Saki came to the short story as a satirist and never averted his eye from the darker side of human nature, a place where not only social ineptness, pomposity, and foolishness are rooted but criminality as well. Saki’s first works of fiction, collected in Reginald (1904), are short sketches featuring a rakish but keen observer of the follies of his upper-middle-class London society. As a prototype of later narrator-protagonists, Reginald is something like a witty and caustic Socrates of the salon, whose passion to expose the foibles of his dim-witted and obnoxiously stupid contemporaries is reflected in much of Saki’s fiction.
Reginald in Russia
Saki’s criminous short stories—the first collection of which, Reginald in Russia (1910), plays off the fame of the early protagonist—follow suit. In their aim to ridicule, and often to punish, self-imposing and occasionally tyrannical victims, Saki’s stories exploit plots crafted by a masterful imagination; they often read like gigantic, fiendishly designed practical jokes, with varying degrees of realism.
“Sredni Vashtar” (in The Chronicles of Clovis, 1911) features one such cruel and fantastic scheme. The boy Conradin is afflicted with a forbidding aunt who gets perverse pleasure from closing off all avenues of play from her ward. His only undisturbed space is a small shed in which he keeps a hen and a caged “polecatferret” named Sredni Vashtar, for an Asian deity. The boy has devised a cult around Sredni Vashtar. After his aunt breaks into the shed and removes the hen, Conradin prays to his other playmate: “Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.” The wish is never made explicit, but after the aunt breaks in a second time, Conradin chants to his deity until the ferret emerges, “a long, low, yellow-and-brown beast, with eyes a-blink at the waning daylight, and dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat.” When the aunt is discovered dead, the boy calmly prepares some toast for himself in obvious satisfaction.
As in this tale, in which the divine ferret acts out the boy’s fantasy of revenge, Saki gives animals uncanny power, and they act to expose the worst in their human counterparts. In “Tobermory,” also in The Chronicles of Clovis, a dignified tomcat is taught human language and, to the horror of a house party, freely divulges compromising personal information that he had overheard. The humans’ response is instant and malicious: Tobermory is to be poisoned. Their decision is described as if the guests were plotting the murder of a human. By a typical quirk of fate, Saki saves Tobermory from poison by having him die in dignified battle with another tomcat; his owners demand recompense from his adversary’s masters.
Because his fiction always succeeds in bringing forth the worst in people, be it greed, tyranny, or selfishness, Saki has himself been accused of inhumanity. A more intent look at the reasons for his deep sarcasm cannot fail to establish that the cruelty of his stories is the cruelty of the well-to-do society around him, the greed and vice of which stir his disgust and in turn impel him to put much of what he sees and feels on paper in ironic form, adding a dash of the exotic and supernatural to his often-murderous fiction. As to Saki’s motives for presenting his society with his work, one might echo Clovis Sangrail on his ideas for “The Feast of Nemesis” (in Beasts and Super-Beasts, 1914): “There is no outlet for demonstrating your feelings towards people whom you simply loathe. That is really the crying need of our modern civilization.”
In a society where a faux pas could literally annihilate a person’s social position, leaving him a choice only of internal or external exile, a man such as Saki (excolonial, homosexual) must have felt some of the shady morality, hypocrisy, and bigotry behind the façades of respectability. Yet Saki never outwardly shocks or lectures his audience. His wit is so fine and his irony so subtle that he always remains the gentleman in his fiction. Sexuality is never really exposed, and social or political radicalism is absent from the work of the staunch conservative Saki. Yet he triumphs by giving his readers an exquisitely crafted inside view of members of a social class who stood on top of their world before the war destroyed everything forever.
“The Peace of Mowsle Barton”
It is appropriate that an author who could write the story “Birds on the Western Front” (in The Square Egg), in which the horror of trench warfare is brought home via a tranquil description of how the feathery folk have adjusted to “lyddite and shrapnel and machine-gun fire,” should use a pond in a forest to evoke the most chilling scene of horror in his fiction. In “The Peace of Mowsle Barton” (in The Chronicles of Clovis), city-weary Crefton Lockyer has retired to a remote spot in the country only to discover himself at the center of a feud between witches. Gazing at a small pool, he witnesses the evil effect of a spell of one of the rival hags. Saki’s description of the drowning ducks is terrifyingly uncanny; the reader is captured in a pastoral world gone to hell, where the most basic and thus most trusted assumptions about the world have so suddenly disappeared that one can only feel the silent terror of a perversely defamiliarized universe:The duck flung itself confidently forward into the water, and rolled immediately under the surface. Its head appeared for a moment and went under again, leaving a train of bubbles in its wake, while wings and legs churned the water in a helpless swirl of flapping and kicking.
If such a scene captures the essence of witchcraft—the sudden and magic performance of a practical joke on the beliefs of humankind about what can and what cannot happen in the world—then Saki has just demonstrated another aspect of his fascination with “what if” and “how to get back at” something or somebody.
In its exploration of the art of cynically humorous revenge, Saki’s fiction delights in the idea of negative endings triggered by quirks of fate. Unlike traditional detective stories, in which the master sleuth comes up with an idea at the eleventh hour or cracks the case on the final page, Saki’s stories often thrive on the prevention of exactly such a fortunate occurrence.
