenty years after his death.
Many of his stories are indeed humour, though of a satirical nature. As is the case with most Englishmen, Saki revelled in ridiculing the hypocrisies of his fellow countrymen – notably those of the well-heeled, aristocratic lot. Two of his creations, Reginald and Clovis Sangrail, are young-men-about-town who do not do anything other than flit about from one country house to another, getting into scrapes and helping others to get into scrapes. They are the prototypes of the “drones” popularised by Wodehouse. However, his humour frequently slips into satire and a darker kind of fantasy, which never happened with Wodehouse.
This volume comprises six collections: Reginald, Reginald in Russia, The Chronicles of Clovis, Beasts and Super-beasts, The Toys of Peace and The Square Egg – more than a hundred stories. They can be roughly divided into the following categories:
- Humorous pieces which cannot be called stories – they consist of a character (usually Reginald or Clovis) soliloquizing or in conversation with somebody (mostly an aristocratic member of the opposite sex), expounding unusual views on English life in a matter-of-fact way. They are classic examples of underplayed British humour.
- Stories of footloose young men and women, out to wreak havoc in straitlaced English society. I think these escapades are the ones which mostly influenced Wodehouse.
- Strange tales bordering on the fantastical which walk the fine tightrope between horror and humour: the kind of stories at which we have to laugh to prevent ourselves from shivering.
- Out and out fantasies. These may be satirical, darkly comical, or outright terrifying.
- Bizarre stories which are frightening without any supernatural element.
One common thread that runs through all stories is a child’s delight at cocking his snook at authority. Many of them actually feature children getting their own back at unfeeling grownups. Even if the children are not there, the author’s tone is one of the delighted rebellion of a naughty child at an orderly universe. Saki had been raised by a number of aunts, rather like Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, and the rancour of a restricted childhood shows – because whatever be the case, like Bertie says: “Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen!”
A few of the stories require special mention in my opinion:
The Open Window: An excellent character study, the story develops from a normal enough premise and suddenly moves into a twilight zone, again to come back to the normal English drawing room. The story is simple and plausible, yet on rereading, one is able to glimpse a dark world residing in a young girl’s brain.
The Interlopers: Two men, out to kill each other because of a blood feud, are trapped under a tree. They settle their age-old quarrel, just to see fate arrive as the interloper.
Sredni Vashtar: An accident or the frightening wish-fulfilment of a cruel childish fantasy? This tale could be right out of “Tales from the Crypt” or “The Twilight Zone”.
The Hounds of Fate: A man, living a lie in a case of mistaken identity, finds somebody else’s fate catching up with him.
The Story-teller: A most unusual storyteller, with a most unusual story, manages to keep a group of children entranced during a train ride, even though their aunt doesn’t approve.
The Penance: A story of childish revenge which could easily have become a horror story.
Mind you, these are my personal favourites. Others may choose differently. The fact is that most of the stories are way above average.
One caveat: whoever did the proofreading for this book has done a horrendous job. The book is littered with typos, like stones in freshly cooked rice (to translate a simile from Malayalam).
If you have not discovered Saki yet, I urge you to do so. It will definitely be worth your while.