This week’s piece of weird fiction is from Saki, aka Hector Munro.
Review: “Sredni Vashtar”, Saki, 1910.
Saki’s tale is one of an unhappy child, Conradin.
He is under the guardianship of his cousin, Mrs. De Ropp:
in his eyes she represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real; the other two-fifths, in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in himself and his imagination.
Where Conradin’s imagination ends and reality begins is what makes it a weird tale.
He is a lonely child. He escapes the domination of his cousin, whom he dubs “the Woman”, by hanging out in a tool-shed on the property. In it are two animals. The Houaden hen is recipient of all the affection Conradin cannot give elsewhere.
And there’s a pet ferret, kept secret from the Woman, and dubbed Sredni Vashtar.
The Woman may take him to church every Sunday, but Conradin has another god, one he pays homage to in Thursday rituals, Sredni Vashtar. Offerings of flowers, berries and ground nutmeg are given by Conradin.
One day, the Woman decides that Conradin is spending too much time in the shed. She sells off the chicken though she doesn’t seem to even know of the ferret her cousin secretly keeps. He is so distraught at this news he won’t eat the toast De Ropp gives him to soften the news. Usually, she considers it too much bother to make toast and claims it’s bad for Conradin — a boy, we hear in the very first sentence, has less than five years to live according to a doctor.
From then on, back out in the shed and at night when his eyes fill with tears, Conradin repeats: “Do one thing for me Sredni Vashtar”.
Conradin’s continued visits to the tool-shed don’t go unnoticed.
One day, bidden to stay, he sees the Woman go out to the tool-shed. It is the moment of crisis. Will the Woman and all the stifling forces she represents triumph?
And he knew that the Woman would triumph always as she triumphed now, and that he would grow ever more sickly under her pestering and domineering and superior wisdom, till one day nothing would matter much more with him, and the doctor would be proved right.
A new chant to Sredni Vashtar is made:
Sredni Vashtar went forth,
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.
Conradin looks out the window. His cousin seems to be taking a long time out there. Then he sees Sredni Vashtar gambol out of the shed, “dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat”.
While the scream and shouts of servants sound over the Woman’s body, Conradin is eating his toast at story’s end.
So, has the loneliness, desperation, and imagination of a child willed something magical into the world, in this case a ferret got? Or is the Woman’s demise just death by strange misadventure?
Saki’s prose is witty at times.
His grasp of child psychology is good, for instance when Conradin dubs the chicken an Anaba
He did not pretend to have the remotest knowledge as to what an Anabaptist was, but he privately hoped that it was dashing and not very respectable. Mrs. De Ropp was the ground plan on which he based and detested all respectability.
De Ropp seems to represent stifling Edwardian society, especially in its feminine variety. Saki’s sister claimed she was based on an aunt of theirs.
Saki doesn’t seem, beyond the first paragraph, to do much with the idea Conradin doesn’t have much time to live. Is that just a fatuous conclusion by the doctor De Ropp hired? It doesn’t seem so. It’s seems that the struggle between the quotidian and banal Woman and imaginative Conradin is a matter of life and death. The story’s first paragraph concludes:
One of these days Conradin supposed he would succumb to the mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things—such as illnesses and coddling restrictions and drawn-out dullness. Without his imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago.
He has not only lengthened his life by imagination. He has, perhaps, brought a god into existence and ended another person’s life.
I also wonder if there is not, in the opening of the story, some hint that De Ropp and the doctor she has hired represent the degeneracy many Europeans thought threatened their societies before World War One:
Conradin was ten years old, and the doctor had pronounced his professional opinion that the boy would not live another five years. The doctor was silky and effete, and counted for little, but his opinion was endorsed by Mrs. De Ropp, who counted for nearly everything.