The jailed protagonist of “Lost Sanjak” (in Reginald in Russia) is one such butt of a murderous joke by the forces of fate. On the eve of his execution, this slighted Don Juan confesses the bizarre story of his life to a chaplain. Rejected by a married woman and determined to disappear from the known world, the narrator exchanges clothes with a major of the Salvation Army, whom a road accident has left an unidentifiable corpse. In a turn of fate that is characteristic of Saki’s world, the corpse is mistaken for the young gentleman’s, and the hunt is on for the Salvationist, who has been observed at the scene of the “crime.” The relations of the Salvationist attest his “depraved youth,” and when captured, the man fails an absurd test to prove his identity by trapping himself in his own designs: Having tried to impress his love by posing as an expert on the Balkans, he cannot locate the city of Novibazar and is duly condemned. Guardedly, the chaplain looks up the city after the execution, and his reason for doing so not only compromises this man of God as a potential adulterer but also betrays the text’s general feeling toward the morals of humankind: “A thing like that,” he observed, “might happen to any one.”
There is a strong undercurrent of feeling in Saki’s fiction that certain behavior on the part of the victim justifies criminal action by the clever ones who seize the opportunity for a trick. In “Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger” and “The Secret Sin of Septimus Brode” (both in The Chronicles of Clovis), the pompous characters of the titles have to pay off the person who gets behind their schemes. Thus, blackmail appears to be the correct social behavior toward vain people who cannot bear that ignominious facts about themselves should be made known.
The complacent who dare to complain stupidly about their lot without really desiring change, and who will fail bitterly when tested, are another butt of criminal jokes. In “The Unrest-Cure” (in The Chronicles of Clovis), Clovis Sangrail challenges a man bored by his tranquil life. Impersonating a bishop’s secretary, he arrives at J. P. Huddle’s house supposedly a few hours ahead of his master. He tricks the oafish Huddle into believing that the bishop has set up quarters in Huddle’s library and is planning a massacre; the man falls for the outlandish lie and spends a frightful night, definitely “cured” of his restlessness.
“The Sheep” and “The Gala Programme”
Saki’s fascination with the idea of revenge has led some critics to label him a misanthrope whose thirst for vengeance ignores the lessons humanity has learned since William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601); indeed, critics have had trouble with stories such as “The Sheep” (in The Toys of Peace, 1919), in which a dog involuntarily prevents the rescue of an obnoxious blunderer and, for that feat, becomes the narrator’s most cherished friend. Nevertheless, in a turn of fate that Saki would have appreciated, critics have generally failed to bewail the uncensored atrocity in “The Gala Programme” (in The Square Egg), in which a fictitious Roman emperor finds out that the best way to hold chariot races at his coronation ceremony without interference from female protesters (suffragetae) is to feed them to the wild beasts that were supposed to be the second part of the festivities.
“Gabriel-Ernest,” “The She-Wolf,” and “Laura”
The supernatural is an integral part of Saki’s imagination. It is most powerfully used as part of a clever revenge or joke plot, and it is indicative of the quality and range of Saki’s mind that his stories vary in the degree to which the reader is to take the unreal as real. In “Gabriel-Ernest” (in Reginald in Russia), a landlord encounters a real werewolf on his territory; his foolhardiness in wanting to believe in the rational reasons for the disappearance of a miller’s baby only leads to the death of another infant by the fangs of the boy-werewolf. “The She-Wolf” (in Beasts and Super-Beasts), however, mirrors the theme when party guests play an elaborate joke on a braggart who professes knowledge of magical powers yet is quite unable to change a wolf (supposedly the hostess) “back” into her human shape. “Laura” (from the same collection) is the synthesis of Saki’s treatment of the unreal. Days before her death, Laura confides her wish to be reborn as an otter; when this comes true, she is hunted to death after wreaking havoc on her old human opponents. Yet she is again reincarnated as a Nubian boy to continue her pranks on the adversaries, who have gone to Egypt to relax after the mischief she has caused. Again, the joke, with all of its nasty effects, is on the self-satisfied.
Saki’s short fiction succeeds thanks to its unique mixture of satire, high comedy of manners, mystery and horror, and psychological insight into the minds and world of the bygone Edwardian era. As cynical antidetective fiction, it reverses the quest to reinstate order; Saki is more impressive in his portraiture of humans than many of the classic authors of the genre, who give their readers a fair share of the horrible in human nature yet insist on a conformist and pacifying “happy ending.” Saki does not allow his reader to settle back into the armchair with the sense that once again virtue has triumphed; instead, one is shown the underlying forces that motivate people to evil, and one is coaxed into admiration for Saki’s clever doers of mischief. Like the protagonist of “Louis” (in The Toys of Peace), whose sister finally delivers him from his wife’s schemes, the reader might come to admire those clever perpetrators, as does the husband here: “’Novels have been written about women like you,’ said Strudwarden; ’you have a perfectly criminal mind.’” This, however, is too sinister a response to such a gift as Lena Strudwarden’s.