101 Weird Writers #36 — Saki

What the Weird Knows: Conradin’s Secret Arts

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Hector Hugh Munro, better known by his nom de plume Saki, was a British writer known for his macabre stories that sometimes satirized the Edwardian society to which he belonged. Munro was born in British-controlled Burma to a father who served as Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police. Munro followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police but after contracting malaria, returned home to England where he began a career in journalism and writing. Munro is considered to be a master of the short story having influenced diverse authors from A. A. Milne to P. G. Wodehouse. Munro died in battle during the First World War.

– David Davis, editor of 101 Weird Writers

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This moral mystery seemed too much for the company until Mr. Hubble tersely solved it by saying, “Naterally wicious.” Everybody then murmured “True!”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861)

Hector_Hugh_Munro_aka_Saki,_by_E_O_Hoppe,_1913Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), pen name Saki, was no stranger to disorientation. Born in Akyab, Burma to a family serving imperial British interests in Southeast Asia, he was only two years old when his mother, Mary Frances Mercer, died from complications related to a miscarriage caused by a runaway cow in Devon, England.

Studies of Saki often repeat this odd story as an introduction to the writer’s sometimes strange works, but – as readers of the weird will know – oddness is often no cause for levity and death no simple matter. The immediate consequences of his mother’s odd demise were hardly humorous for Munro. He and his fellow bereaved siblings were taken from Burma and left to the cruelties of the British school system by their father. “What bearing this tragedy had on her son’s later preoccupation with animals that attack women we can only surmise,” John Carey offers in a recent introduction to Saki’s work – “but it can hardly have been insignificant” (ix). In his stories that would follow, guardians and women must always be aware.

Wrested from colonial exoticism into the hellish grasp of boarding school and suddenly bereft of his mother through a strange accident, Munro was, it is fair to conclude, permanently affected by childhood events. He had his share of complications as an adult, perhaps more. Biographers make much of signs of ambiguous sexuality in his life, for instance. But in some things he was very straightforward, and much like his contemporary, Rudyard Kipling (who also shared his occasional proclivity for ghost stories and the weird), Munro believed deeply in the dangerous myths of nation and empire. A dedication to these values led Moore to enlist as an overage soldier in World War I. Refusing easy postings, Munro bravely insisted on joining the infantry. It was a fateful decision. In November 1916, he died in the trenches near Beaumont-Hamel on the Somme.

Before his death in war, Munro was a police officer in India, satirist, occasional historian and, most pertinent to our purposes, a writer under the pen-name of “Saki.” The pseudonym is less a name and more properly a designation. Assumedly, Munro took it from Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. It refers to a boy who serves wine and, for Munro, seemed most compelling as a symbol for a spiritual guide (Gibson 11; cf. Carey xiv). Of Munro’s writing, of which there is much – journalism, satire, and humour in nonfiction, plays, and short stories – only the fiction bears the name of Saki. The impression of the strange is indelibly cut, however. Sandie Byrne judges that Saki’s stories show a bracing “lack of sentimentality about children, animals, or anything else.” A flair for cruelty and an ugly antipathy toward other cultures, especially Jewish and Slavic peoples, and the working classes grievously mar Saki’s work (Byrne 11).

A chasm separates Saki’s fiction from Munro’s biography, and contradictions between the two abound. To Brian Gibson’s eye, “Saki satirizes the urban bourgeois world which the gentleman, journalist, and soldier Munro inhabited, addressed in his articles, and fought for” (17). Despite the difference in attributions, both endeavours issued from the same man. The tormented relationship between Saki’s targets of satire – British politicians, strong women, and Edwardian society more generally – and his strong belief in Queen and country goes some way toward explaining moments of conflicted cruelty. So too we might account for his turn toward animals and children as figures of moral superiority. Saki’s children are often valorized just as the stupidity of adults is exposed. The three major themes that occupied his writing are 1) the myth of England, 2) the British Empire, and 3) “the feral ephebe, the sleek young male killer in his several forms” (Byrne 15). It is the third that most concerns readers of The Weird, and so it is to the devilish triangle of knowledge, secrecy, and children that we must turn, for biography can only take us so far.

