Thursday, December 21, 2017

"Sredni Vashtar" (1911)

Read story by Saki online.

Saki was a Scottish writer, also known as H.H. Munro, who died in battle at the age of 45 in World War I. His literary specialty involved very short stories, usually involving children and animals. They might be classed as horror, because they were often macabre, with surprising cruelties, and many had supernatural elements as well. "Sredni Vashtar" is one of his best known and most widely collected, though perhaps a little short on the entirely fantastic. Conradin is the main character, a boy of 10 with a fatal disease who will die within five years. He is in the legal care of Mrs. De Ropp, his cousin. No word on the whereabouts of his parents (abandoned children are another recurring feature of Saki's stories). Conradin is lonely with only Mrs. De Ropp hovering over him. Consigned to the garden in the backyard, he finds a neglected toolshed in a far corner, and in that shed a hen and a caged polecat-ferret. He dubs the mammal hybrid "Sredni Vashtar" and worships it as a god. The hen he treats as a pet, and loves. Eventually Mrs. De Ropp investigates the toolshed. She misses the polecat-ferret but removes the hen, "sold and taken away overnight." Conradin's sadness is so profound we feel it ourselves. He knows now it's just a matter of time before she gets to the other animal. This is strange stuff, but normal for Saki. Mrs. De Ropp is not wantonly punishing—she may be insensitive but she feels a responsibility for the boy's care. Meanwhile the worship of Sredni Vashtar is only vaguely plausible but wholly typical of Saki. The feverishness of it (along with the brevity of the story) helps make us believe too, if only for as long as we read. Conradin's supplications take a new and darker tone after the hen is gone. "Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar," is his repeated prayer. "The thing was not specified," Saki writes as an aside. "As Sredni Vashtar was a god he must be supposed to know." And so it comes to pass that one day Mrs. De Ropp investigates the toolshed further. I'm sure you can guess the twist ending—once you've read enough Saki they're not hard to guess. The real surprise is that he did this stuff at all, thought of crazy monstrous ways to end his stories, and then actually did them. On one level, it's unbelievable cheek—so it's a joke? Yes and no. The ending also speaks unmistakably to Conradin's rage, at the loss of his hen, at the imminent loss of his life, at the emptiness of his life awaiting death. The story is highly implausible like a joke, but the character plight is real and carries all the portent and gravity of this remarkable story.

Sredni Vashtar and Other Stories by Saki

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