One of the biggest detriments to not-having your genre acknowledged as its own Literary genre early enough is the probability of certain authors and certain stories being simply…forgotten… in the rush to recognition.
In today’s world of out-of-sight, out-of-mind thinking, we are at perhaps an even greater risk of losing track of what has gone before (and especially for American Horror readers, if those writers and stories are not American). Those authors and those stories hide in plain sight, often labeled as “kid’s stories” or Young Readers stories…Young Adult… They are categorized within the anonymity of broad genre labels, all too often not narrowed down to the familiar genres like Fantasy or Horror.
Instead, they are tucked into anonymous collections of other stories – those peculiar selections of odd works by established, Literary names whose proximity-by-binding is designed to “hook” young readers into the discovery process of reading and creating an undefined, unshaped hunger for Literature. Yet many of these stories – while so relevant to youth – are also so keenly relevant to their individual genres that even adults are susceptible to their magic… which means something — especially when such tales are remembered decades after the reading of them.
It is a difficult and miraculous thing for an author to create such a story – so immediately ordinary by its concept and yet so hauntingly extraordinary by its telling that its mere existence bears mention and demands acknowledgement. So why don’t we know those author’s names and their stories?
For the last five decades one such tale has haunted me, reminding me of what we all as Horror writers aspire to – that one significant story that no one ever forgets... And re-reading it as an adult changes nothing. Indeed, tucked neatly in between those half-remembered reading lists and Literature textbooks with short story collections are stories I now never hear mentioned, and I wonder if we have misplaced these authors accidentally or on purpose—because just such a one provided a story whose name and details stayed with me for over fifty years after one reading…
Sredni Vashtar, by H.H. Munro, also known as Saki.
Understanding How Horror is Discovered in an Unused Toolshed
What is it about reading a great story for the first time, about being seven years old and having a story crouch in your imagination decades later? How exactly does the mind become the tool shed, repository of forbidden feelings and childhood resentments – shaping the imagination like moonlight shapes silhouettes in a dark room?
Surely it is because it is already there…a makeshift box for all of the sins we endure, all of the sins we imagine…
It occurs to me I had some wickedly awesome English teachers in my youth.
And I am not saying it is their fault I became a writer of Horror fiction, but it certainly helped.
It was the story that seemed to have changed everything – “Sredni Vashtar,” the first Horror story I remember reading — and having it rock my world. I also remember how it made me feel – guilty and satiated all at the same time, dissociated from my own bullied life, and vividly aware of how inadequate the class discussion afterward seemed. Did they not “get” it? I wondered. Am I the only one who sees?
I know now that every child feels that way…alone, isolated…vulnerable because we are taking the whole world into the damaged vessel of ourselves trying to make sense of who we are while so many are trying to force us into shapes we do not recognize. Listening to that class discussion, I checked out. I missed the first real opportunity to understand how to read critically because I was already obsessed. I was already a Horror fan, and simply did not know it…
Because in my mind Sredni Vashtar lived…where there are bullies, such things happen.
Horror today has been neatly packed into a restrictive set of monsters and tropes. It is as though we are afraid that if we venture too far out of genre conventions, we lose ourselves. We avoid gray areas, and sneer at labeling certain tales as childish things. Yet that is exactly how the genre grows – by invading other gardens, casting spores among the resident flowers, and riding strange blooms as parasites until the new buds open blood red and spill out a new species of life…
We seem bound and determined to narrow definitions instead of expanding them, locking out certain families of Horror. Some of this comes as we prepare to establish our genre within the field Literary Criticism. But some of it also seems to rise from nefarious fears that we are losing…something…perhaps identity…perhaps control.
In the mad dash to the finish line, we have grabbed our tomes of Lovecraft and Poe and tossed Stephen King into our box of must-saves-from-the-purging-fire of the Tech Revolution. But we don’t even know the names of those who came in between, let alone that they simply have to be saved.
Hector Hugh Munro is one such author… One whose work reaches beyond childish things and right into adulthood, because with stories like “Sredni Vashtar” he has reminded us that Horror starts early – that it is those very emotions we learn to control and subvert as children that make us who we are, and feeds the monsters of our genre.