The Secret Arts of Knowing Children § An Open Window, A Cage

Contemporary readers may be most familiar with Saki by way of his anti-ghost story “The Open Window” (1914) The delight of this story, in which a nervy young man (Framton Nuttel) is played like a fiddle by a teenage girl named Vera’s cunning lies, is the way in which it tells you from the beginning that its operations will be more than transparent. Better than a pane of glass, materially resistant to its illusory translucency, vision through an open window will be entirely unobstructed. So too the ghost story, where the ghosts are entirely see-through, which is to say that they are the bodies of the living: no ghosts at all! So too the story exposes the fiction of narrative. Vera’s ghost story is a spectacular lie, the story tells us, and therefore one should not trust stories, but only take pleasure in them (as the reader of “The Open Window” does). Unlike poor Framton, ostensibly the protagonist at the story’s beginning, in this fiction of anti-fiction readers are more aligned with Vera, a “very self-possessed young lady of fifteen” (102, my emphasis) with a penchant for cruel and inventive storytelling. Not insignificantly, Saki repeats the description of Vera as self-possessed on the next page. Only when making her deadly emotional ploy to Framton does Vera’s voice “los[e] its self-possessed note and become falteringly human” (103). Could the self-possessed child in control of narrative manipulations be somehow inhuman – perhaps another uncanny face of the weird?

Named for speaking truth (Saki’s game is satire, never forget), Vera plays on the feelings of the adults who listen to her tales spun from ghosts, cemeteries, and the grotesque. The person closest to knowledge seems to be the person whose lies manipulate the too-gullible adults surrounding her. To be self-possessed is to embody a knowledge not shared with others. In this, Vera, like many other children, is a gothic child who “knows too much,” as Steven Bruhm writes, an observation made acute when he notes that the self-possessed child’s “knowledge makes us more than a little nervous” (103). The most haunting thing about Saki’s “The Open Window” is the power of the young to dance a sharp knife along the exposed nerves of adults. Inventive, keen-witted, and cruel, the young simply know more than their more aged competitors. More than this, they have the will to play. The theme is at the heart of a long line of fictional treatments surrounding a central object: the ambiguously knowing child.

Before turning to Saki’s brilliantly brief “Sredni Vashtar” (1912) I want to briefly recall another short story published just prior to Saki’s work, Henry James’s “In the Cage” (1898). The pairing is odd but fruitful. James was no stranger to stories of distressingly strange children who know exactly too much or who seem to know something, at least. This is clear in What Maisie Knew (1897), for example, but also in the archetypical ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898), in which an ambiguously motivated governess comes to grief in the service of two children who seem to know something she does not. Or perhaps the children, normal and knowing nothing extraordinary, are terrorized by their paranoid governess. A ghost story refuses simple readings. This is also the time of Sigmund Freud, for whom, as Bruhm suggests, “the child is always defined by conflicts, desires, and aggressions, instinctual drives he located in the human being’s animalistic ‘id’” (99). In these and other stories, the Victorian child’s seeming innocence rapidly gave way to gothic or macabre reminders served by children such as Vera (or our Conradin). Not only “naterally wicious,” as Dickens’s Great Expectations suggested, disturbingly knowing children are possessed of some kind of secret – perhaps the secret.

Henry James’s “In the Cage” describes a telegrapher who stumbles on a secret which, for a brief window of time, dispossesses her: an affair between two of her aristocratic customers, Lady Bradeen and Captain Everard. Fascinated by the secret, the telegraphist puts her own impending marriage to a grocer, Mr. Mudge, on hold as she begins observation of Everard. In the end, it is the telegraphist to whom Everard will turn when he worries about a wire from Bradeen that might have compromised the two. Could their coded letters have betrayed their secret? But no, they are safe, the telegraphist confirms. All parties never see each other again. The telegraphist will marry Mudge. Back to reality – or so it seems.

