Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 17: This Part of the Story I Always Hurry Over, Because It Is Really Rather Horrible

The facts of the death of Hector Hugh Munro sound apocryphal, but apparently aren't.  He was in his 40s when he enlisted in the military in 1914, at the beginning of World War I.  He died in the trenches, killed by a sniper one night in 1916, and his last words, everyone seems to agree, were "Put that bloody cigarette out."  Hardly impossible, but almost too perfect -- if the definition of "perfect" can be twisted enough to encompass something that is awful -- to be believed.  And yet.

It would be wrong, and far too easy, to relate that fact and then say "Oh, just like one of his stories!"  It's a natural comparison to make, I suppose, but I have yet to read a story by Hector Hugh Munro, also known as H. H. Munro, but best known as Saki, his curious pseudonym, that has an ending with as little to offer beyond impeccable timing.  I should add that I haven't read a great deal of Saki's short stories, though I suspect I've read more than I think.  It's virtually a guarantee that I read something by Saki at some point in my early school career, but now I couldn't tell you which story or stories my classmates and I had assigned to us.  Anyway, it's only in the last week that I've come back to him, reading a semi-healthy handful of his quite short short stories, poking around for those containing some sort of horror element, of which there are more than a few.

But the key to Saki, from what I can tell, has little to do with whatever genre he's working with in a particular story, but rather with his overall tone, which is deeply cynical, and his humor, which is black and sardonic and wonderful.  For instance, he wrote a story called "Tobermory" -- which some have classified as horror but I don't because, despite it's sort-of supernatural element (technically, as far as the plot goes, it's "scientific," but it might as well be supernatural) it's more of a black social comedy than anything else -- that contains this passage, which describes the disappointment felt by Lady Blemley over the failure of her guest Mr. Cornelius Appin to live up to his reputation:

Some one had said he was 'clever,' and he had got his invitation in the moderate expectation, on the part of his hostess, that some portion at least of his cleverness would be contributed to the general entertainment.  Until tea-time that day she had been unable to discover in what direction, if any, his cleverness lay.  He was neither a wit nor a croquet champion, a hypnotic force nor a begetter of amateur theatricals.  Neither did his exterior suggest the sort of man in whom women are willing to pardon a generous measure of mental deficiency.  He had subsided into mere Mr Appin, and the Cornelius seemed a piece of transparent baptismal bluff.

If you don't think that's funny, then I don't know.  It's also worth noting that this passage is contained within a story that runs a mere seven pages.  You can look at this two ways:  one is that, given "Tobermory"'s brevity, that's a lot of words to hand over to such a thing, especially when you realize, as you read on, that Appin's initial failure as a guest has very little bearing on subsequent events; or you can regard it as a brilliantly economical use of language.  Or you can just appreciate it because it's so enjoyable to read.  So three ways you can look at it.  The last two are the correct ways to look at it.

Even his horror stories can feature this kind of thing, and some of those describe some fairly horrible things.  In "Gabriel-Ernest," a rather visceral werewolf story, the main character, Van Cheele, is described as being something of a flora expert, and a man who made a habit of taking long walks through nature.  Saki writes:

It was his custom to take mental notes of everything he saw during his walks, not so much for the purpose of assisting contemporary science as to provide topics for conversation afterwards.  When the bluebells began to show themselves in flower he made a point of informing every one of the fact; the season of the year might have warned his hearers of the likelihood of such an occurrence, but at least they felt that he was being absolutely frank with them.

So Saki had a rather jaundiced view of people, or at least he found them, us, easy to mock.  Van Cheele is actually not a bad person, and I'd say that in confronting the shocking horror of what's to come he acquits himself as well as he can.  But he's tedious, and the writer of that passage didn't like tedium.  It's often said of acerbically witty writers that their prose cuts like a scalpel, and while I'd rather avoid the cliché it's worth applying to Saki because his stories are so short that the simile seems to have been composed with him in mind.  It's a gross simplification of these stories to say that Saki gets in, takes his shots, and gets out, but it wouldn't also be wrong.  When you consider this in relation to the fact that his unflattering view of mankind, horror, of a certain stripe, suddenly begins to seem like a natural form for him.  Take "Esmé," a non-supernatural horror story told by a character named The Baroness to a man named Clovis (a character about whom Saki wrote a cycle of stories) about a time some years back when she and her friend Lady Constance came upon, in the course of a fox hunt, an event in which they weren't taking part but were rather engaged with as observers, come across a hyena in the woods, possibly escaped from a local circus.  The women are surprised but not terrified, and the animal sort of tags along with them, until something terrible happens.  But the horror of the story comes not only from that terrible thing, but also -- and this is where Saki mines his humor as well -- even mainly, from the way The Baroness blithely relates the events.  She is so nonchalant, the horror she professes to have felt is a complete put on because somewhere in her mind she's picked up the idea that she's supposed to feel that way, she cares not an ounce about what she witnesses.  At one point in her story, she even displays an entitlement she has absolutely no right to.