H.H. Munro is also another potential foundational author of the Horror genre, writing under the pseudonym Saki. “He adopted the name in 1900, and it’s believed to have been taken from a character from the works of the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam.” (Reimann)
Another British author (what a surprise!) Munro has been described as a “Scottish writer and journalist whose stories depict the Edwardian social scene with a flippant wit and power of fantastic invention used both to satirize social pretension, unkindness, and stupidity and to create an atmosphere of horror…” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
The son of an officer in the Burmese police, Munro was born in Burma (what is now Myanmar) in 1870. He and his sister were returned to England and the care of a “strict, puritanical” grandmother and aunts after the untimely death of their mother when he was two years old; “He later took revenge on their strictness and lack of understanding by portraying tyrannical aunts in many of his stories about children.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
As an adult he served as a police officer in India, and was posted to Burma before contracting malaria which forced his return to England in 1895, and which is alleged to have led him to become a writer. Munro “never married and may have been gay, but homosexuality was a crime in Britain during Munro’s lifetime and the decorum of the times would have required him to keep that part of his life secreted away… ” During World War I, he was killed in action at the Battle of Ancre (November 14, 1916) by a German sniper. (Summary; Raimann)
Other sources seem to confirm Munro’s “secret.” And they also reveal a very familiar “theme” for white male writers of the time: racism and a touch of misogyny. “Munro was certainly wary of the growing Jewish presence in England, and he ridiculed the mounting women’s suffrage movement. Still, however chauvinistic his politics were, Munro knew something about marginalization. As a homosexual in Edwardian England, in which one risked being tried for gross indecency, Munro chose to be secretive to the point of repression for his entire life.” (Reimann)
So why is a man so much a cookie-cutter of our genre’s representation of his period — one where Horror had begun to seriously flower — no longer worthy of mention?
The mind boggles. But it also begins to have suspicions…And Sredni Vashtar howls from the shed — because Munro’s works have indeed held their own against so many bigger names of his time (Wilde, Kipling, Wodehouse)… Why don’t we know him?
“As Christopher Hitchens wrote, Munro ‘is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later.’” (Reimann) Yet those in this country who read him as children are growing older…and young people don’t seem to speak his name…
And all the while, those of us who read him cannot forget him. Perhaps that has to do with the relevance of his writing, with the collective memory of every childhood.
“Sredni Vashtar” is iconic. He is archetype made manifest, made justice…
From the outset of “Sredni Vashtar” we are faced with the problem of an unfortunate child becoming a horrible child. ..an evil child who delights in the vanquishing of his perceived enemies with an unbridled relish that resonates within every child who has endured the bullying of adults or peers.
Yet we cannot stop there because Munro did not. In fact, “Sredni Vashtar’ might also be considered a darker version of the familiar trope found in children’s fiction: the idea of the child having a wish granted. It might also be viewed as a satirical take on religious practice and observance…” (Summary)
Truth can be a very scary thing – especially truths about how we really, bluntly feel – especially when we are children…and believe in magical thinking.
Yet growing up, we cannot escape the raw conjuring of that original thought of revenge; we remember it vividly – the need for it, the primal hunger for it, the knowledge of how it should taste.
We are confronted with the possibility that we ourselves will have to admit we have also had these fantasies – at least once as children, and now even as adults.
Of course it is unsettling; this is what psychology is all about.
But it is also what Horror is all about.
We discover the most terrifying of Horrors in the most unobtrusive of places…the “normal” places… those we would never suspect of having rich and lethal depths teeming with cries for justice that become twisted and mutilated by our own desperation…
Horror is also about the discovery of unsavory truths.
What does bullying do to us—always that perpetual child eternally wounded by words and actions that bombarded us in our most vulnerable moments, when no one came to our rescue and our souls cried out for vengeance.
Do we not carry those images and fantasies into adulthood? Who among us has not fed a coworker to a monster in the quiet depths of a lonely cubicle? Who among us has not cried out its name?
When we look for the value of Literary elements, we are confronted with them in Munro’s works. But we are also confronted with Horror. And when that Horror transcends childish things, we know it is no longer “just” Young Adult or Young Reader material.