James’s short story is comprehensively riddled by what Thomas Laughlin calls “James’s phantom signifiers—his undisclosed secrets, mystifying enigmas, and transient ghosts” (155). In their famous reading of “In the Cage,” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari linger over the uncanny moment of telling that betrays to the listener or reader what Deleuze and Guattari call “the form of the secret” (196): not the secret itself, nor the matter of the secret, nor even the fact that secrecy exists, but a certain knowingness that disrupts structures and the foreseen. The moment in which the form of the secret is revealed is an epistemological change that happens when the London telegraphist, reading a coded telegraph, “ended up knowing so much that she could no longer interpret anything. There were no longer shadows to help her see more clearly, only glare” (qtd. in Deleuze and Guattari 197).[1] “You cannot go further in life than this sentence by James,” the French theorists argue. Operations of the self-possessed unknown in texts devoid of inherent meaning are signified by failures of interpretation. In turn, these failures and lacunae make visible the shape of untraceable secrets. “As Kierkegaard says,” Deleuze and Guattari conclude, “nothing distinguishes the knight of the faith from a bourgeois German going home or to the post office: he sends off no special telegraphic sign … yet he is already moving on a line no one even suspects” (197). The moral of the story is this: to be self-possessed is to know secrets, and the most others might gain from observation is to understand not secrets themselves but how to discern the form of the secret.

Our detour through “The Open Window” and “In the Cage” should remind us that prose is a mysterious thing. Words and the images they conjure are certainly not straightforward; neither are matters of knowledge and interpretation. Beyond the figural knowing children and oblivious adults who appear in the spectralized stories, prose is a matter of paths to understanding, of secrets and of the forms and bodies that hold them. Turning to the weird, it will be a matter of guarding ourselves, as readers, from the strange device in play, for we as adults might find ourselves open and vulnerable to the story at hand if we seek out only secrets and not their forms. What does weird fiction know that we do not? The je ne sais quoi of art?

To discover what someone knows we must evaluate how the fact of their experiences and knowledge are presented to us. How does knowledge testify? The knowingness of our little Conradin precedes that of Stella Gibbons’s Ada Doom in the faux-gothic Cold Comfort Farm (1932). As a child, Doom infamously saw “something nasty in the woodshed.” Unlike Gibbons’s child, who comes face to face with her horror and is destroyed by it, Conradin and the reader of “Sredni Vashtar” are anchored to the window and see nothing of the events that transpire inside. In this, he is more like Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis of Atonement, who watches over without seeing a scene of her own fervid imaginings come to life in horrific fashion. Like the weird, Conradin straddles worlds, piercing borders with transgressive unconcern. He is fateful and strange, true, but he is more like us than we may care to admit. He may pray to the polecat-ferret Sredni Vashtar, but this devotion to the unknown and the inhuman resembles more and more readerly devotion to the text, especially that use of a text that asks for knowledge. A text is an assemblage of signs and pages, after all. Don’t get bitten looking for secrets.

Sredni Vashtar in the Woodshed § What the Weird Knows

sredni vashtar

About “Sredni Vashtar” I will say comparatively little and leave the reading for readers. It is a classic. Charles H. Gillen observes that this blinking-short story is one of Saki’s most frequently reprinted tales, and that, “because of its balefulness and horror, it stays in a reader’s memory ever afterward” (87). What more can be said? Better question: what is the worst that can happen?

Only remember this: Conradin is a knowing child, one of the devilishly dreadful who observe few social niceties. Sredni Vashtar went forth. A child will use you just like a spiritualist medium would at a séance. You won’t even know you’re being exploited for an other’s ends. His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white. But you might feel a little weird. After all, reading the story re-enlivens Conradin’s chant, “the hymn of his threatened idol” (55). His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death. While the reader recites the chant something is happening in the little shed, out of sight but not out of mind. Does Conradin know what is going to happen? Does he hope against hope, praying to his demigod for the devil to deliver himself? Even the child fears the polecat-ferret whom he worships – and for good reason. Devotion betrays its object of worship. It is in fact Conradin’s visitations with red offerings (red flowers, scarlet berries) that clues in his guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, and leads to the removal of Conradin’s beloved hen. De Ropp’s blind act blithely violates Conradin’s only object of affection and leaves him the sole consolation of Sredni Vashtar – “his most treasured possession”, but also a beast he little understands (54). From that moment, all Conradin’s faint knowledge flies out the window in the form of a yearning prayer. “Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar,” he pleads. Show a sign. Signify yourself.

