The stories of HH Munro – better known by his pen name of Saki – have scarcely been out of print since they were first published nearly a century ago. Yet it often seems that their particular delights are reserved for the private pleasure of his coterie of admirers. It has to be admitted that a taste for Saki is something of an addiction. And like all addictions, once acquired, it is hard to shake off.
In the years since his tragic early death in the trenches at the hands of a German sniper, fellow addicts have included Graham Greene, Noel Coward, and Tom Sharpe.
All of us take a slightly wicked satisfaction from his biting wit and the subversive way in which he undermines the staid Edwardian Society he purports to observe. But to a much greater extent than his near-contemporaries, Wilde and Kipling, there is something dark and menacing at the heart of Saki’s writing.
Behind the refined twinkle of tea cups on an Edwardian lawn can be heard the distant howling of a wolf. Hidden among the shrubbery in a carefully manicured garden lurk all kinds of Beasts and Superbeasts, ready to wreak Nature’s revenge on an uncaring mankind with its arrogant belief in materialism, progress, and the innate respectability of middle-class values.
Where Kipling’s menagerie tends to simple analogues of human types, Saki’s animals can rise up with the full power of Pan himself. This is not to ignore Saki’s ability to turn an aphorism with all the facility and wit of the divine Oscar at his best.