The unity and interplay of comedy and horror in the tales of Saki (H. H. Munro)

Many years ago, when I was just a teenager and had a part-time job which allowed me a generous disposable income to spend on books and records, I bought an omnibus edition of The Complete Works of Saki.  Though I didn’t understand fully what “mafficking” was, I was enchanted by the lilt and insouciance of one particular verse, which ran thus:  “Mother, may I go and maffick,/Tear around and hinder traffic?”  Later I came to know that Mafeking was a town in South Africa where the Boer War was fought, and that “mafficking” was wild and boisterous celebration upon achieving a victory (for example, in warfare).  But playful strewing about of place-names from the Victorian and Edwardian eras and warfare in jest weren’t the whole of the charm of Saki’s stories, verses, and plays.  He has a particular gift for uniting comedy and horror with the emphasis in one story being on one of the two elements, and on just the opposite in another story.  Two stories which play with this uncanny combination, a combination which I have remarked upon before as being particularly effective in conveying both parts of the equation, but especially the chill that runs down one’s spine at a good horror story, are “Gabriel-Ernest” and “The Open Window.”  The first has a tinge of comedy and is otherwise a short horror story; the second seems to be a horror story at first, but keeps the surprise about the jest until the very last sentence of the story, and builds up excellently to that point.  The first story, “Gabriel-Ernest,” works by contrast by starting out with the outré note in the first sentence.

In Gabriel-Ernest, an artist named Cunningham informs his friend Van Cheele in the first sentence that “There is a wild beast in your woods.”  When Van Cheele responds to this by insisting that the “wild beasts” are limited to a fox and a few weasels, Cunningham takes back his remark, but it gives the reader pause.  The next day, when he goes to visit his own property on a ramble, Van Cheele finds a young boy, totally naked, stretched out full length by a pool, sunning himself.  We are told his eyes are light-brown, “so light that there was almost a tigerish gleam in them” and that they watch Van Cheele “with a certain lazy watchfulness.”  When Van Cheele challenges him as to his presence there, the boy says that he lives on “flesh,” and from there on, Van Cheele is on the losing side of the dialogue.  He keeps trying to make ordinary sense of what the boy says and does, but the boy succeeds in intimidating him physically, and the next day, after Van Cheele has been considering that a lot of small animals and a child or two have gone missing lately, the boy turns up naked again, in Van Cheele’s morning-room this time.  When Van Cheele becomes angry and challenges him again, the boy responds with wild equanimity, “You told me I was not to stay in the woods.”

Van Cheele’s aunt comes in and is promptly deceived by the two of them, the boy because he sits indolently under the copy of the “Morning Post” which Van Cheele hurriedly drapes over him, Van Cheele because he can’t seem to recognize just what’s wrong, though he knows that something is very, very wrong.  He decides that he will have to contact Cunningham and take his opinion about the situation, so he unadvisedly leaves the boy in his aunt’s care and his aunt when he leaves is “arranging that Gabriel-Ernest [their name for the “adopted” boy] should help her to entertain the infant members of her Sunday-school class at tea that afternoon.”  Cunningham tells Van Cheele that the boy had vanished right in front of him and to a further query says, “on the open hillside where the boy had been standing a second ago, stood a huge wolf, blackish in color, with gleaming fangs and cruel, yellow eyes.”

We are next told that Van Cheele “did not stop for anything as futile as thought.”  He thinks of sending a telegram to his uncomprehending aunt, but realizes that “‘Gabriel-Ernest is a werewolf’ was a hopelessly inadequate effort at conveying the situation, and his aunt would think it was a code message to which he had omitted to give her the key.”  The story’s ending smiles and leers at us just as wolfishly as Gabriel-Ernest himself, an ending in which when the “boy” and the infant with him disappear, the aunt concludes that Gabriel-Ernest has jumped into the water to save the infant and that both have drowned, and sets up a brass plaque in the parish church.  The last line, smirking at us and our readerly discomfort, reads:  “Van Cheele gave way to his aunt in most things, but he flatly refused to subscribe to the Gabriel-Ernest memorial.”