In fact, I have had a hard time considering Munro a children’s author at all. I suppose it depends on how deep one really wants to go… But when we talk about children’s Literature – about the purpose of it – should we not also be talking about the importance and relevance of genre?
The Importance of Spine-Tingling Tales
We often worry about what our children might see or read – forgetting that they do in fact see everything…
But what we also tend to forget is what scary stories did for us as kids. Scary stories brought out into the open the things that knifed us in the dark. They gave our fears images and resolution – even if such solutions were unsavory or socially unacceptable. With scary stories, we had permission to not only be afraid, but to fight back…to defeat our monsters…to win despite our insecurities and flaws.
In fiction, we get to weigh the consequences of our actions. And sometimes, our thoughts.
Fear is what I remember most about my childhood. Fear of displeasing authority, fear of divorce (since every other kid seemed to be going through it), fear of other kids, fear of math and math teachers, fear of getting lost, fears of being left, fears of being disliked by my own family (reinforced by a sister who clearly wished I had never come along), and fear of never being good enough. Life in the military made it better; where my sister dreaded every new school and every new post, I loved it. I loved the chance to start over where no one knew my embarrassing flaws which I blithely hoped each time we moved I had left in our last quarters.
Of course they came with me, messing up potential new friendships, leaving me perpetually shy and easily humiliated. Bullies found me quickly, my own sister often among them, leaving me feeling so often pummeled by adult criticisms and children’s insulting nicknames.
Until I found reading, I felt alone – horribly, vulnerably alone. But when I discovered the kind of stories that spoke to my fears, everything changed. The bullying continued, the shyness grew and the humiliations continued to roll in – but then I had a secret: I knew something of who I was. I knew that I had a shed, and Sredni Vashtar was in it.
The stories I remember most were Horror stories, ghost stories, tales of terror…strange tales of the unexpected… And they felt like they were written especially for me… It was like having a cozy grandpa reading me each one…It was like my feelings were more than okay to have.
So I devoured them. Each time a reading assignment happened, I was looking for the Horror, dismissing the ones that weren’t scary, embracing the ones that were…It’s how I became a fan of Greek Mythology (thank you, Mrs. Allison) and fairy tales (thank you, Mrs. Miller) … It’s how I tripped into history and found myself reading about the 1914 Russian Revolution, about Wounded Knee, about the Civil War…about Lizzie Borden…
Despite my immersion into art at that point in my life, books spoke to me. And I hunted them down with fervor. Stories – mostly short stories in that time before too much Young Adult – that were written by long-dead folks with wicked imaginations. Each time I read a good one, I wondered if the adults knew what they were promoting… I feared them being taken away…
But the one that dominated my passion was “Sredni Vashtar”… and I had to have it. I ordered it from my Weekly Reader book club in 1967. I believe it was 35 cents, and I got a whole book of Saki’s stories for the hefty price…
(This was the one…exactly the one….yep…35 cents….)
Why might such a story be such an epiphany for a seven year old?
Perhaps because the only control a seven year old has is in their own minds. Perhaps because when you are seven, everyone else has power over you.
Conradin horrified me…that left to his own devices, he would devise a means of revenge that only a child could appreciate.Yet in my own way I knew Conradin; as does every child. We utilize and wield wishes then, as though they hold their own magical power…and then we are shaken when it appears that they do…even as we make new wishes…
The reading of spine-tinglers are an important rite of passage for most children. For some reason it is those maligned tales which open the vein to Literature for many of us. Perhaps reading them feels covert – like we suspect the teacher doesn’t really “get” it – not like we do as children (because it is not that we forget, but that we never really know for certain that our teachers were ever children…there always remains something shallow and possibly untrue when they say “when I was your age…”)
Spine-tinglers open so many doors…sometimes doors that lead to toolsheds…
When a writer transforms the ordinary, the real emotions which roil about shaping fantasies in our heads makes them come alive, turns them into marionettes that dance on desires that rise from the bully’s oppressive acts and exact the justice we so desperately need, that writer is a salvation…the work an epiphany. We can take the story at face value, sensing and riding the undercurrent that rises like an ocean swell to carry the imagination through decades of other Horrors…or we can learn to see what Literature is all about; we can talk in terms of evil, and child psychology, and the effects of bullying…
We can even dive into the details of a writer’s life… measure the effects of secrets on souls, explore and theorize about the true personal cost of speculation and rumor and innuendo of an author’s possible sexual orientation in oppressive times.
