In which persistence and pluck are rewarded, even beyond the grave.
By Saki (H. H. Munro)
First published in 1914
Collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts, available from Project Gutenberg
Almost a century after his death, Saki remains one of the most hilarious dark fantasy writers.
Now, the set of “humorous dark fantasy writers” is mighty small, because dark fantasy is a grim, grim, serious business. It’s a genre in which people die, often tragically, and dead people mess with the living, often maliciously. As much as I love this stuff, I have to admit that it can be a serious buzzkill.
People die in Saki’s stories, too, but either it’s played for laughs, or the dead people had it coming. Or both. In his world, the stuffy and the oppressive are taken down a few pegs, sometimes six feet down. His heroes are animals and children, both marginalized by a society to whom they’re invisible until it’s too late.
Some critics think that Saki’s protagonists reflect his status as a closeted gay man in Edwardian Britain. It’s a valid point, but it’s too simple. By all accounts, Saki was a conservative. He was against pretense and snobbery, but for Britain and its institutions. He wasn’t a member of Bloomsbury, or someone who subscribed to its mindset.
This is evidenced by his repeated return to the fighting during World War I, even when he could have escaped duty due to sickness or injury. Eventually his luck ran out, and in November 1916 he died by a sniper’s bullet. His last words are the stuff of legend, and congruent with his sense of humor: “Put that bloody cigarette out!”
Given Saki’s mordant sense of humor, I also think he might have been amused by the inclusion of his “The Open Window” in so many eleventh-grade English Lit textbooks. I admit to being perplexed by this, because “Window,” while well-written, isn’t prime Saki; it’s nowhere near as good as (say) “The Schartz-Metterklume Method” or “Sredni Vashtar.” I’ve also come across “The Open Window” in ghost story anthologies, which is really odd, because there isn’t a single ghost in it.
“Laura,” however, is top-notch Saki. Only four or so pages long, about the same length as “The Open Window,” it’s laugh-out-loud funny in spots. Having re-read it after a number of years, I found that I guffawed at least once per page, which is not a bad average.
In “Laura,” Saki establishes early that Laura is dying:
“You are not really dying, are you?” asked Amanda.
“I have the doctor’s permission to live till Tuesday,” said Laura.
“But to-day is Saturday; this is serious!” gasped Amanda.
“I don’t know about it being serious; it is certainly Saturday,” said Laura.
What follows is an account of how her friend Amanda comes to believe in the reality of reincarnation. I hesitate to provide too many more details, for fear of spoiling it.
I will say that one striking thing about Saki is how he takes a major theme of English humor — stoicism in the face of absurdity — and via literary aikido forces it back upon itself. Superficially, his work is reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse or John Collier, but it’s distinguished by an acerbity not found in either (although Collier comes close, at times).
Also, like Ambrose Bierce in the US, Saki shows how a highly-popular author can promulgate a deep cynicism that would kill the sales of a lesser writer. Bierce and Saki are something very rare indeed: literary figures who look into Nietzsche’s abyss, and laugh. Then they nudge us in the ribs.
And we laugh, too.