Romance at short notice was her specialty.
A fraudulent mystic attempts to change a woman into a wolf – or is it the other way around? An elderly matriarch attempts to use a majestic elk to push her son into romance. A painter finds new inspiration after a wild ox demolishes his neighbor’s living room. A man recovering from a mental breakdown is told a strange story about mysterious deaths. And other high-class folk face situations they are entirely unable to cope with.
Saki was a British satirist who often took as his target the upper crust of British society. He’s been compared to P.G. Wodehouse of the Jeeves series and it’s rather apt but there’s a big difference between the two. Wodehouse saw the upper class as stupid and mostly useless, but he had enough affection that he helped us want to see them come out of their troubles okay. Saki also sees the upper class as stupid and mostly useless, but he has no affection at all, only a razor sharp pen.
This collection of short stories is quite good, but it doesn’t really fit into the horror genre at all. I think Saki’s previous book, The Chronicles of Clovis, would have been a better fit here. There are quite a few stories there that really fit perfectly in the horror, or at least the fantasy, genre. In The Chronicles of Clovis, are the following stories: Esme, a perfectly hilarious story about a wild hyena intruding into a fox hunt; Sredni-Vashtar, one of Saki’s most disturbing stories, about a young child creating a religion focusing on a wild mongoose that lives in a shed on his property; The Remoulding of Groby Lington, a gut-bustingly funny story about a man who takes on the animalistic attributes of his pets; The Peace of Mowsle Barton in which a city man takes to the country for a peaceful vacation only to discover that the legends of witches in the vicinity may be more than legends; Tobormory in which a lovable cat is granted the gift of speech; and the absolutely chilling Music on the Hill in which a couple head into the country for a vacation only for the husband to develop a strange obsession with the great God Pan. It’s, for my money, the creepiest and most gripping of Saki’s stories. Obviously, as you can see from this, Saki’s main theme was the placing of the mannered and proper upper crust in confrontation with nature red in tooth and claw – and the upper crust rarely comes out the winner. These stories are often very funny and often disturbing. There’s a shocking act of violence in Esme that made my jaw literally drop and a scene in The Peace of Mowsle Barton that is really disturbing. And if you don’t find the young child’s prayers to Sredni-Vashtar in that story creepy, you’re better than I am. The Chronicles of Clovis is definitely Saki’s best collection of short stories and one I highly recommend.
But again, all of those stories are in Saki’s previous book, not in Beasts & Super-Beasts, the book chosen for my project. It’s true that The Elk has an absolutely brutal, and perversely hilarious, twist, and a couple of other stories have brief fantastical elements. But I’m pretty sure it was a story called The Open Window that got this book on my list. Because The Open Window is easily the best short story Saki ever wrote. In The Open Window, a young man visits at a country home but he’s puzzled by the fact that the French windows in the drawing room are left open at all times; when the story is unveiled, well . . . The Open Window is brilliant, subversive, funny and genuinely scary – and all this in only four pages. It’s, no question at all, the best ghost story under five pages in length. You really MUST, in fact, read The Open Window. It’s one of the greatest short stories ever written. Please go read it; it’ll take five minutes and you’ll love it.
Anyway, I liked this book. Saki’s wit remains sharp and his writing is as great as always. The stories are funny and clever. It’s a book I can recommend, albeit not as much as The Chronicles of Clovis.
Horror? Well, no. There’s some light supernatural activity in some stories and a few moments of Saki being particularly cruel in his mockery. And The Open Window of course. But, taken as a whole, no. But there’s a nice plug-in: The Chronicles of Clovis – it’s a great short story from Saki that, in my opinion, really does fall under horror.
All in all, quite good, if not as good as Saki’s best. 3 stars.
Well, there’s 1914 in horror. Next time, we’ll head back to 1913 before we move on into 1915. There are three books in 1913 and we’ll get to the first one, next time, with the novel that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller. Join me then for The Lodger by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. It’s our first book by a woman and our first book in one of my favorite horror sub-genres: the serial killer story.