In “The Open Window,” the quantity of horror to comedy is reversed, though the dead pan delivery of comedy at the last line occurs again.  A guest, Framton Nuttel, who is taking a cure for his nerves by paying a set of “formal visits on a set of total strangers,” finds himself sitting in Mrs. Sappleton’s living room talking to her fifteen year old niece.  The niece tells him what seems like a perfectly lucid story of how his aunt has had a “great tragedy” in her own life three years previously.  As she explains it, “Out through that [large French window], three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting.  They never came back….Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do[,]…her youngest brother[]singing, ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’….Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window–“.  Well, the niece has clearly set the scene.  In comes the aunt and keeps looking out the window with anticipation, which chills the marrow of the young visitor, because he’s nervous and he believes what the niece has told him of her aunt’s mental obsession.  He tells them about his own illness in an effort to stem his rising nerves as the aunt keeps watching the window.  Finally, she leaps up and says “Here they are at last!….Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”  But when Mr. Nuttel faces the niece sympathetically, she too is looking out the window with a horrified look on her face.  When he looks out, he does indeed see three figures carrying hunting guns and a little spaniel, and hears a hoarse voice singing “Bertie, why do you bound?”.  “Framton grabbed wildly at his [walking-]stick and hat; the hall-door, the gravel-drive, and the front gate were dimly noted stages in his headlong retreat.  A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid imminent collision.”  The people converging on the room (all of whom are actually alive) discuss the mystery of his rapid departure, and the aunt says, “A most extraordinary man….could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of good-bye or apology when you arrived.  One would think he had seen a ghost.”

The niece, however, is equal to this occasion too, and so is “Saki.”  In the penultimate paragraph of the story, the niece says, “I expect it was the spaniel….he told me he had a horror of dogs.  He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him.  Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”  As the final line of the story runs, in Saki’s wonderfully condensed tongue-in-cheek explanation:  “Romance at short notice was her speciality.”

Many of Saki’s stories use the combination of the horrific chill and the comic chuckle, but the two above are certainly among the most well-known of them all.  As the Introduction’s writer Noël Coward says of Saki, “Many writers who raise youthful minds to a high pitch of enthusiasm are liable, when re-read in the cold remorseless light of middle age, to lose much of their original magic.  The wit seems laboured and the language old-fashioned.  Saki does not belong to this category.  His stories and novels appear as delightful and…sophisticated…as they did when he first published them.  They are dated only by the fact that they evoke an atmosphere and describe a society which vanished in the baleful summer of 1914.  The Edwardian era…must have been, socially at least, very charming.  It is this evanescent charm that Saki so effortlessly evoked.”  Why not have a glance through some of Saki’s stories and pay a visit to that world of “evanescent charm” for yourself?  All you have to lose is your solemnity.

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6 responses to “The unity and interplay of comedy and horror in the tales of Saki (H. H. Munro)

  1. Thank you for a lovely appreciation of one of my favourite writers. Saki is one who can be re-read many times, as I have done since I was a very callow youth. His work somehow never seems to date, even though the world of which he writes is long dead. I love his Reginald stories especially.

    • I’m very glad to make the acquaintance of someone else who appreciates him. One of my favorite Reginald stories was almost chosen for comment, “Reginald’s Rubaiyat,” since I also adored “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” when I was young. But I decided to go for “Gabriel-Ernest” and “The Open Window” because of their obvious similarites and contrasts, and because they are among the most frequently anthologized and hence the most well-known.

      • “Reginald sat in the corner and tried to forgive the furniture…” is one of the finest first lines I’ve read anywhere. Hope I’ve rendered it correctly: it’s from Reginald in Russia and my Kindle is not with me at present 🙂

  2. You’re right, it’s a marvelous line. Something along the lines of “Either this wall-paper goes, or I do,” which is the reputed but apparently not actual deathbed line of Oscar Wilde.

  3. Pingback: Humor • Horror • And The Supernatural by Saki (Scholastic T 599 – 1968) | Vintage (and not so vintage) Paperbacks

  4. Pingback: Terror Tales British Edition No. 3 (May 27, 1936) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index

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