This is, of course, a class thing, something Saki also deals with very directly in an actually rather sad horror story called "The Wolves of Cornegratz."  This one is supernatural, and deals, in a way, with family curses, but that's really just a convenient thing on which to pin the Baron and Baroness Gruebel, two awful people for whom class equates to human value.  Not, I don't think I need to tell you, a barnstormer of an idea, or source of satire, but Saki is really good at it, so whatever.  "The Wolves of Cornegratz" is not especially funny, nor is that the goal, though there is a kind of humor to be found in the utter lack of self-awareness of the Baron and Baroness.

"The Wolves of Cornegratz" is more sad than anything, but it's partly sad due to its underlying cruelty, and cruelty is something Saki did better than most writers, and the only thing he himself was better at, in my experience, was humor.  The cruelest stories I read are "The Open Window," in which one character does something to another person that might permanently damage him, just for the hell of it.  The closing line of that story is fairly ingenious, not because it offers a twist, but because it chillingly locks into place a character and the way she's chosen to live in the world.  Meanwhile, "Sredni Vashtar," one of Saki's best-known stories, is about the ramifications of cruelty.  But to get to that point you need the cruelty first, so Saki offers us a boy who will not live very long, and his cousin and guardian Mrs. Ropp, who restricts the boy, whose pleasures are already very naturally few, she believes "'for his own good'," though this "was a duty which she did not find particularly irksome."  So she's a sadist whose victim a dying little boy.  "Sredni Vashtar" is not funny as such, either, as perhaps you've guessed, though it's quite sardonic, and has a comeuppance element of the sort that traditionally, when successful, can give the audience a jolt of grim amusement.  So a grin of some sort is never far from the lips of a reader of Saki, but there's a variety of grins, caused by a variety of things.  Saki was an expert on all of them.


Jose Cruz said...

I've read the occassional Saki story--"The Interlopers" was one we covered in my freshman English class, actually--and I've heard audio dramatizations of some like "Esme." That special brand of black humor was always a draw for me, particularly because it came from, as you say, a jaundiced world view. It wasn't obnoxious in the sense that anything you might find today passing itself off as "black comedy" would be. But then again, perhaps "black humor" and "black comedy" are small but crucial degrees different than the other.

Speaking of which, is it just me or does it seem that the Brits were always good at this thing? I can't imagine an American author writing like this, for whatever reason. There seems to be an extra layer of the sinister added when the story is related in that crisp, acidic way that only the Anglos seem to get right.

bill r. said...

Just because it seems like we must be wrong, I would stop short of saying I can't imagine an American author writing like this, but I know what you mean. The Brits are excellent at it, and it's one reason why my reading interests so often drift in that direction.

Unknown said...

The Open Window remains a high school English favorite. Alas, the pointlessly cruel is wasted on those who are already pointlessly cruel.

Looking back, I wonder if the last line is a little self-reflection on the part of Saki about writing nasty little stories.

John said...

Excellent stuff. As for an American equivalent, Saki's tales sometimes remind me of Edward Gorey's blackly comic illustrated narratives. Much the same cruel but refined wit on display in both, similarly horrible fates dished out to the deserving and the undeserving alike, and very compatible styles.

One of my favorite stories by Saki is "The Penance" and it's about as close to a prose equivalent of a Gorey cartoon as I can think of.

The children in question were a standing puzzle to Octavian; in the course of a few months he considered that he should have known their names, ages, the dates of their birthdays, and have been introduced to their favourite toys. They remained however, as non-committal as the long blank wall that shut them off from the meadow, a wall over which their three heads sometimes appeared at odd moments.


Octavian walked through the long grass of the meadow with a step less jaunty than usual. And as he passed beneath the shadow of the high blank wall he glanced up and became aware that his hunting had had undesired witnesses. Three white set faces were looking down at him, and if ever an artist wanted a threefold study of cold human hate, impotent yet unyielding, raging yet masked in stillness, he would have found it in the triple gaze that met Octavian's eye.