For us, watching the mouth of the shed with Conradin, Sredni Vashtar’s passing can be followed only by mundanities and mysteries. Taste “the slow enjoyment” of eating toast, for instance, one of Conradin’s near-forbidden pleasures. Or hear the “quick spasms” of noise outside the dining-room door. Footsteps, entreaties, cries, voices, an unmysterious “heavy burden,” but also, as anyone who enjoys toast will know, the soft crunch of buttered bread. As the story tells it, then, the body’s burden is a wyrd knowledge predicated on the sight of nothing and a false prayer to animals cast as demigods, but it has not let go of toast and our own recognizable reality. To read of Conradin is to know this and to see it, not in sordid little details, but in form alone. Some secrets are not worth telling. In this case, the weird knows feeling. We proceed to the last question: of what destiny or fate does Saki’s wyrd tell?

If you do find something strange about Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar,” you’re one of the lucky ones, for its pages host the weird in its feral self-possession. As Ann and Jeff VanderMeer write of the weird: “I know it when I feel it” (xvi). The good thing is this: you can still feel. Otherwise you might be an insensate body. Worse, you might be asleep, dispossessed of feeling and possessed of an insensate or distracted mind ready to accept whatever comes. If you’re not feeling a little odd, you might find yourself unpleasantly surprised. Taken by ferrets even, or by the baleful misogyny of a knowing child. In a blink of the eye you too might have to be carried inside.

Conradin may not be right about everything, and his little god may have run off, but don’t tell him about the body. He knows. Sredni Vashtar, the Beautiful. The weird, red in tooth and claw.

Works Cited

Bruhm, Steven. “Nightmare on Sesame Street: or, The Self-Possessed Child.” Gothic Studies 8.2 (2006): 98-113. Print.

Byrne, Sandie. The Unbearable Saki: The Work of H.H. Munro. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Carey, John. Introduction to Short Stories and The Unbearable Bassington. Saki. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. vii-xxiv. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [Mille Plateaux]. 1987. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Continuum, 2003. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Chapman and Hall, 1861. Print.

Gibbons, Stella. Cold Comfort Farm. London: Longmans, 1932. Print.

Gibson, Brian. Reading Saki: The Fiction of H.H. Munro. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. Print.

Gillen, Charles H. H.H. Munro (Saki). New York: Twayne, 1969. Print.

James, Henry. “In the Cage.” 1898. Collected Stories Vol. 2. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. 787-940. Print.

Laughlin, Thomas A. “The Double Life in the Cage: The Queering of the Social in Henry James’s Late Short Fiction.” Henry James Review 31.2 (2010): 154-168. Print.

Ross, Shawna. “‘You cannot go further in life than this sentence:’ Deleuze, Guattari, Henry James.” Modern Languages Association Conference, Los Angeles, 2011. Academia.edu. 2011. Internet. 25 June 2015.

Saki [H.H. Munro]. The Best of Saki. London: Bodley Head, 1952. Print.

      . “Sredni Vashtar.” 1912. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Eds. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. New York: Tor, 2012. 53-55. Print.

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff. Introduction to The Weird. Eds. VanderMeer. xv-xx.

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[1] Ross points out that this line is multiply distorted, first by Deleuze and Guattari, who are quoting a 1925 French translation of James’s text, and then by Brian Massumi, the English translator of Mille plateaux, whose revised version again fails to include crucial words that the French translators had in the first place picked up on. With four versions of these two absolutely crucial lines – James’s original, the 1925 translation, Massumi’s version into English, and Massumi’s erroneous repetition of the original – we arrive at a situation where “Each time we turn to the Jamesian text, we return to it through a text […] that exists virtually, not on the line of hard segmentarity but in the micropolitics of Jamesian style, in the molecular currents of “In the Cage,” whose use for Deleuze and Guattari is to give a model for abstraction that abandons interpretation and stratification in favor of a productive eternal return” (Ross).