But we cannot do so without wondering if that speculation has anything to do with Munro’s absence in the light of our new day – at least in the educating of American Horror audiences. Has Munro – like Tanith Lee – been censored out of our canon-elect? And has he been buried for the same bigoted reason: the fear that reading his work will alter our children’s minds and morals?
It seems a very real and very dark possibility.
And if so, it is one that is cheating us out of important works – the kind that drive creativity in the genre.
“Sredni Vashtar” is about bullying, plain and simple. It is about childish, passionate revenge. It is about the wishes of childhood and the corruption of innocence as created by the bully, not the victim.
If we are looking at the work of censors, isn’t it time we stopped the stupidity? If we are going to elevate writers who strongly disliked women (Bram Stoker and Lovecraft) or those whose lives are marred by substance abuse (Poe and even King), why is author gender and sexual orientation such a source of ostracism? Are we really so moral a genre, so perfect a species?
I am saying we can’t afford to lose writers like H.H. Munro – especially because of any possibility of some misplaced moral judgment. We need to read him. We need to claim him. We need our future Horror Literary Critics to add his name to their lists for canon consideration because in Horror we all have Things living in our tool sheds…
As a genre built on the primal fears we all face as children, how can we ignore a writer so in tune with the social terrors of childhood? And aren’t we are all of us damaged in some way by the world we live in?
Perhaps it’s time we embraced Saki because of the scars.
Sredni Vashtar demands it.
The Works Of Saki (H.H. Munro)
The Chronicles of Clovis
When William Came
Expecting Mrs. Pentherby
For the Duration of the War
Hermann The Irascible
Judkin of the Parcels
Ministers of Grace
Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger
Reginald at the Carlton
Reginald at the Theatre
Reginald in Russia
Reginald on Besetting Sins
Reginald on Christmas Presents
Reginald on House-Parties
Reginald on Tariffs
Reginald on the Academy
Reginald on Worries
Reginald’s Choir Treat
Reginald’s Christmas Revel
Reginald’s Peace Poem
The Baker’s Dozen
The Blind Spot
The Blood-Feud of Toad-Water
The Byzantine Omelette
The Cupboard of the Yesterdays
The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh
The Easter Egg
The Feast of Nemesis
The Forbidden Buzzards
The Hounds of Fate
The Image of the Lost Sole
The Innocence of Reginald
The Jesting of Arlington Stringham
The Lost Sanjak
The Lumber Room
The Mappined Life
The Music on the Hill
The Occasional Garden
The Open Window
The Peace Offering
The Peace of Mowsle Barton
The Phantom Luncheon
The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat
The Purple of the Balkan Kings
The Quince Tree
The Remoulding of Groby Lington
The Reticence of Lady Anne
The Saint and the Goblin
The Schartz-Metterklume Method
The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope
The Seven Cream Jugs
The Seventh Pullet
The Sex That Doesn’t Shop
The Soul of Laploshka
The Stalled Ox
The Stampeding of Lady Bastable
The Story of St. Vespaluus
The Talking-Out of Tarrington
The Toys of Peace
The Unkindest Blow
The Way to the Dairy
The Wolves of Cernogatz
The Yarkand Manner
Reimann Matt. “Hector Hugo Munro: The Strange Ideology of Saki.” Dec. 18, 2015. Books Tell You Why.com. Retrieved 5/29/19 from https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/hector-hugh-munro-the-strange-ideology-of-saki
American Literature. Retrieved 5/30/19 from https://americanliterature.com/author/hh-munro-saki
Encyclopedia Brittanica. Retreived 5/31/19 from from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saki-Scottish-writer
“A Summary and Analysis of Saki’s ‘Sredni Vashtar.” Interesting Literature. Retrieved 5/26/19 from https://interestingliterature.com/2017/04/20/a-summary-and-analysis-of-sakis-sredni-vashtar/